Oakland Chinatown History

By William Wong

chinatown 1800

Early Chinatown at the foot of Castro Street in the mid- to late 1800s. (Courtesy of the Oakland Cultural Heritage Survey, City of Oakland.)

Chinese came to Oakland in significant numbers in the 1850s, after gold was discovered near Sacramento in 1848. They were primarily from the Pearl Delta region of southeastern China near Hong Kong. Bigotry and violence drove many Chinese gold seekers to new cities that were cropping up in Northern California, like San Francisco and Oakland.

The first Chinese settlements in Oakland were at First and Castro Streets, Telegraph Avenue between 16th and 17th Streets, and San Pablo Avenue between 19th and 20th Streets. These settlements were frequently under siege. One burned down mysteriously. City leaders forced two other Chinese settlements to relocate. By the 1870s, Chinese began setting down roots at 8th and Webster Streets, the commercial center of today's Chinatown.

More Chinese settled in San Francisco, but Oakland became a viable alternative because of jobs, fertile land, good climate, and easy proximity to San Francisco. Chinese Oaklanders of that time took low-paying jobs. They built Temescal Dam and Lake Chabot Dam. They worked in canneries, cotton mills, and explosives factories. They were cooks, gardeners, houseboys, and laundrymen. They made cigars, helped develop the shrimp and fisheries industries, and labored in the thriving railroad building industry. They grew, then peddled vegetables and fruits on long bamboo poles (and later in trucks) throughout the East Bay region.

Oakland Chinese often faced hostility. Local politicians passed anti-Chinese legislation of one sort or another. Virulent anti-Chinese sentiments broke out throughout California, including Oakland, in the early 1870s, as the general economy soured. The California-grown anti-Chinese movement spread to Washington, D.C., where Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, barring Chinese laborers from coming to the United States. The Chinese population in Oakland and elsewhere dropped sharply.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire provided an unexpected boost to Oakland's Chinatown. Thousands of San Francisco Chinese who fled to Oakland chose to stay in Oakland. Some white Oaklanders, however, pressured the city to restrict the growing Chinese population to the 8th and Webster neighborhood. Chinatown grew nonetheless.

Even as Chinatown grew, it became more isolated. But the Chinese developed a complex society. They organized men and women's sports teams. The Wa Sung Community Service Club began as a baseball team in the 1920s. Chinese organizations emerged and evolved -- family and district associations, business associations, tongs, and civil-rights groups. Some tongs engaged in criminal activities like the Chinese lottery. Patriotic organizations flourished in Chinatown. One was the Kuomintang, or the Chinese Nationalist Party. Another was the Chinese American Citizens Alliance (CACA), which fought for the civil rights and assimilation of Chinese Americans. The Oakland lodge at 8th and Harrison Streets was the third CACA branch formed.

Oakland Chinese remained largely segregated in the first half of the 20th century. But as family life gradually developed in Chinatown, a process of Americanization began, and Lincoln Elementary School was a principal institution of acculturation. Chinatown children also went to Chinese schools. Protestant Christian churches -- Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal and Baptist -- have been and continue to be influential in Chinatown.

World War II sparked Chinatown's greater integration in Oakland and the growth of a Chinese American middle class. Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943. Shipyards employed many people in Oakland, including Chinese. Chinatown businesses benefited. The Oakland Chinese population grew 37.5 percent to 5,500 in the 1940s. Some Oakland Chinese fought in the war, while others raised funds to help China battle the invading Japanese.

For the smaller number of Japanese Americans around Chinatown, however, World War II wasn't a good time. They were shipped off to internment camps in remote areas of the west. Filipinos also found work in Chinatown in the 1930s and 1940s.

chinatown 1900

This postcard's caption reads "A typical scene in the Chinese quarter, Oakland, California". The scene is most likely from the late 1800s. (Courtesy of Ed Clausen.)

In the post-war years, the younger generation Chinese Americans began getting work and buying homes in parts of Oakland that once forbade Asians. The World War II prosperity was short-lived for Chinatown. With the shipyards shut down and its younger generation moving out, Chinatown suffered. Major public projects -- the Nimitz Freeway, the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, Laney College, and the Oakland Museum -- gobbled up Chinatown housing.

Chinatown's dormant state lasted into the 1960s, until Congress liberalized laws allowing more immigration from Asia. Oakland Chinatown experienced a renaissance, beginning in the 1970s. The renaissance was accelerated when the end of the Vietnam War brought over thousands of Southeast Asian refugees, some of them ethnic Chinese.

Oakland's Chinatown showed new life. Shuttered storefronts became restaurants and shops. Gasoline stations transformed into multi-use buildings. Property values soared. More banks opened Chinatown branches. Redevelopment resulted in the multi-purpose Pacific Renaissance Plaza on 9th, Franklin and Webster Streets. This project attracted Hong Kong money, as have other smaller developments.

This growth brought greater ethnic diversity to Chinatown. After 1965, the community exploded with immigrants and refugees from all over Asia. Traditional Chinatown expanded and a second Asian district formed east of Lake Merritt.

The ebb and flow of the Asian communities in Oakland have been and will continue to be influenced by immigration policies and geopolitical and globalization trends. With multiple generations of Chinese, and other Asians living all over the city and a population of approximately 80,000, the Chinese and Asian presence in Oakland is now deeply rooted.


Excerpted from Images of America: Oakland's Chinatown (Arcadia Publishing Co., 2001) by William Wong