During the 1850's, disillusioned by floods, droughts, rebellion and civil war, many Chinese from the Guangdong Province left China to seek their fortune in the California gold fields. Met with suspicion and prejudice by other miners, many returned to San Francisco where a Chinese culture had taken root. This early Chinatown occupied only a few blocks around Portsmouth Square, but by 1890 it became the largest Chinatown in North America.

The racism, hatred, and prejudice that surrounded the Chinese kept them together as an isolated community. However, this community also bound them together, and provided the strength needed to withstand the major anti-Chinese sentiment around them. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 specifically refused Chinese entrance into the United States. Additionally, Chinese were not allowed to own property, vote, or marry non-Chinese. Other oppressive laws were passed that limited jobs and kept them from giving testimony in court against a white man.


The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake devastated Chinatown, and many of the survivors fled to other parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, but about 500 out of 5,000 remained. A handful of city planners and local politians considered the earthquake both an opportunity and a great blessing to be rid of the Chinese in a prime real estate area, and move them to Hunters Point. Many felt it should have burned long before. The Overland Monthly wrote, "Fire has reclaimed to civilization and cleanliness the Chinese ghetto, and no Chinatown will be permitted in the borders of the city.... it seems as though a divine wisdom directed the range of the seismic horror and the range of the fire god. Wisely, the worst was cleared away with the best."

However, despite racism and political attempts to prevent Chinatown from being rebuilt, it was eventually rebuilt and repopulated on its former site, but only after much concern and controversy spread thoughout California and eventually to Chinese officials in Washington D.C. Few expected that a small group of mainly poor non-English speaking Chinese would be able to resist and make themselves heard as far away as Washington D.C.

To see roughly 120 photographs portraying a small glimpse back in time to those early years before the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, click on the door in the first photograph above to enter that world.