The History of Tourism in San Francisco’s Chinatown

Introduction

San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest and most populous Chinese enclave in the United States (Yung, 2013). The diaspora was established in 1848 after the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada mountains and was nicknamed “Gold Mountain” by the early immigrants who first inhabited the area (Hom, 1987). Chinatown served to protect Chinese immigrants from the widespread, and often violent, racism that awaited them outside, allowing them to practice their culture more safely (Chen, 1992). Chinatown would later become an early site for modernist tourism, allowing those who visited to get the feeling of authenticity, despite the fact that it was a common practice among those who led tours to stage scenes of depravity (Rast, 2007).

Timeline

The Development of San Francisco’s Chinatown as a Tourist Attraction

With its beautiful beaches and favorable weather, San Francisco attracts thousands of tourists each year, causing the city to be one of America’s most popular tourist destinations. Because of this, when most people think about the city’s tourist scene, tanning on the beach and surfing come to mind; however, San Francisco’s Chinatown has been a prominent tourist destination within the city for centuries. This essay will explain the history and culture of San Francisco’s Chinatown and how its existence as a tourist attraction contrasted with Victorian ideas of worthy tourist destinations, as well as the way in which race shaped the tourism industry of San Francisco’s Chinatown and the lives of its everyday residents.

The history of Chinatown began in 1848, when gold had been discovered in the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains and prospectors in the United States moved west to establish San Francisco as a small mining town. Hoping to cash in on the gold rush and support their families back home, the first Chinese immigrants sailed East toward San Francisco, a city they began to refer to as “Gold Mountain”1. San Francisco also served as a convenient place for Chinese settlement due to the fact that it was the point of disembarkation for most immigrants from China2. The scarcity of food resulting from overpopulation in many regions of China, as well as violence from the Taiping Rebellion, lead to a great  desire of many Chinese refugees to settle in America. These early immigrants faced a long and difficult journey across the Pacific Ocean to a new and unfamiliar land. The difficulty of travelling to America was intensified by the fact that any early Chinese immigrants came to the United States illegally, as the Chinese government viewed westerners as savages and prohibited citizens from leaving China until 18943. Because of the advantages many Chinese people felt they could gain, almost three hundred thousand immigrated to the United States between 1849 and 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act came into effect4. Despite the discrimination that Chinese immigrants would later face, they were originally welcomed into the city as they were viewed as a source of cheap labor, with the governor of California describing them as “one of the most worthy classes of our newly adopted citizens”5. Chinatown remained relatively small until the 1870s after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, when thousands of newly unemployed railroad workers would have no choice but to settle in Chinatown due to racist real estate patterns, greatly increasing the area’s population to nearly thirty thousand people who were almost entirely Chinese6. The establishment of San Francisco’s Chinatown would mark the earliest and most populous Chinese settlement area outside of Asia7.

Early Chinese immigrants typically settled in the two blocks between Kearny and Stockton streets, before expanding in the 1880s to the twelve blocks around DuPont Street that comprise modern Chinatown in order to compensate for an increase in the district’s population8. Although it was originally known as “Little Canton”, the diaspora was given the name Chinatown by the American press in 18539. Chinatown was distinct due to the prevalence of the spoken and written Chinese language and the presence of Chinese architecture10. Because most Chinese Immigrants were not interested in staying in the United States for the rest of their lives, they were generally not interested in assimilating to Western culture. This created a need for a section of town where Chinese people could live together in groups and Chinatowns allowed immigrants the opportunity to live and work in America without giving up their traditions11. In fact, Chinatown was so self sufficient that most of its first generation residents would never fully learn English. Early Chinatown mostly consisted of shops selling imported chinese goods, offering patrons the trappings of their native land as well as backrooms that often served as centers of communication within the community. These backrooms often allowed for the social consumption of opium, an activity that many men within the city engaged in while they spoke of current events12. Despite their eagerness to arrive in America, many of the people living in San Francisco harbored strong racist sentiment against Chinese immigrants. In an attempt to protect themselves from the discrimination of native-born Americans, some of whom would throw rocks at any Chinese people they found outside of Chinatown in an attempt to keep them from associating with white Americans on a daily basis, Chinese immigrants used San Francisco’s Chinatown as an opportunity to protect themselves from the racism they faced in their everyday lives, as well as a chance to continuing to practice their shared culture13.

