Sunday, March 29, 2015

San Francisco : Visit of Chinatown

Pour retrouver l'article en français, veuillez cliquer ici.



The Chinatown quarter in San Francisco is very famous because this is one of the largest and oldest Chinese quarter in the US. This is then an essential visit, especially because it is easily accessible and can be explored with a walking tour.


This is one of my favorite neighbourhood in San Francisco, mainly because of its atmosphere and its history, and I will try to share my crush with you.

Chinatown's History



To learn more about the Chinatown's history, we went to the local museum to do a tour. That was very interesting, especially because we were able to compare with our own experience and to appreciate our chance! The museum is free, so no excuse not to go (however, do not hesitate to make a donation if your financial means allows you to do so).

The first Chinese immigrants arrived in San Francisco long time before the gold rush, but this is essentially in 1849 that the Chinese immigration became massive. At that time, many men came to benefit from the golden rush with the plan to come back in their countries. Afterwards, many immigrants (almost 12,000 people) were employed to build the railways. A majority of Chinese immigrants settled then in San Francisco in order to work as cooks, domestics or fishers.

The first part of the museum is about the way of living of the immigrants. Below are some objects that you can see there.

Immigrant's suitcase in the ninetieth century and what will be brought by a visitor today
On the small notes that you may see, people wrote what they will bring with them. (For us, we had to sort out our stuffs, but I wouldn't have been capable of having only one suitcase!).

Practical guide for translating
Today, when you are an immigrant and you want to be understood, you have google translate. At that time, there were only guides and they were relatively oriented!! (Click on the picture to understand...)
Working is great, but, happily, there were also some games!!

Mum, you would have been happy with this one! ;-p
In order to give you a better insight of the daily life in Chinatown, here is a video of children at that time. Don't forget that we are in San Francisco, not in China!!!



If, at the beginning, everything worked well, the chinese population very quickly experienced racism and discrimination. Accused, like many other immigrants, to steal the work from occidental people, to spread diseases, etc..., in brief, the Chinese immigration wasn't very appreciated. Numerous exception laws were voted such as the anti-coolie taxation law (law which promised to defend the competitivity of the white workers and to discourage the Chinese immigration by taxing more the work made by Chinese people), and the society was organized in a way that the different populations were separated (for instance, public school was not accessible to Chinese children). Later on, the United States limited the Chinese immigration by the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, then by the Geary Act in 1892 or by making more difficult the clinical examination before entering the territory in 1910. Thus, when Ellis Island seemed to be already strict in New York, the Asian immigrants spent months or even years to be interrogated by the immigration services in Angel Island, the Californian equivalent of Ellis Island. That was only in 1943 that the exclusion act was revoked!

I knew that stupid people always exist to exclude other people who are different (whatever the differences), I just didn't think that was gone that far! Today, I am not sufficiently integrated in the American culture to figure out if there is still a latent racism, but I have the feeling that prejudices are now positive. Even if these are still prejudices, this is much better that the defamatory campaign previously in force... I let you discover!




Undoubtedly, all of this led to violence issues, and communities. This climate as well as the restriction on women immigration (and then the increase of prostitution) have probably favored the Tongs' emergence. The Tongs, source of associations to protect the Chinese community, was transformed into criminal associations which slaughtered each other during the famous Tong War. After the earthquake in 1906, criminality declined, but exclusion issues lasted until the mid twentieth century.



In the absence to integrate completely, the Sino-American community acted as an autonomous community with its own institutions and its own chamber of commerce.


This is what gives the atmosphere of the neighbourhood so interesting: when you move around in Chinatown, you leave the US for a total escape!


I confess that I took this picture to show that it was very cold at that time but this is also funny to see that bank names are also translated into Chinese.



An Asian group of tourists dressed like cowboys :-D

Manga style models

Sino-Americain cake

Even ads are in Chinese!
Portsmouth square in the middle of Chinatown, a truly gathering place!

Here, you can read or relax

Everyone is organized to talk and play






One can also practice tai chi !!






Neighbourhood Visit

What I personnaly prefered in this visit was to walk around. Nonetheless, there are plenty of things to do and see, so, I did a non-exhaustive short list.
  • Old St. Mary's Church built in 1853. This is the first cathedral built in California with the money coming from the Catholic community and, funny story, also from both the Protestant and Jewish communities! Since, a new cathedral was built in a neighbourhood with a better reputation (at that time), and the church is become a simple parishioner church. The architecture of the church is not special, but the inscription below the clock allows to imagine the atmosphere at that time: "Son, observe the time and fly from the evil".


  • Presbytarian Mission Home for Chinese women or Donaldina Cameron House was a Protestant institution at the beginning created to help Asian women and their families, and to prevent women from entering into sex trade or slavery. Today, the building is still a place to gather for the Chinese community, but also host a museum telling their story.


  • United Commercial bank was originally a call center (Chinese Telephone Exchange). At the time, for working here, you had to speak English as well as several Chinese dialects, but also to know the Chinatown's population since habitants didn't want to call people by using a number (in order to not disrespect the person!).

  • Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association's headquarter hosts the association having sustained the power of the San Francisco Chinatown by cleaning the neighbourhood and by struggling against the exclusion and delocalisation acts (among other things, the association avoided the relocalization of Chinatown outside of San Francisco after the earthquake). Today, this association still pursues to supervise the Chinese community such as giving access to Chinese schools or to classes for new immigrants.


To conclude, because nothing is worth experiencing the actual atmosphere of the streets, here is a video of our stroll through Chinatown. Enjoy!


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