Chinatowns: A Symbol of Solidarity Against Racism and Xenophobia
Updated: Oct 9
Regular Contributor: Laura Han
The birth of Chinatowns was America is deeply rooted in the widespread anti-Chinese xenophobia in the 19th century. It is crucial for us all to reflect on this chapter of history as we move forward.
It began with gold. In conjunction with other economic factors like high taxes, the California Gold Rush of 1848 drew Chinese immigrants to the western United States . However, by the 1870s and 1880s, the economic downturn ratcheted up tensions between Chinese and white laborers, who claimed the “coolies” stole jobs and depressed wages. Ironically, Chinese workers filled jobs that white workers wouldn’t and provided the human capital necessary to build America’s vast railroad system, the key to cultural unity and economic success. Hundreds of race riots exploded across the West; the Rock Springs Massacre in Wyoming left 28 Chinese workers mangled and dead .
Meanwhile, vice activists and city officials linked the Chinatowns, specifically the San Francisco Chinatown, to deteriorating moral and sanitary conditions. After the city conducted an extensive review of opium dens, brothels, and Joss Houses (houses of pagan worship), it declared Chinatown “the rankest outgrowth of human degradation that can be found upon this continent” .
Politicians harnessed the public’s discontent, seeking to purge the “yellow peril” through a slew of Sinophobic legislations. The landmark Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the “first and only time in the entire history of the United States that a group [was] singled out by name,” barred from immigrating . The act argued the Chinese were biologically and culturally unassimilable, and therefore, unfit to be American. Additionally, it prevented their naturalization and forced existing residents to always carry photo IDs or risk expulsion. Xenophobic attitudes effectively barred Chinese workers from all but the laundry and restaurant industries . This, and the constant threat of violence, prompted the Chinese to sequester themselves in self-employed, self-sustaining Chinatowns. The Chinese Exclusion Act exacerbated their supposedly unassimilable nature, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
However, even within Chinatowns, tensions existed between different sub-cultures, age groups, and occupations. A 1970 demographic study of San Francisco’s Chinatown describes “an almost visible current of tension” between the traditionalists (the “establishment”), social workers (the “liberals”), community-minded college students (the “radicals”), and their affiliate groups . They sought control over anti-poverty programs established in the mid-1960s to combat widespread poverty and illness, including malnutrition, tuberculosis, alcoholism, and depression. Furthermore, tongs often extorted residents and brawled with each other for control over opium dens, casinos, and brothels . These organizations provided support for new immigrants but also orchestrated organized crime; their inter-gang aggressions flared up most violently during the Tong Wars, lasting from the late 1800s to the 1920s .
Despite the degrading socioeconomic conditions, the Chinese persevered in their fight for rights—a struggle that forced American society to reconcile their policies with their ideals. Mutual aid organizations were instrumental to the success of their fight. For example, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association “provided legal representation, organized a private watchmen patrol for the neighborhood and offered health services” while the Citizen’s Committee to Repeal Chinese Exclusion sought to “neutralize deep-seated fear of ‘yellow peril’ coolie hordes” . Many Chinese turned to the courts for recourse. In the pivotal 1898 court case Wong Kim Ark v. United States cemented the idea that birthright citizenship took precedence over parents’ citizenship, a precedent that stands to this day .
Chinatowns manifest the history, culture, and spirit of Chinese Americans in a wholly tangible, grounded way. They sanctioned the fight for equal rights and full citizenship, one that redefined what “we, the people” means.