Despite settling in San Francisco around the same time as white Americans, Chinese immigrants were the subject of many discriminatory laws and practices. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the immigration of Chinese people to the United States, and was the first piece of legislation to ban a group of immigrants by race and national origin. Ironically, the population of Chinatown actually increased after the passing of the act14. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, every major political party and media outlets in the country promoted an Anti-Chinese platform with an abundance of racist political cartoons15. Violence against Chinese immigrants was also prevelant at the time, with multiple cases of homicide and theft committed against Asian Americans in California during the 1870s. The chinese also faced economic discrimination, with sixty-seven unions cooperating to from the Asiatic Exclusion League in 190516. Ghettoization of Chinatown led to crippling overpopulation while white millionaires built enormous mansions just a few blocks to the west17.  Due to an insufficient number of job opportunities, many Chinatown residents took up jobs as domestic servants, cooking and doing laundry for affluent white Americans18. This dynamic further established their subservient relationship to whites. Anti-Chinese sentiment was also present in American popular culture at the time. One book, The Third Circle by Frank Norris promoted stereotypes of high Chinese sexual desire and deceptiveness. The story centers around the abduction of a white tourist, with the title referring to a seedy, unseen part of Chinatown consisting of underground passages and opium dens19. White residents living around Chinatown perpetuated claims of violence and vice, leading to an increase in police action inside the enclave. Willard Farwell enlisted a team of police officers to enter every shop in Chinatown in order to map out where centers of vice were located20. Chinese immigrants sometimes formed associations such as tongs, some of which acted as organized criminal gangs, to fight to further protect themselves from outside violence21. Some tongs, however, began promoting competing business interests, leading to violent outbreaks of gang activity throughout the 1920s, known as the Tong Wars22.

San Francisco’s Chinatown permeated the American social consciousness as a center of poverty and crime. Guidebooks warned readers to steer clear of areas that were deemed dangerous such as Chinatown and the Barbary Coast. B. E. Lloyd cautioned readers to give the neighborhoods a wide berth, stating “Like the malaria arising from a stagnant swamp and poisoning the air for miles around, this stagnant pool of human immorality and crime spreads its contaminating vapors over the surrounding blocks on either side,” in his guidebook Lights and Shades in San Francisco23. Other writers urged tourists to avoid the Chinese Quarter, with Charles Nordhoff warning tourists that they would find sights “so dismal, so wretched, so horrible, that. . . nobody could persuade you otherwise than that John and all his kindred are the devil’s own,” describing the area as a “blot on the city,”24. Ralph Waldo Emerson was among the most distinguished guests to visit Chinatown during the 1870s. Emmerson found the experience uninteresting, and was confused over “the strange way in which our civilization seemed to fail to take hold of these people,” believing the culture of white Americans to be vastly superior to that of the Chinese25. Chinatown contrasted deeply with the picturesque tourism that was in vogue during the Victorian Area that consisted of finding the perfect balance between the beautiful and the sublime, an awe inspiring characteristic that moves the viewer to fear and respect God’s majesty26. Despite the perceived danger, many guides began offering tours of the district portraying scenes of depravity, often staging scenes of destitution when few presented themselves organically, attempting to give the tourist of what they deemed an authentic Chinatown27. Tourism in Chinatown therefore conforms to Dean MacCannell’s description of modern tourism as a quest for authenticity28. American tourists came to view Chinese otherness, with one visitor stating “the Chinaman (was) an object of curiosity—a lusus naturae to be stared at, but rousing no other emotions”29. Americans were, however, attracted to the imported goods that could be found in the shops of Chinatown such as silks, carved ivory, and jade ornaments30. These items could be seen by tourists as exotic goods that could not be obtained anywhere else, making them a point of pride for their owners. Because of the unique nature of the items found for sale in Chinatown, tourists there were participating in a form of conspicuous consumption, the practice of buying goods in public in order to establish a higher perceived social or economic status31.

