Laying Some History On You: Chinatown, Oakland

San Francisco’s Chinatown is the more famous of the Chinatowns in the Bay, but Oakland’s has its own history and culture. It is a very distinct entity and white people who visit both are sometimes surprised by how different they are; it’s not just that Oakland lacks the elaborate facades of San Francisco, but that it is demographically different and has a different feel than San Francisco does. There’s a lively debate about which is more ‘authentic,’ when considering the pastiche and tourism-oriented attractions in San Francisco versus the actual working community in Oakland. I’ll just say that I know where I go for dim sum and leave it at that.

Chinese settlers were among the first members of the Asian community to arrive in Oakland, and a Chinese settlement in the region dates back to 1850. Early residents fished for shrimp in the bay, worked in the goldfields, and laboured as domestic servants. Chinese labourers worked in the fields, laboured to build a dam, and toiled in factories, particularly canneries. By 1860, the Census recorded almost 100 Chinese immigrants in a growing city of 1,500. As with San Francisco, city leaders attempted to relocate the Chinese community, and in Oakland, they succeeded, pushing them away from Telegraph to San Pablo Avenue. Curiously, a major fire of mysterious origins precipitated this move.

A Chinese labourer carries wicker baskets on a pole. In the background, wagons and businesses are visible.

(Image source.)

As anti-immigration attitudes become more entrenched and the United States started aggressively passing laws to keep Chinese and other Asian immigrants out, many members of the Chinese community found it difficult to run businesses and work, and the community became in some senses more insular by default, because residents were isolated by institutional racism. The population leaned heavily to bachelors, thanks to restrictions on immigration, and it boomed in 1906 when Chinese refugees sought shelter in Oakland. Many of them chose to stay there, rather than returning to San Francisco as it rebuilt.

One thing often said about Chinatowns in any city is that they are exclusive enclaves, and that’s really not the case, not even historically. While some isolation did occur, most were heavily integrated with the surrounding Anglo society, and when I speak of Chinatown becoming more insular, I don’t mean totally so. White people did business in Chinatown and traveled freely through it, interacting with citizens, as did people of other races. People like to claim that immigrants who retain their language and culture are ‘bad Americans,’ but in fact it’s difficult to find immigrant communities where this mythical total isolation and refusal to engage with the white community is anything other than a myth.

Japanese and Korean immigrants began flocking to Oakland at the turn of the century, followed by Filipino people in the 1930s and 1940s. Thanks to US involvement in Southeast Asia, refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam also settled in Oakland in the 1950s and 1960s. Oakland was and is a working port town and you can see this reflection in the city’s complex demographics. Oakland’s Chinatown can’t really fairly bear that name, because the community is about much more than Chinese people; you are just as likely to encounter a Korean restaurant as you are to find a Chinese grocer, and a stroll down Webster is a quick lesson in linguistics.

With liberalisation of immigration laws came an increase in the size of the Asian population and a renaissance for Oakland’s Chinatown as entrepreneurs from a number of regions settled and started building homes and businesses in the States. As a major port and a city with an international airport, Oakland continues to attract immigrants from all over the world, not just Asia and the Pacific Islands, and it is a place with constantly shifting demographics and population, far from being a static city.

Oakland’s Chinatown also has a very rich history of community organising. In discussions about the civil rights movement in the United States, many leave out the role of Asian-Americans. Both Oakland and San Francisco housed community activists of all stripes and the Asian and Pacific Islander community was extremely active. This article at Colorlines discusses some of the visual art from this period, and points the way to even more images. These are a far cry from the way a lot of white people think about Chinatown in San Francisco or Oakland:

A poster from 1975 with members of the community gathered around a street sign for Webster. Some of the activists hold up a sign reading 'Dupont Guy.'

This is the kind of imagery many of my fellow white folks associate with white culture in 1975, when this piece was made, not with Asian and Pacific Islander communities.

Community activism continues to be a vital part of the culture in Oakland’s Asian-American, Black, and Latina/o communities. It’s something that outsiders often forget, when they talk about Oakland. The dominant view of Oakland is as a scary, crime-ridden place where no one wants to go. When I lived in Oakland, some people were afraid to visit me because they thought Oakland as a whole was ‘unsafe’ despite the fact that it bridges communities from privileged white people in the hills to impoverished Black folks struggling to survive in West Oakland. Oakland’s Chinatown lies in the heart of this, and its history, and that of its community, is often ignored and erased.

The contributions of the Asian and Pacific Islander community to Oakland’s history have been immense, and over 17% of the population identifies as Asian or Pacific Islander. Oakland may be close to 30% Black, but it also has a large Latina/o community, with almost 25% of the total population. Oakland’s Chinatown is a reminder that Oakland is not racially uniform, that it is not ‘the ghetto,’ that in fact there’s a lot going on in the maligned city on the other side of the Bay, including radical political activism, art, great food, and culture.

For more information on Chinatown’s rich history, check out the Oakland Chinatown Oral History Project.