Timeline of the History of Chinatowns in the United States

Read about key events and legislation from 1790 to 1965 that impacted Chinatowns across the U.S.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

Adapted from Preserving Chinatowns in the United States by Karen Yee.

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

There is no single story of Chinatowns in the United States

They each have different beginnings, with many established in the 1860s while others formed in the 1970s and even later.

View of the intersection of Alameda Street and Marchessault Street in Old Chinatown (1881/1910) by Lisa See collection. The Huntington Library, San Marino, CaliforniaNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Early historic Chinatowns were generally located in the same places where Chinese laborers worked. 

Snapshot Of A Los Angeles Street (1925) by Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, City of Industry, CaliforniaNational Trust for Historic Preservation

They were filled with grocers, restaurants, laundries, and other small businesses. Most importantly, these early Chinatowns served as a vital social and economic support network for Chinese laborers facing discrimination, while also serving as a second home.  

Hip Sing Tong House (1933) by Wiliam C. Greene/Library of CongressNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Community organizing was important for early Chinese immigrants who had to rely on each other. While these organizations kept Chinatowns together, angry mobs comprised of non-Chinese laborers and armed with political support burned them down.

Many historic Chinatowns were often rebuilt in different parts of town, or they moved altogether to larger, well-established Chinatowns.

Chinese immigrants demonstrated resilience in the wake of numerous events and legislation that impacted the growth and demographics of the Chinatown community between 1790-1965.

Naturalization Law 1790 (1790) by National Archives (7452136)National Trust for Historic Preservation

Naturalization Law of 1790

Ruled that naturalization only applied to foreign-born people with European origins. This prevented minorities from obtaining citizenship.

Gold Discovered in Northern California in 1848

In 1848 James W. Marshall found gold in northern California, an event that marks the beginning of the Gold Rush of 1848, when hundreds of people came to California in hopes of striking it rich.  

Golden Spike National Historic Site (1980/2006) by Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith [LC-DIG-highsm-13376]National Trust for Historic Preservation

Building of the Transcontinental Railroad from 1863-1869

The building of the Transcontinental Railroad served as another major employment opportunity for Chinese laborers. Paid, on average, 30% less than their white counterparts, Chinese workers were segregated in work camps and had to pay for their own lodging and supplies.

Mme. Chiang, San Francisco (1943-05) by Hansel MiethLIFE Photo Collection

Page Act of 1875

Prohibited the immigration of Chinese women to the US, which would later result in skewed gender ratios in Chinatowns and a lack of families.

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

1882 Chinese Exclusion Act

The first legislation to outright ban a racial group from entering the United States. Only merchants, diplomats, and scholars were permitted entry.

Scott Act 1888 – U.S. Statutes at Large Page (1888) by U.S. Congress / Library of CongressNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Scott Act of 1888

Prevented Chinese immigrants who left the United States for a temporary departure from re-entering. (Line 504)

Geary Act of 1892 – U.S. Statutes at Large Page (1892) by U.S. Congress / Library of CongressNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Geary Act of 1892

Renewed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act for another 10 years. (Line 25)

LIFE Photo Collection

Extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1902

Renewed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act indefinitely and required Chinese residents to register and show proof or certification of residency.

In 1906, following the devastating earthquake in San Francisco and subsequent fire, many public birth documents and vital records were destroyed. 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. 

This video from the New York Historical Society shares one "paper family's" story.

From 1910-1940 many of those who migrated though the West Coast were held at Angel Island Immigration Station

02/08/1914, A newspaper headline announcing the beginning of World War I.Yad Vashem

World War I

Many Chinatown communities came together to support America through fundraising and other efforts. Eventually Chinese veterans were allowed to be naturalized starting in 1918.

Cable Act 1922 - U.S. Statutes at Large Page (1922) by U.S. Congress/ Library of CongressNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Cable Act of 1922

While this act restored the eligibility of American women to retain citizenship if they married foreigners—as stated in the 1907 Expatriation Act—this did not apply to those who married men who were ineligible for citizenship (including Asian men).  (Line 1021)

Immigration Act 1924 (1924-05-26) by National Archives (5752154)National Trust for Historic Preservation

Immigration Law of 1924

This legislation established a quota system that favored immigrants from European countries and reduced quotas for Asian countries.

Handkerchief with World War II Double V campaign design (1942-1945) by Maker: UnidentifiedSmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

World War II

Discrimination against Chinese Americans and immigrants during the war time resulted in a drop in the Chinese population. 

After the U.S. allied with China, negative perceptions against the Chinese community lessened slightly and Congress repealed all Chinese Exclusion acts, which finally allowed Chinese aliens to be naturalized citizens. Many Chinese Americans fought for the U.S. during this time period, and Chinatowns also supported the war efforts through fundraising and war industry.

By Eliot ElisofonLIFE Photo Collection

War Brides Act of 1945

This act brought more Asian women to the United States, leading to an increase in population in Chinatowns across the country.

Urban renewal

In the 1950s and 60s Urban renewal projects often targeted and impacted minority spaces in cities. Many Chinatowns began to experience a decline as they were forced out of their homes to make way for new development.

Civil Rights March on Washington (1963-08-28) by National Archives (542003)National Trust for Historic Preservation

Civil Rights Movement

Several key pieces of civil rights legislation starting in the 1950s helped the Chinese community find employment and housing in areas outside of Chinatowns. Newer immigrants were also able to bypass the need to reside in Chinatown.

Immigration and Nationality Act Signing (1965-10-03) by LBJ Library and Yoichi OkamotoNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

Abolished the racial quota system and set preferences for family reunification and skilled laborers to enter the country. This leads to one of the largest Asian immigration waves into the United States, and as they arrived many Chinatowns experienced demographic changes.

For a deeper dive into the history of Chinatowns in the United States see the story Gold Mountain & Beyond: A History of Chinatowns in the United States (Google Arts & Culture).

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

How Chinatowns Nationwide Are Finding Ways to Thrive Into the Future (Preservation magazine)

Credits: Story

Karen Yee graduated from the University of Maryland’s Historic Preservation and Urban Planning master’s programs in 2022. This timeline is adapted from Preserving Chinatowns in the United States by Karen Yee and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Published in 2021. 

Citation: Linda Trinh Vo, “Essay 15: Asian Immigrants and Refugees: Demographic Transformations in the United States from WWII to the Present” Essay. In Finding a Path Forward: Asian American/Pacific Islander National Historic Landmarks Theme Study. National Park Service, 2017.  

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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