Nineteenth-century Oakland Chinese businesses.

AuthorFong, Kelly

Although Chinese Americans were integral to local and regional infrastructure development since the 1850s, researchers have given little attention to Oakland Chinatown in favor of San Francisco across the bay. This trend, however, is beginning to change; with rich history and minimal previous work completed, Oakland is an ideal place to engage in historical research, documentary and archaeological, for envisioning the lives of nineteenth-century Chinese American individuals and communities. Additionally, with recent (re)development trends in downtown Oakland, individual interest combined with archaeological research complying with Environmental Protection legislation form the impetus to make Oakland's rich Chinese heritage public knowledge. This has spurred additional research, including my own, which investigates the nineteenth-century community through archival work. This research is aimed at a number of purposes: to help formulate a nomination proposal for a National Register Historic and Archaeological District for all nineteenth-century Oakland Chinatowns; to push developers and the City Council to sensitively treat potentially significant sites on future development areas; to augment archaeological analyses; to inform the interested public of the Chinese presence outside of the extant Oakland Chinatown core at Eighth Street and Webster; and to provide a methodological model that other researchers investigating historic Chinatowns can follow. (1)

My work is based on mapping raw data drawn from four primary archival sources: the Wells, Fargo & Co. 1882 Directory of Chinese Business Houses; Oakland Sanborn Fire Insurance maps of 1889, 1902, and 1912; the National Archives Chinese Immigration files Index of Chinese Businesses Partnerships in California Cities and Towns and its files for Oakland; and Oakland City directories from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Using these sources in conjunction with each other, I created a map with this data to investigate the spatial distribution of Oakland Chinese businesses. (2)

In the present article, I describe methods in which I utilize various documentary sources to research late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Chinatown. I begin by situating my research within the larger body of Oakland Chinatown research and contextualizing my findings within Chinese American history, both on the local and national level. I then report on my research process, the sources I consulted, what I found, problems I encountered, and notes on emerging trends that may be the foundation for larger bodies of knowledge. Finally, I comment on the significance of this work for archaeological and historic research, and promising directions for future research. By drawing upon multiple lines of documentary evidence, my work on Oakland serves not only as a historical geography of Oakland's Chinatowns, but also as a model of both the benefits and limitations of this kind of historic research.


Chinatowns began emerging in Oakland in the 1850s as Chinese immigrants poured into California to reap Gold Rush riches. As more Chinese immigrants entered the United States, however, anti-Chinese beliefs grew such that mainstream white society no longer saw Chinese Americans as docile, loyal laborers, but rather, in the words of Presbyterian Minster Ira Condit, as "a foreign substance cast into our social order, which will not mingle, but keeps up a constant irritation," (3) due to their so-called unassimilability, differences in culture and appearance, and claimed economic threat as competitors. Chinese Americans moved from rural gold mines into urban areas as this sentiment increased. Chinatowns formed for mutual support and protection from external hostility and consequent violence, and were also the consequence of forced removal from areas into designated land parcels. The overall urban migration was contemporaneous to Oakland's founding in 1852, and the Oakland Chinese population grew quickly. The 1860 Census shows 170 Chinese Americans in Oakland in a population of about 2,500. By 1875, there were between 2,000 and 3,000 Chinese Americans in a population of 20,000, making the ethnic Chinese "the largest non-white and non-native group" during the first few years of Oakland's existence as an incorporated city. (4)

Oakland was a Bay Area industrial center, particularly after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. A need for labor accompanied the bustling industry. The Chinese were seen as reliable workers, and a number of industries employing Chinese Americans emerged, including the ceramic, terra cotta, cigar, explosives, cotton, and canning industries. Oakland Chinese also served as houseboys, cooks, laundrymen, and gardeners. Chinese Americans furthermore helped build infrastructure such as Temescal Dam, Alameda County's first reservoir, and local railroad lines throughout California. (5)

