Last month, a San Francisco tour guide was caught in a racist rant about the city’s Chinatown, berating residents for “eating turtles and frogs” and for not assimilating into American culture.
There’s an irony to these grievances, considering that Chinatowns in the U.S. sprang up in large part because of anti-Chinese racism, and because of legal barriers that prevented assimilation.
At their height, there were dozens of Chinatowns, in big metro areas like Los Angeles and Chicago and in smaller cities like Cleveland and Oklahoma City. You might think of these neighborhoods as places to eat dim sum and buy knickknacks, but the reasons they initially formed are much more complex — and political.
Chinese immigrants congregated together in part because of intense anti-Chinese attacks.
Seeking economic opportunity during the Gold Rush and the building of the transcontinental railroad, the first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in the U.S. in the mid-1800s. The first Chinatowns sprang up on the West Coast and were, at the start, much like ethnic settlements founded by European immigrant groups.
These immigrants were paid lower wages than white workers, who then blamed Chinese laborers for driving down pay and taking away jobs. After the railroad was completed and white laborers in other industries began to fear for their jobs, anti-Chinese attacks increased, including beatings, arson and murder.
In Rock Springs, Wyoming, 150 armed white miners drove Chinese immigrants out of town in 1885 by setting fire to their homes and businesses and murdering 28 people. No one was charged in the massacre. It was hardly an isolated incident; 153 anti-Chinese riots erupted throughout the American West in the 1870s and 1880s, with some of the worst episodes of violence in Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle and Tacoma, Washington.
Many Chinese immigrants moved east to escape the attacks, explains Beatrice Chen, public programs director for the Museum of Chinese in America, located in New York. “That’s really how Chinatowns on the East Coast got their start,” she tells HuffPost. At the same time, Chinese immigrants who remained on the West Coast sought safety in numbers in the Chinatowns there.
The Exclusion Act of 1882 created significant legal barriers to Chinese immigrants’ assimilation.
Around the turn of the century, politicians played into white workers’ anxieties, pointing the finger at Chinese immigrants for economic hardship and labeling them fundamentally incapable of assimilation into U.S. society.
In 1877, a congressional committee heard testimony that the Chinese “are a perpetual, unchanging, and unchangeable alien element that can never become homogenous; that their civilization is demoralizing and degrading to our people; that they degrade and dishonor labor; and they can never become citizens.”
Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, barring Chinese immigrants who were already in the U.S. from becoming citizens and restricting new immigration from China. The law marked the first time that the U.S. restricted immigration explicitly on the basis of race.
Along with the Exclusion Act’s renewal in 1892, Congress required all Chinese-Americans — including U.S.-born citizens — to carry photo ID at all times or risk arrest and deportation.
In response to exclusion, community organizations in Chinatown provided services to immigrants who weren’t protected by the benefits of American citizenship. “I think of them as sort of the first social service agencies for the Chinese,” Chen says. “That’s why you see a lot of informal networks and associations within Chinatowns in the United States.”
In San Francisco’s Chinatown, for example, The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association provided legal representation, organized a private watchmen patrol for the neighborhood and offered health services.
Housing and labor discrimination kept Chinese immigrants from being able to live and work outside of Chinatown.
During the exclusion era, it was difficult for Chinese immigrants to find a place to live outside of Chinatown. “In the broadest strokes, Chinatowns were products of extreme forms of racial segregation,” explains Ellen D. Wu, a history professor at Indiana University Bloomington and author of The Color Of Success: Asian Americans And The Origins Of The Model Minority. “Beginning in the late 19th century and really through the 1940s and ’50s, there was what we can call a regime of Asian exclusion: a web of laws and social practices and ideas designed to shut out Asians completely from American life.”
“That’s really how Chinatowns came into being,” Wu adds, “not how we think about them now, as a fun place to get a meal or buy some tchotchkes, but as a way to contain a very threatening population in American life.”
Several Western states passed laws that prohibited Chinese immigrants from owning property. In Manhattan’s Chinatown, Chen says, some Italian immigrants sold buildings to the Chinese, but it was difficult to find white landlords who would sell to them on other parts of the island.
Chinese immigrants also were barred from most industries, aside from the hand-laundry and restaurant businesses. “It strengthened Chinatown that whites basically refused to work with the Chinese,” says Peter Kwong, a professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College in New York. “Chinese immigrants had to find work through self-employment.”