The long history of San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of a marginalized people lending their hand to the creation of the modern American West. The Chinese diaspora was created by immigrants seeking economic opportunity, and served to preserve the native culture of the people who lived there as well as to protect them from the violence and persecution of the outside world. Early tourism of Chinatown was shaped by preexisting American stereotypes of Chinese Immigrants and a modernist fascination in the exploration of the other and what was deemed to be an “authentic” experience. Despite the belief that Chinatown was disease ridden, dangerous, and filled with vice, American tourists continued to visit the enclave in an early example of the shift from picturesque to modernist tourism. Chinatown continues to attract visitors today and is one of the most historic neighborhoods in the city of San Francisco.

Image Gallery

This image of San Francisco’s Portsmouth Square from 1851 shows what the town looked like to the first Chinese immigrants (Image courtesy of inside-guide-to-san-francisco-tourism.com).

“The Chinese School” was created by the government of San Francisco in 1859 to segregate Asian children from white children (Image courtesy of timeline.com).

This map of Chinatown from 1885 shows buildings associated with vice after a series of raids by San Francisco police (Image courtesy of inside-guide-to-san-francisco-tourism.com).

Anti-Chinese sentiment was strong among many in the San Francisco area. This racist political cartoon was published in Harper’s Weekly (Image courtesy of timeline.com).

This opium den from 1898 is an example of those that sometimes existed in the backrooms of shops and served as hubs for discussion (Image courtesy of inside-guide-to-san-francisco-tourism.com).

Chinatown, along with the rest of San Francisco, was ravaged by an earthquake in 1906 that left many buildings destroyed (Image courtosey of vintageprintable.com).

The streets of modern Chinatown still retain elements of Chinese architecture and language (Image courtesy of TripAdvisor.com)

Works Cited

Chen, Chin-Yu. San Francisco’s Chinatown: A Socio-economic and Cultural History, 1850-1882, 1992, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

“Chinatown (San Francisco, CA): Top Tips Before You Go (with Photos).” TripAdvisor. Accessed December 05, 2017. https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g60713-d108679-Reviews-Chinatown-San_Francisco_California.html.

Dor, Lena. “Ruins of Chinatown District.” Vintageprintable.com. Accessed December 05, 2017. http://vintageprintables.blogspot.com/.

“First Transcontinental Railroad Is Completed.” The New York Times. May 10, 2012. Accessed December 05, 2017. https://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/10/may-10-1869-first-transcontinental-railroad-completed/.

Hom, Marlon K. 1987. Songs of Gold Mountain : Cantonese Rhymes From San Francisco Chinatown. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1987. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost(accessed November 26, 2017).

“In pictures: The making of San Francisco’s Chinatown.” Timeline. June 08, 2016. Accessed December 05, 2017. https://timeline.com/in-pictures-the-making-of-san-franciscos-chinatown-dc9745d53443.

Rast, R. W. (2007). The cultural politics of tourism in san francisco’s chinatown, 1882-1917. Pacific Historical Review, 76(1), 29-60. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.umw.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/212444363?accountid=12299

“San Francisco Chinatown History: the good, the bad, and the grim.” Inside Guide to San Francisco Tourism. Accessed December 05, 2017. https://www.inside-guide-to-san-francisco-tourism.com/chinatown-history.html.

Yung, Judy. 2013. “An Insider’s Look at the Rich History of San Francisco Chinatown.” International Examiner, Jul, 12-12,15.

