Introduction to Sacramento’s Chinatown

Sacramento developed into a thriving river port during the gold rush as the entry point to California’s northern gold mines. Located upriver from San Francisco (Daifow or Big City), Sacramento’s Chinatown or Yee Fow (Second Port or City) was one of the first Chinatowns built in early California. The strategic location of Yee Fow enabled the community to grow quickly into a trade and commercial center for the early Chinese pioneers. Sacramento buttressed its position as an important supply and labor center when it was named as the western terminal point of the Transcontinental railroad. The many Chinese who helped build the railroad settled there which resulted in a large expansion of the original Chinatown. Yee Fow was soon a bustling, dynamic part of the state capitol.

The Sacramento Chinatown was established downtown near the Sacramento River along I Street. Restaurants, general stores, laundries, hotels and opera houses found a home in Yee Fow. Later, as the railroad replaced river steamers, the meaning of the name Yee Fow changed from second port to that of being the second most important Chinatown in California after San Francisco.

The China Background. In order to understand these pictures of Sacramento’s Chinatown, it is first necessary to understand Chinese history and Chinese American history–the myths and the forgotten history. When the Chinese first immigrated to America, China was ruled by foreigners, the Manchus. The Manchus invaded China from beyond the Great Wall and established the Qing (Ching) Dynasty in 1644. After two centuries in power, the Qing Dynasty was under siege, first by the western powers eager to grab the riches of China, and secondly by the Chinese themselves, resentful of being dominated by outsiders. In 1842, England defeated China in the First Opium War. This was the first important sign that the Qing dynasty would lose the Mandate of Heaven. Soon thereafter rebellions broke out throughout the country.

Guangdong province, the province that was home to almost all the early Chinese pioneers to America was and still is one of the most prosperous and important provinces in China. Guangzhou, the provincial capital of Guangdong, was the only port open to trade with the West. With this monopoly in trade, Guangdong soon began the development of a rudimentary market economy creating the infrastructure for international trade, an infrastructure that is still achieving remarkable success today.

Under the guise of the universal right to free trade, England bombarded Guangzhou and started the First Opium War. England’s true intention was to secure the right to sell opium to the Chinese, thus enriching their merchants and in turn their nation. The Qing emperor proved unable to defend China against Western military technology and tactics. After suffering heavy losses, he surrendered.

The defeat of the Qing Dynasty made the Chinese, particularly the Cantonese, recognize that a new world order was in the making. For China to survive, change was essential. The call for change would center around the Guangdong province. Not only had its capitol been the first place the Westerners attacked, Guangdong had the reputation and history of being the most progressive and rebellious province in the empire. For over 200 years, almost from the moment China was defeated by the Manchus, the Cantonese had formed and maintained a number of “secret societies” (tongs). Each member of a tong made a solemn oath to “Fan Qing, Fu Ming” (Overthrow the Qing, Restore the Ming).

As the Chinese struggled to replace the imperial form of government and respond to the technologically superior western nations, they received some electrifying news from abroad. Gold had been discovered on the west coast of America, in a land called California. And the gold was free for the taking. Many Cantonese saw a chance to strike it rich. Others felt the urge to travel to a new land in search of adventure, much like their ancestors had throughout the Nanhai or South China Sea. Still others saw the possibility of establishing secret societies abroad, free from Manchu spies. Within months, the Cantonese set sail for the Gold Mountain, a land of dreams and unlimited possibilities.

Chinese American History—Myths. The voluntary migration of a people from a non- western nation to a western nation was unprecedented in modern world history until the Chinese arrived in California in the middle of the 19th century. This migration took place during the Age of Imperialism when European nations were at the height of their power conquering and colonizing much of the non-western world. No two civilizations– China and the West—located at the opposite ends of the earth, could be more different from each other. Difficulties were inevitable; myths easy to create. From religion to food, clothing, etiquette, government, cultural values and all other forms of human activities, each civilization had developed along different tracks with little influence from the other. No one knew what would happen, except for one certainty. There would be a monumental clash of civilizations.

This clash of civilizations would take place in the United States, a rapidly industrializing country based on a democratic form of government. Democracy is a government of the people with equal rights protected by the rule of law. Thus the clash of civilizations between East and West was fought not on battlefields between opposing armies, but with laws and within American courtrooms. The challenge for the anti-Chinese or racist side was how to legally discriminate against a minority group in a democracy that abided by the rule of law.

