Exploring the History of San Francisco’s Chinatown

Trace the threads of cultural heritage, resilience, and community dynamics that have shaped the enduring legacy of San Francisco's Chinatown.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is working to support the preservation of America's Chinatowns. Sign our petition today to commit to the cultural preservation of America’s Chinatowns for future generations.

Founded around Grant Avenue and Stockton Street...

San Francisco’s Chinatown was the entry point for Chinese immigrants from the Pearl River Delta in Southern China. 

Chinatown Rising is a film from the Chinese Historical Society of America on the development of San Francisco's Chinatown. 

Initially settling around Portsmouth Square in the 1850s, the community grew with the promise of opportunity due to the Gold Rush and infrastructure projects such as the Transcontinental Railroad.

While the Chinese were initially welcomed in the city—in 1850 Mayor John W. Geary held a ceremony in honor of their work in Portsmouth Square—changing economic conditions in the United States caused public opinion to shift.

1885 Map of Chinatown in San Francisco (1885-07) by Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive CartographyNational Trust for Historic Preservation

In 1877, following a two-day race riot in Chinatown, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, known as the Chinese Six Companies came to advocate with a unified voice.

Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-05-06) by National Archives (5752153)National Trust for Historic Preservation

In 1882 the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Combined with a variety of other laws, it restricted the number of Chinese allowed into the United States.

(1900) Scene from Chinatown. [Video] Retrieved from the Library of Congress YouTube Channel

LIFE Photo Collection

On April 18, 1906, San Francisco experienced an 8.3 magnitude earthquake. While little damage occurred in Chinatown with the initial earthquake, the fire that burned in its aftermath resulted in its complete destruction. 

Learn more about the 1906 Earthquake and its impact on San Francisco's Chinatown in this video from Vox.

San Francisco Fire, April 18, 1906, 9 a.m. (1906) by Arnold GentheThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Read firsthand accounts and what happened next from the Chinese Historical Society of America. See sketches from Chiura Obata first hand impressions of the earthquake on the city’s Asian residents.

In addition to the buildings in Chinatown, one of the long reaching ramifications of the fire for Chinese people in the United States was loss of public birth documents and vital records. As a result, many of the Chinese men who lived in the United States could claim they were born in the United States, creating new opportunities to bring wives, children, and other Chinese immigrants into the country. 

National Parks Staff with wall poems found at Angel Island Immigration Station by CyArkCyArk

From 1910-1940 many of Asian immigrants who migrated though the West Coast were held at Angel Island Immigration Station located in San Francisco Bay. Their first stop after release was often San Francisco's Chinatown.

In this film from the Chinese Historical Society of America from 2010, we see how Chinatown regrouped after the 1906 earthquake.

Hungry Ghost Festival (2023) by Robert Borsdorf and Courtesy of the Chinese Culture Center of San FranciscoNational Trust for Historic Preservation

San Francisco's Chinatown today

Click here to learn more about the organizations working to support San Francisco's Chinatown today.

About the author: Priya Chhaya is the associate director of content for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

For about the Chinatown Media & Arts Collaborative and Edge on the Square visit www.cmacsf.com and www.edgeonthesquare.org.

Visualizing Chinatown on the Stage: Lauren Yee 

Learn more about the National Trust for Historic Preservation's America's Chinatowns initiative.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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