Date of Degree Completion
Master of Arts (MA)
Chong Eun Ahn
Second Committee Member
Third Committee Member
This thesis examines how the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire affected the local Chinatown and Chinese immigration as a whole. It focuses on communities from the Pearl River Delta of southern China, their motivations for emigration, the industries they found employment in, and the racially charged legislation they had to contend with. By 1902 the Chinese Exclusion Act forbid Chinese immigration indefinitely, but the fire of 1906 destroyed the local City Hall which housed all of the city’s immigration records. Chinese immigrants exploited the opportunity, applying for more documentation than they needed and distributing the extras to those who wanted admission to the country. Consequently, Chinese populations in the United States grew after 1906. Anti-Chinese sentiment in California was strong prior to this point due to racial prejudice; concerns over the sharp population increase, labor, organized crime, disease, opium dens, gambling houses, and brothels led many Americans to the assumption that the Chinese immigrants were a financial burden they were forced to support. Because of this, the residents of San Francisco initially forbid Chinese peoples from rebuilding after the fire. However, Chinese immigrants, merchants, investors, and diplomats all proved to be a financial boon to the reconstruction, and several organizations took the opportunity to create better relations between Chinese and American communities. In spite of the deep racial tensions literally months before, Chinatown ended up being rebuilt in 1907 in the same location as before.
Many “exotic” aspects of Chinatown were exaggerated to make it more appealing as a tourist attraction and the organized city planning meant there was far more infrastructure, communication, and transparency than previously possible. Moreover, the increasing number of Chinese immigrants resulted in a more diverse population ratio and less crime. By examining legislation, newspapers, and individual accounts, I argue the financial success of the San Francisco Chinatown resulted in greater racial tolerance and acceptance of Chinese communities. Moreover, the San Francisco Chinatown was used as an archetype around the world, meaning many of the same aesthetics and ideas associated with them had an impact on Chinese immigration well beyond a single city in California.
Littman, Sarah, "Race, Immigration, and a Change of Heart: A History of the San Francisco Chinatown" (2016). All Master's Theses. 377.