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  2. Chen, Chin-Yu. San Francisco’s Chinatown: A Socio-economic and Cultural History, 1850-1882, 1992, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.
  3. Bankston, Carl L., and Danielle Antoinette Hidalgo. 2006. Immigration in U.S. History. Pasadena, Calif: Salem Press, 2006. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed November 29, 2017).
  4. Chen, Chin-Yu. San Francisco’s Chinatown: A Socio-economic and Cultural History, 1850-1882, 1992, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.
  5. Chen, Chin-Yu. San Francisco’s Chinatown: A Socio-economic and Cultural History, 1850-1882, 1992, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.
  6. Rast, R. W. (2006). Tourist town: Tourism and the emergence of modern san francisco, 1869–1915 (Order No. 3230781). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304969481). Retrieved from http://ezproxy.umw.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/304969481?accountid=12299
  7. Yung, Judy. 2013. “An Insider’s Look at the Rich History of San Francisco Chinatown.” International Examiner, Jul, 12-12,15. http://ezproxy.umw.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1419357342?accountid=12299.
  8. Chen, Chin-Yu. San Francisco’s Chinatown: A Socio-economic and Cultural History, 1850-1882, 1992, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.
  9. Bankston, Carl L., and Danielle Antoinette Hidalgo. 2006. Immigration in U.S. History. Pasadena, Calif: Salem Press, 2006. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed November 29, 2017).
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  18. Chen, Chin-Yu. San Francisco’s Chinatown: A Socio-economic and Cultural History, 1850-1882, 1992, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.
  19. Rast, R. W. (2007). The cultural politics of tourism in san francisco’s chinatown, 1882-1917. Pacific Historical Review, 76(1), 29-60. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.umw.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/212444363?accountid=12299
  20. Rast, R. W. (2007). The cultural politics of tourism in san francisco’s chinatown, 1882-1917. Pacific Historical Review, 76(1), 29-60. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.umw.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/212444363?accountid=12299
  21. Chen, Chin-Yu. San Francisco’s Chinatown: A Socio-economic and Cultural History, 1850-1882, 1992, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.
  22. Bankston, Carl L., and Danielle Antoinette Hidalgo. 2006. Immigration in U.S. History. Pasadena, Calif: Salem Press, 2006. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed November 29, 2017).
  23. Rast, R. W. (2006). Tourist town: Tourism and the emergence of modern san francisco, 1869–1915 (Order No. 3230781). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304969481). Retrieved from http://ezproxy.umw.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/304969481?accountid=12299
  24. Rast, R. W. (2006). Tourist town: Tourism and the emergence of modern san francisco, 1869–1915 (Order No. 3230781). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304969481). Retrieved from http://ezproxy.umw.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/304969481?accountid=12299
  25. Rast, R. W. (2006). Tourist town: Tourism and the emergence of modern san francisco, 1869–1915 (Order No. 3230781). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304969481). Retrieved from http://ezproxy.umw.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/304969481?accountid=12299
  26. Gilpin, William. Three essays: on picturesque beauty; on picturesque travel; and on sketching landscape: to which is added a poem, on landscape painting. By William Gilpin . London: Printed for R. Blamire, 1792.
  27. Rast, R. W. (2007). The cultural politics of tourism in san francisco’s chinatown, 1882-1917. Pacific Historical Review, 76(1), 29-60. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.umw.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/212444363?accountid=12299
  28. Maccannell, Dean. The tourist: a new theory of the leisure class: with a new introduction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.
  29. Rast, R. W. (2006). Tourist town: Tourism and the emergence of modern san francisco, 1869–1915 (Order No. 3230781). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304969481). Retrieved from http://ezproxy.umw.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/304969481?accountid=12299
  30. Chen, Chin-Yu. San Francisco’s Chinatown: A Socio-economic and Cultural History, 1850-1882, 1992, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.
  31. Veblen, Thorstein. The theory of the leisure class; an economic study of institutions. New York: The Macmillan company, 1917.