Almost from the time the Chinese first set foot on American soil, they were met by laws that discriminated against them. The Foreign Miners Tax was the first of a long list of laws to discourage the Chinese from coming to America. Shortly thereafter, in 1854, the California Supreme Court held in People v. Hall that the Chinese could not testify thus denying them the right to defend themselves in court. Then state and local governments passed a series of laws restricting the right of the Chinese to earn a living. Legal discrimination against the Chinese reached its high point with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which effectively barred all Chinese from immigrating to the United States. In order to gain the votes necessary to pass these laws, the anti-Chinese forces had to create certain myths that later passed as history.

The anti-Chinese version of history is quite simple. Impoverished and desperate peasants from the poorest part of China, a land devastated by floods, famine and fighting, came to America seeking gold in the Gold Mountain. The Chinese were so desperate they were willing to work the worn out mining claims of others. When the gold gave out, they worked in laundries, as domestic servants, on railroads and farms, taking whatever jobs others did not want. They lived in crowded ghettoes under unsanitary conditions, spending most of the time gambling or using opium. They refused to assimilate because they were sojourners, only coming to America to make some money and return to China. That was the myth that passed as history.

Anti-Chinese forces created this history in arguing for anti-Chinese laws and in legislative hearings convened to determine the merits of enacting these laws. Focusing on the economic conditions in China, these racists justified discrimination against the Chinese on the ground that, no matter how badly the Chinese were treated here in America, they were better off here than there. Arguments that the Chinese would never assimilate supported their position that the Chinese should be excluded and expelled from the United States. The claim that Chinese were “cheap labor” made it appear that the Chinese deliberately impoverished themselves in order to undermine European American labor. This history advanced by the anti-Chinese forces was in essence, legal arguments made to support their position that “the Chinese must go.” But history based on distortions cannot long sustain itself.

Forgotten Chinese American History. The gold the Chinese found in California was immense. It helped finance a reform movement, then a revolution in China. It revitalized villages in the Pearl River Delta and funded the building of homes, schools, parks and even a railroad in the emigrant districts. Rather than being driven out of the mines, the Chinese miners were very successful. In 1860, a decade after the start of the gold rush, 25% of the miners in California were Chinese; by 1870, 58%. When a series of gold rushes took place in other states in the west, Chinese miners, building on their success in California, were among the first to reach the new mining fields. The percentages of Chinese miners in later gold strikes were similar to the percentage in California–Idaho 58%, Montana 21%, Oregon, 61%.

Chinese miners were successful because they could build very large water wheels and wing dams to control the flow of water and move huge boulders to access the gold lying on the river bottom. They worked in partnerships of more than one hundred, unlike European American miners who worked by themselves or in small groups. Lacking enough manpower and skill to fully access the gold, many European American miners quit. Rather than being “driven out” or mining the “worn out” claims of others, the Chinese miners bought or worked claims that others could not handle. This cycle of re-working gold claims continues today with large corporations mining claims abandoned by the Chinese.

Many historians have repeated the story of how Charles Crocker of the Central Pacific Railroad had to convince his superintendent of construction James Strobridge to hire Chinese workers. Strobridge reportedly said that railroad work was too physically demanding for Chinese workers. Crocker responded that “they built the Great Wall, didn’t they?” Forgotten was the fact that the Chinese had already proven themselves to be excellent railroad workers when they worked on the Marysville and San Jose Railroads several years before.

The real reason for Strobridge’s reluctance to use Chinese workers had little to do with their physical ability. Rather it was because Strobridge was a racist as he readily admitted. He refused a direct order from Crocker to hire Chinese and told everyone “I will not boss Chinese.” But when the Central Pacific fell behind schedule, Crocker had no choice but reissue his order to hire Chinese. Of course the Chinese proved to be good workers. Chinese were almost 20% of California’s work force at that time and California employers knew that whenever they needed to find labor that could do hard physical labor they should hire Chinese.

Forgotten in the history of the building of the transcontinental railroad is what happened to Strobridge’s racist attitude. When Strobridge got the opportunity to work with Chinese workers, he gradually gave up his prejudices. By the time the railroad was finished he had come to respect and appreciate them and called them the best workers in the world. This change in attitude by people working together is perhaps one of the most important lessons to be learned from the building of the transcontinental railroad.

