Oakland's old San Pablo Avenue Chinatown

By Anna Naruta, PhD

On Oakland's 100-year anniversary in 1952, Edward W. Chew wrote a special article in the Oakland Tribune to commemorate the history of Oakland's early Chinatowns. Edward Chew was the son of Rev. Ng Poon Chew (1866-1931), a civil rights crusader who edited and published San Francisco's major turn-of-the-century newspaper, Chung Sai Yat Bo. A resident of Oakland since the San Fransico earthquake, Edward Chew's father–if not Edward Chew himself–was likely to have heard directly from residents of Oakland's early San Pablo Avenue Chinatown about the city's remarkable early history. Chew's article preserved important history and provided clues that allowed the discovery of further information about Oakland's old San Pablo Avenue Chinatown.

San Pablo Avenue near today's 20th Street was named the “official” Chinatown of the late 1860s and 1870s. Chew writes this Chinatown was established after city authorities refused to allow the rebuilding of the first “official” Chinatown, on Telegraph Avenue, near today's 17th Street. The change was made permanent: the next year, the City extended the main street, Broadway, northward through the former Chinatown site. In the following years, Edward Chew recorded, Chinese Oaklanders would be subjected to multiple dislocations.

Looking north just past the new City Hall, which opened in 1871, the rooftops barely visible to the left may be the only photo of the original San Pablo Avenue Chinatown. (Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room)

By the mid-1860s, Oakland city fathers had declared a new “official” Chinatown site, on San Pablo Avenue near what would become 20th Street. At least some of the names of the residents of the new Chinatown are listed in the 1870 census. However, after locating the new City Hall nearby, city leaders then targeted the San Pablo Avenue Chinatown for redevelopment. The Oakland Tribune reported in May 1872 that the Chinatown residents were now “consigned” to live on 2nd Street, at the city's industrial south shore. But this was not the end of the San Pablo Avenue Chinatown, as a Tribune article again reported on its existence a few years later, editorializing that its land would be good for redevelopment. Neither was it the end of the dislocations, as the 1880s census shows the San Pablo Avenue Chinatown had moved to Charter Avenue, near today's Grand Avenue.

Hometown Oaklander Kelly Fong volunteered for more research at the National Archives, San Bruno. Fong's research discovered additional historical significance of the old Victorian buildings that were part of the 1880s redevelopment of the area, and that were still standing at San Pablo Avenue. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, when many San Franciscans relocated to Oakland, these buildings became home to merchant tailoring firm Hing Chong & Company, part of a thriving early twentieth-century Chinese garment district created on the very spot of the early Chinatown. Files at the National Archives have photos of the businessmen operating Hing Chong & Co. at 1966 San Pablo Avenue, including Wong Yow (1908) and W. Kai Wong (1920).

Oaklander Edward W. Chew in his WWI officer's uniform, from The Chinese of Oakland: Unsung Builders by L. Eve Armentrout Ma and Jeong Huei Ma, edited by Forrest Gok and the Oakland History Research Committee, 1982.

Wong Yow (1908) W.Kai Wong (1920)    

Hearing news of the 150-year-deep heritage of Chinese Americans in the San Pablo Avenue area, hometown Oaklander Carol Chong generously brought forward her family’s chapter. In this 2004 photo, Carol Chong stands outside the building where she was born, 1966 San Pablo Avenue. Her father immigrated from Toishan, China, and her parents ran a laundry downstairs and made a home upstairs, at 1966 San Pablo Avenue. The photo she holds shows her and her siblings in their backyard garden.

Historian and archivist Anna Naruta currently works for Stanford University, preparing online guides to the papers of Oakland's own Pardee Lowe and Zhang Shuqi (of Chang Shu-chi Studios) at the Hoover Institution Archives. More history is online at UptownChinatown.org