January 31, 2022

Gold Mountain and Beyond: A History of Chinatowns in the United States

A new project identifies and provides potential preservation solutions for these centers of community life.

Editor’s Note: This history of Chinatowns in the United States is part of a StoryMap developed by Karen Yee, a graduate student researcher from the University of Maryland. In the summer of 2021, Yee sought to identify the current state of preservation activity, current research and available data, and types of places related to Chinatowns in the United States. Below is a brief history of Chinese Americans, followed by a link to the StoryMap.

The story of many historic Chinatowns across the United States began in 1848 when James W. Marshall found gold in Northern California. This event marks the beginning of the Gold Rush of 1848, where hundreds of people came to California in hopes of striking it rich. Overseas, in the southern region of China where people were reeling from the economic and class instability resulting from the Taiping Revolution (1850-864) and the Opium War (1839-1842), the news of a Gold Mountain (Gum Saam) in the United States prompted many Chinese to leave their homes in hopes of bettering their economic situations. Upon their arrival to the United States, Chinese immigrants quickly realized that mining was both difficult and highly competitive work.

Almost a decade later, in the 1860s, the building of the Transcontinental Railroad served as another major employment opportunity for Chinese laborers. Chinese immigration to the United States continued to increase and by 1870, according to the US Census, there were over 63,000 Chinese in the United States. Within the workplace, fellow non-Chinese colleagues treated Chinese laborers poorly. Railroad foremen would assign Chinese laborers the most dangerous jobs such as detonating dynamite, which resulted in the death of thousands of Chinese laborers.

A view of a street in New York City in 1909. There are two figures standing on the right of the image and the restaurants in view are called Wing Sing Restaurant and the Mandarin Tea Garden.

photo by: George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress

Image of Chinatown on Doyers Street in New York City from 1909.

The cause for this hatred was the fear of job loss. American companies preferred to hire Chinese laborers because they were cheaper than hiring white American workers. As a result, this caused Chinese laborers to be viewed as unwanted foreign competition. Besides discriminating against the Chinese laborers in the workplace, the local communities saw them as strange for their difference in appearance, culture, and language.

Following the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad and the subsequent depression (following the panic of 1873), many Chinese laborers became out of work, resulting in heightened tensions between Chinese workers and white workers who now had to compete for limited jobs. Nonetheless, Chinese laborers found employment in domestic services, fishing, agriculture, and other industries. Many Chinese also began to travel eastward in the United States to settle in urban centers considered more friendly toward foreigners due to a more diverse population.

The Formation of Chinatowns

Chinatowns are traditionally defined as a place where a majority of the population is Chinese—a definition that will shift as more Chinatowns become increasingly multicultural and adapt to changes in society. That being said, there is no single story for Chinatowns across the United States. They each have different beginnings, with some establishing themselves in the 1860s while others formed in the 1970s and even later. Geographically, Chinatowns could be found in rural towns or large cities.

Generally, early historic Chinatowns were located in the same places where Chinese laborers worked. 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 secondary home.

Community Organizations and Chinatowns

Community organizing was important for early Chinese immigrants who had to rely on each other. Family associations called huiguan were based on clan or regional districts and served as an important social network for Chinese laborers to stay connected in both the United States and China. One huiguan that still exists today is the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) which has several chapters across the United States. Their role remains focused on supporting Chinatowns through funding Chinese New Year parades and festivities, offering genealogy support, and providing other social services.

Tongs were another type of organization that were based on brotherhood and group loyalty, but many also partook in illegal activities such as prostitution, gambling, and drug dealing in order to fund their activities. Nevertheless, both groups provided social, economic, and political support for their members.

While community 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 cities, or they moved altogether to larger, well-established Chinatowns. Newspapers and gossip spread the news that Chinatowns were exotic places where prostitution, crime, drugs, and gambling occurred, adding fuel to the hatred against the Chinese community, including the use of racist and derogatory terms. Chinatowns that rebuilt themselves experienced frequent police raids and slander in the media, while residents themselves found difficulties in obtaining both housing and business permits.

At the corner of Dupont and Jackson Streets, Chinatown, San Francisco

photo by: Arnold Genthe/Library of Congress

At the corner of Dupont and Jackson Streets, Chinatown, San Francisco, from a series of photographs taken between 1896-1942.

Chinatown and the Law

On a local level, various states and local municipalities like California, Texas, and Wyoming enacted Alien Land Laws which prevented Chinese immigrants and other minorities from purchasing or leasing-long term properties. Other local laws that impacted Chinese ownership were long-established racial covenants that prevented Black Americans from possessing land.