The anti-Chinese version of Chinese American history labeled the Chinese “sojourners” who only wanted to make a few dollars, then return to China. Yet in American immigration history, no other group fought harder to make America their home than the Chinese. They quickly set roots by building thirty Chinatowns in the first two decades after they arrived. Later, with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, they fought even harder to stay, creating elaborate “paper sons and daughters” plans to circumvent discriminatory exclusion laws. They fought in the courts to stay and become citizens. How aggravating it must have been to these Chinese American pioneers to be told that they were only sojourners.

Forgotten also were the hopes and dreams the Chinese American pioneers had to save China. Starting with the tong secret societies that swore to “annihilate” the brutal Qing Dynasty, the Chinese founded political organizations to help China overthrow the Qing and enter the modern world. The Chinese Empire Reform Association, the Chee Kung Tong, and the Kuomintang were all active in America. The Chinese Empire Reform Association started the Western Military Academy in Los Angeles and opened branch academies in twenty one American cities, including one in Sacramento, to train Chinese American soldiers to go to China to fight the Manchus. Later in 1916, Chinese Americans organized the Overseas Chinese Corps of Volunteers and landed a unit of 500 soldiers in Qingdao prepared to march to Beijing and stop an attempt to restore the monarchy. That same year, Chinese Americans in San Francisco founded the Overseas Chinese Military Fundraising Bureau to raise funds for the same goal. Starting in the 1920’s, Chinese Americans organized aviation clubs. These clubs purchased planes and trained pilots in ten American cities. The movement grew after the Japanese occupied Manchuria. In all, over two hundred pilots were trained and went to China to fight the Japanese.

A people with a vision cannot be defeated. Besieged by American federal and state governments that enacted discriminatory laws, harassed by a significant portion of the American population who were racist, Chinese Americans did not surrender. They understood that being the first to cross the long and dangerous divide between two civilizations was not for the faint of heart. Whatever adversity they encountered only made them more determined. When the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, they knew that a major battle had been won. When the Immigration Act of 1965 was enacted treating all nations equally, victory in another major battle had been achieved. In 1940, Chinese Americans were a lonely and insignificant minority of 70,000. Today they are the largest Asian ethnic group in America with a population of 3,600,000.

Sacramento’s Chinatown and the Future. Sacramento’s Chinatown was an important Chinatown often leading the effort to assimilate Chinese Americans into the majority society. Yee Fow had a different history than the more famous Chinatown in San Francisco. San Francisco was the center of the anti-Chinese movement which deeply influenced the treatment Chinese Americans received there. In San Francisco, Chinese Americans were forced to go to a segregated school system and live in a ghetto with strict boundaries. It was possible for a resident to live a lifetime in San Francisco’s Chinatown without going beyond its boundaries.

The Sacramento Chinatown was different. Its boundaries were more open and fluid allowing its residents to travel to surrounding Chinatowns for business and pleasure and nearby farmlands for work. Its status as the state capitol was also important as many Chinese Americans took advantage of the large number of civil service positions that were available in state government. The availability of civil service positions provided an important pathway for Chinese Americans in Sacramento to enter the middle class.

Another development for the Chinese Americans in Sacramento that smoothed the way for their entry into the middle class was grocery stores. Sacramento’s Chinese American businessmen learned early that to achieve economic success in America, you had to sell to the general public. There were grocery stores in Sacramento’s Chinatown’ from its very beginning. But starting in the late 1920’s, these grocery stores in the old Chinatown moved to other parts of the city to serve the general community. After World War II, many of these grocery stores evolved into supermarkets. By 1960, Chinese American owned stores were twenty percent of the total number of grocery stores and supermarkets in the city, even though Chinese Americans were only 1.3% of the population in the Sacramento area. The combination of the above factors meant the Sacramento Chinese American community was often at the forefront of assimilation for all Chinese Americans.

For far too long the narrative of the history of Chinese Americans has been written from a westward frontier perspective that marginalized the Chinese. This may have been understandable during a time when China itself was marginalized. But with China’s re-emergence on the world scene, China’s narrative has changed and that of the Chinese in America must, of necessity, also change. The true history of Chinese Americans is one where two civilizations met on the west coast of the North American continent. This clash of civilizations did not prove easy, but from a historical perspective, benefited both sides. The future relationship between China and America is one that is growing more interdependent. By understanding the history of what happened when East met West on the Gold Mountain, there will be a brighter future for both these two great civilizations.