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San Francisco’s Chinatown opens doors to history, good and bad

November 25, 2018
Elisabeth Sherwin -- ensherwin@gmail dot com

"The more we learn about the Chinese, the smarter they seem to get," said Professor Don Gibbs, the founding chair of the department of Chinese and Japanese at UC Davis. Both Gibbs and his Chinese-born wife, Loretta, retired from Davis and now live in San Francisco where they entertain and educate American and Chinese visitors on a regular basis.

In preparation for a walking tour of Chinatown earlier this fall, Gibbs described how Chinese immigrants came to the state after the Gold Rush and found jobs working on the railroads. Why did so many Chinese laborers find railroad jobs when not one in 10 Europeans lasted a week laying rails?

Because the Chinese drank tea. That meant they drank water that had been boiled and did not suffer and in many cases die from dysentery. While there are no records, Gibbs believes that up to 3,000 Chinese workers lost their lives undertaking hard and dangerous railroad work at low wages.

This set the Chinese on a collision course with American labor.

“In the era of labor confrontations that resulted in ‘the Chinese must go’ outcry, the Chinese immigrants were regarded as lacking civilization, hopelessly ignorant and grossly immoral,” Gibbs said.

“The Americans of that era who knew the Chinese best were the housewives of San Francisco who depended on their Chinese servants and greatly cherished them for their honesty, loyalty and good work. Their voices of course were drowned out by the working men who saw the Chinese as unfair competition,” he added.

In the minds of the general public of the day, Chinese were regarded as ignorant.

And as the result of public opprobrium, Chinese workers (paid $1 a day as opposed to other workers who received $3 a day) developed their own communities as comfort zones or retreats separate from the mainstream. A Chinatown grew up in San Francisco where workers, mostly bachelors, could find housing, groceries, mahjong, safety, support and people who spoke their language.

“The men came to make money and take it home,” Gibbs said. “No one came to stay. No Chinese ever wanted to leave China.”

But to satisfy this male population, women were bought and paid for -- chattel – to service the men.

“Daughters were useless to the Chinese families because they were going to be married into another family,” he said. Young women were kidnapped or bought and taken to San Francisco to work as sex slaves. They lasted on average about six years. When they were no longer wanted, or could no longer work, or could not be cured of an illness or disease, they were taken to “death rooms” and if they did not die of starvation or suicide they were murdered. No one left those rooms alive.

There has been little publicity about the death rooms in Chinatown but much titillation about the brothels.

However, the 1800s were uneasy times in China with a weak government, the Opium Wars, and the Taiping Revolution -- all causing death, destruction and famine.

The Opium Wars started when the Chinese government attempted to keep this substance out while England and to a lesser extent the United States wanted to bring it in.

England was importing china, tea, silk, lacquerware. The imbalance of trade was ruining England. An idea was hatched – England would use its colony of India to send tons of opium to China, particularly the port cities. Millions of Chinese became addicted to opium.

Chinese continued to come to California to work and to support their families at home. They were hard workers: when the railroad was finished, they built and dug a system of dikes in the Sacramento Delta, dug caves to store wine in the Napa Valley, became active in shrimp and abalone industries, bought land and ran small truck farms. Their industry created resentment.

The 1870s were a time of unemployment in the U.S. and the conclusion was: “The Chinese must go.” A series of Chinese exclusion acts were passed.

“This was the only race excluded by law in U.S. history,” said Gibbs.

The issues are the same today – jobs and racism -- as Trump tries to keep Mexicans and would-be immigrants from Central America out of the country.

Now, Gibbs says, after years of federal scholarships that financed a generation of young American scholars to learn Chinese, their research is showing just how intelligent and inventive the Chinese have been over 25 centuries. Scientists estimate that 60 percent of the discoveries and inventions that made the industrial revolution possible came from China.

“It’s just that the West came upon China at a moment in time, a mere blip in terms of China’s long history, when China was weak and disorganized and its government was failing, soon to be overthrown,” said Gibbs.

“That first impression was deep and lasting, but wholly erroneous and unfortunately fuels much racial prejudice even today. The American educational establishment has not caught up with the scholarship on China.”

Today if you walk in San Francisco’s Chinatown on Stockton Avenue you will see plaques on many old buildings identifying them as family associations or regional associations that formed as lobbying and legal rights groups to resolve disputes. Chinese were not allowed to testify in court because they did not believe in God and could not swear “so help me God.”

Many of these old buildings have temples on the top floors. Some fly the flags of the Communist People’s Republic of China, others fly the flags of the conservative Taiwan Nationalists.

As you walk by Chinatown restaurants, bakeries, grocery stores, crowded apartment buildings, schools, and the ubiquitous stores that cater to tourists, remember too that you are probably walking by “death rooms” and brothels.

This geography makes up a complicated piece of Chinese/American history.

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at ensherwin@gmail.com

For More Information, Visit These Links:

  • History of San Francisco China Town -- read about at Wikipedia
  • San Francisco China Town -- Information and History from Local Citizen's Group
  • Official Web Site of San Francisco China Town

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