The first wave of immigration from China to the Pacific coast of the United States - San Francisco and Los Angeles, mainly - started in the mid-nineteenth century and lasted almost one hundred years. This first arrival stretches from the age of the Californios to well past the creation of Los Angeles’ New Chinatown in the 1930's. Many of these immigrants came from the southeast areas of China, namely Canton or Kwantung in the Pearl River Delta, as well as the rural regions of Toishan, Sam Yup and Chun Song. These immigrants, known as the sojourners, usually came to "Gam Saan" - as the West Coast was dubbed "Gold Mountain" in Cantonese - in search of gold or, more likely, the hard work of railroad construction. In 1869 as the Union Pacific tracks joined those of the Central Pacific Railroad, the Transcontinental Railroad was finally complete; according to some reports, it was Chinese workers who laid the last rails somewhere in Utah.
Yet prejudice against the sojourners led to anti-immigration legislation - culminating with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 - eventually making it almost impossible for Chinese nationals to enter and work in the United States legally. Smugglers had transported illegal workers to work for the construction of the Transcontinental and Pacific railroads, and the Exclusion Act prevented many of these immigrants from bringing their families into the U.S. once they had settled. (Additionally, the risks of mining and railroads usually prevented women and children from coming to the Gold Mountain.) For that reason, the majority of the earliest Chinese population in Los Angeles was male.
Los Angeles' first Chinatown was located next to the railroad tracks, where Union Station stands now. Segregated by racial covenants, Old Chinatown was home to almost 3,000 Chinese males and the businesses serving this unique community. From its inception, this migrant culture was tightly knit, with networks of family alliances linked back to homeland China. These alliances - many of which still exist today - compensated for the lack of social and political services available to the immigrants and also provided civic representation for the community. Today, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) brings together many of these original associations in support of a common language and direction.
The core businesses developed by the inhabitants of Old Chinatown shaped the evolution of the area, as well as its image outside of Chinatown. The only way the sojourners could get certain foods was to create not only their own grocery stores, but also their own restaurants. Some of these establishments later moved to New Chinatown, when they were forced out of Old Chinatown to make way for the construction of Union Station in the 1930's. Herbalists commanded great respect in the community, and herbal shops became the most successful undertakings of the migrant sojourners. Many of the herbalists had been brought to the U.S. by "scouts" seeking traditional healers for the thousands of Chinese immigrants who had come to work for the railroads. Theirs was a privileged role: unlike many of their counterparts, the work of the herbalists did not involve risking life and limb or heavy lifting. At the end of the railroad era, herbalists had a much easier transition to "city life" than many others, and many procured a fan base outside of the covenants, as many Latinos and gringos looking for alternative remedies banged on their doors. Los Angeles writer Lisa See immortalized the stories and traditions of these herbalists in her novel, On Gold Mountain .
Antique shops, selling curiosities and amenities for the community, were also high on the list of successful businesses. Fong's Oriental Works of Art, which still exists today, began as a small operation just off Alameda Street. Gambling and gaming were also important business ventures for the Chinese immigrants, bringing a different type of clientele to the area, mainly whites looking for diversion. The book L.A Noir offers great stories of outsiders flocking to Chinatown for gambling and excitement, as well as tales of how the police carefully patrolled and controlled the area. Gambling plus the existence of opium dens (recorded in early maps from the city) and prostitution created an exotic image of Chinatown that did not always correspond to the reality of those who lived in the neighborhood.
Old Chinatown was home to many, but to others, it was also a mythic racial fantasy, a place of both desire and fear. This friction became violently evident in 1871, when a mob of more than five hundred people ran through the Calle de los Negros - Chinatown's main drag, now named Los Angeles Street - to attack, rob and murder residents of the area in retaliation for the murder of a local rancher, Robert Thomson, who had been caught in the crossfire of two Chinese factions.