First Wave: From Canton to L.A.


The first chapter in the history of L.A.'s Chinatown - and the first chapter of our new installment of Departures - takes us back to the first wave of immigration from China to the Pacific coast of the United States. The first sojourners arrived in San Francisco and Los Angeles mainly, in the beginning and into the mid-nineteenth century (the age of the Californios) and their era lasted almost one hundred years, well past the creation of Los Angeles' New Chinatown in the 1930s.

As historian Suellen Cheng explains in one of her interviews with us, many of these immigrants came from the southeastern area of China, namely Canton or Kwantung in the Pearl River Delta, as well as the rural regions of Toishan, Sam Yup and Chun Song. Known as the sojourners, these immigrants usually came to "Gam Saan" - the West Coast had been dubbed "Gold Mountain" in Cantonese - in search of gold, but most likely work on building the railroad. When the Union Pacific tracks were connected with those of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1868, making the Transcontinental Railroad some say it was Chinese workers who laid the last rails somewhere in Utah.

Cantonese Builders
Cantonese Builders

Prejudice against the sojourners led to anti-immigration legislation, culminating with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which made it almost impossible for Chinese nationals to enter and work in the United States legally. Smugglers had transported illegal workers to work on 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. This gender imbalance lasted throughout the following century. Artist Tyrus Wong recalls migrating with his father from Taishan to Sacramento and never returning home to see his mother or sister. Tyrus lived with his father in a small, one-bedroom apartment while his father worked in a gambling house to make ends meet.


Artist Tyrus Wong
Artist Tyrus Wong

Los Angeles' first Chinatown was located next to the railroad tracks, where Union Station stands today. Segregated by racial covenant, Old Chinatown was home to almost 3,000 Chinese men and the businesses serving this unique community. From its inception, the migrant populous was tightly knit, with networks of family alliances linking back to homeland China. Some of these alliances, such as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) still exist today. While some men (and some women) hung on to traditions like attending the Kong Chow Temple to pray for relief from their harsh labor conditions and safe return to the ancestral home land in Quantung, early forms cultural hybridity and mestizaje began to emerge in Chinatown. For professor Min Zhou, these networks shed light on the nature of transnational migration and assimilation in the lives of Asian Americans in the United States today.

The core businesses developed by the residents 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 1930s. 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, Latinos and gringos in search of alternative remedies banging on their doors. Los Angeles writer Lisa See immortalized the stories and traditions of these herbalists in her novel, On Gold Mountain.

Antique Shops like the F. Suie One Co. and Fong's Oriental Works of Art, which both still exist today, began as small operations and created family empires. 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 correspond to the reality of those who lived in the neighborhood day in and day out.

Chinese Massacre in Calle de los negros
Chinese Massacre in Calle de los Negros

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. Los Angeles remembers its first racial riot - the Chinese Massacre - with small plaque outside of the Chinese American Museum.


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