These laws resulted in Chinese immigrants having to go through third parties in order to purchase or obtain leases for properties and furthered the instability of Chinatowns whose residents could not legally put down roots. Alien Land Laws would not be ruled as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court until 1952. Even so, not all states removed these laws immediately after the ruling; for instance, Florida—the last to do so—did not remove its Alien Land Law from its state constitution until 2018.

In addition to Alien Land Laws, other legislation passed by the federal government impacted the growth and demographics of Chinatown. One of the earliest laws against Chinese immigrants was the Page Act of 1875, which prohibited the entry of Chinese women. Although early Chinese laborers had been primarily young men who had intended to stay temporarily in the United States, the 1875 act further skewed gender ratios in Chinatowns, populating them with predominantly single men.

Anti-miscegenation laws also prevented Chinese men from establishing families. Some Chinese women were able to find alternative methods of entering the United States, which included traveling to Canada and then entering the United States. Others entered as students, wives of Chinese merchants, or daughters of U.S. citizens.

A view of the Chinatown Gateway in Portland, Oregon serving as an entrance to Old Town Chinatown.

photo by: Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress

The Chinatown Gateway, an outdoor paifang (a Chinese architectural arch or gateway) and sculpture that serves as an entrance to Old Town Chinatown in Portland, Oregon, in 2018.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first legislation to bar an ethnic group from entering the United States. It stated that only Chinese merchants, diplomats, and scholars were permitted entry into the U.S. It would later extend the ban of Chinese laborers indefinitely in 1902. After China became an ally to the United States during WWII, the U.S. repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943 and allowed Chinese immigrants to be naturalized as citizens.

Later on, the Civil Rights Movement paved a path for Chinese Americans and immigrants to break free from discriminatory legislation that bound them to Chinatowns. Legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which banned racial discrimination in housing, public facilities, and employment, helped Chinese Americans and other minorities move outside of Chinatowns and into suburban areas.

Chinatowns were also substantially impacted by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which lifted the racial quota and gave preferences based on educational status, certain skills or professions, and family reunification. The combination of the repeal of discriminatory legislation and influx of immigration impacted the growth and decline of Chinatown populations as new immigrants moved into Chinatown while others moved out.

Chinatowns Today

A postscript from Di Gao, senior director of research & development, National Trust for Historic Preservation

As is chronicled above, historic Chinatowns are communities of resilience, and while they do not look the same across the country, they all reveal different sides of the formation of America and teach us more about our identity as a nation. These places also foster belonging and connection for those who have felt excluded elsewhere. For those who feel at home in our nation’s Chinatowns, protection of these places is vital.

Today, Chinatowns are home for people who identify with cultures and backgrounds across the Asian and Pacific Islander American diaspora. Embodied within these communities are more than tasty soup dumplings, savory congee, and tantalizing mouth numbing spices, but stories of labor and perseverance, hardship and resilience, exclusion and community, and celebration of life.

These places tell an important and multilayered American story about the integral role that Chinese communities have played in shaping the United States and American identity for centuries. However, this history and the essential contributions of these communities is under-told.

Now, we have entered unprecedented times and the power of place to educate, inspire, and create safe space remains vital and has grown even more important.

In early 2020, Chinatowns saw a dramatic decline in business, even before official pandemic shutdowns began, spurred by the dual realities of xenophobia and public health measures. Many legacy restaurants and other mom and pop businesses did not survive, leaving indelible marks on these historic communities. Asian hate crimes increased by 73% nationally in the last year. As we enter the third year of global pandemic, Chinatowns around the country still need advocates to raise public awareness, elevate and protect these treasured enclaves so we can continue to tell the stories of Chinese in America.

Preservation has a unique opportunity to work alongside and within these communities to achieve our shared goals of collective storytelling and cultivating belonging and understanding. This StoryMap offers some solutions and tools to make that happen.

StoryMap: Preserving Chinatowns in the United States

A gray map with multicolored dots representing the different Chinatown and International Districts in the United States.

For over 160 years, Chinatowns have served as a symbol of community resilience. This resource by Karen Yee shares the history of these historic places in the United States, the threats they face, and potential preservation solutions.

Karen Yee is a third year graduate student in the Historic Preservation and Urban Planning master’s program at the University of Maryland. She was the recipient of the 2019 National Trust for Historic Preservation's Mildred Colodny Scholarship.

We believe all Americans deserve to see their history in the places that surround us. As a nation, we have work to do to fill in the gaps of our cultural heritage.

Let's Get to Work