Chinese Americans were furthermore especially integral to the shrimping and fishing industry, agriculture, and laundries. With the rise of anti-Asian sentiment and claims of unfair competition, however, fishing and shrimping became subject to severe limitations, including a heavy tax and laws prohibiting the use of Chinese fishing nets or selling fish in certain communities. By 1879, the state legislature forbade Chinese American commercial fishing, essentially destroying the fishing and shrimping industry. (6) In agriculture, Oakland farmers viewed the Chinese as an ideal labor source. Chinese Americans brought with them not only the necessary skills for farming, but also new techniques that they shared with American farmers such as an irrigation system utilizing ditches and windmills. (7)

The Oakland Chinese were also engaged in the well-stereotyped trade of laundries, beginning to appear in the 1870s. By the mid-1870s, there were 35 laundries, growing to over 60 in the 1880s, many of which appealed to a Caucasian clientele. In the late 1870s, white steam-operated laundries competed with Chinese American hand laundries. The Chinese American laundries survived this competition, but anti-Chinese forces continued to grow and the Laundry Worker's Union of Alameda County (No. 55) pressured the City Council to exterminate Chinese American laundries. Oakland's City Council followed San Francisco's example and enacted a number of racially discriminatory laws aimed at harassing Chinese Americans. (8) In 1883, they passed an ordinance forbidding laundries to operate late nights and Sundays and required laundries to have a permit for operation. The City Council provided no basis for issuing permits, which therefore could be issued or denied based on race. The City Council furthermore attempted strangling Chinese American laundries in 1889 with City Ordinance 1104. This created a district bounded by fire limits in which laundries were prohibited. The limits spanned between Clay and Webster streets and Seventeenth Street down to the waterfront--an area primarily occupied by Chinese Americans. While this law was declared unconstitutional in 1890, the fire limit harassment was effective; 16 laundries located within the fire limits in 1889 either closed or moved by 1909. (9)

The Oakland Chinese did not occupy a single Chinatown; whilst it is unknown how many existed, scholars have noted six separate Chinatowns scattered throughout the Central Business District area. These Chinatowns emerged and disappeared at the hands of anti-Chinese agitation until only the Chinatown centered at Eighth Street and Webster Street remained. One of the first Chinatowns was a mile from the waterfront near Washington and Fourteenth streets. The city demolished this Chinatown in 1865 for white businesses and, in 1869, used this parcel of land to build a new City Hall. The Oakland Chinese moved to another Chinatown at Telegraph Avenue and Seventeenth Street. This Chinatown mysteriously burned down in 1867, and city officials refused to allow resettlement, forcing the Oakland Chinese to move their homes and businesses. Shifting a few blocks west, two Chinatowns emerged in the 1860s off San Pablo Avenue, one at Nineteenth Street and the other at Twenty-Second Street. In the 1870s, the city pushed these residents to First Street between Brush Street and Jefferson Street. Far from the desirable residential and commercial uptown area, this city father-owned land seemed fit for the unwanted Chinese. The last and only remaining nineteenth-century Chinatown emerged in the late 1870s at Eighth Street and Webster. With this constant migration, the nineteenth-century Oakland Chinese were unmistakably unwanted residents at the mercy of the City Council. (10)

The compulsory migration of Chinatowns across Oakland via marginalization and forced confinement in sub-ideal conditions was not limited to Oakland; Chinese Americans across the country faced discrimination through everyday and institutionalized practices such as legislation, restrictive covenants, zoning, everyday racist violence, and other forms of harassment. Mainstream white society did not want to see Chinatowns, viewing them, as Presbyterian Minster Ira Condit described San Francisco Chinatown in 1900, as "a dark blot on the body of our fair city." (11) By relegating them to undesirable land, cities across the country limited Chinatown development to low-rent districts of central city areas, particularly near waterfronts or transportation termini. (12) This trend is evident in Oakland; Chinatown at Eighth and Webster was centered in "the heart of the 'Old City'" among "warehouses, factories, rooming houses, and junk yards," an environment Willard T. Chow calls a "zone of discard." (13) First Street Chinatown was also on the waterfront near the industrial harbor area, and both the First Street and Eighth Street and Webster Chinatowns were near Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. Furthermore, the city tolerated...

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