Oakland Chinatown like others started in the 1850's during the Gold Rush, most immigrants were from 4 counties in Kwantung Province. They swelled after anti-Chinese violence drove them out of mining and other jobs and into the City for protection. >>Post card of Oakland Chinatown in the 1880's.
"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 epicenter of today's Chinatown." From Bill Wong's Oakland Chinatown History
Even in the cities, the Chinese faced hardships. They were blamed for the recession. The California Workingman's Party took over Oakland City government in 1882, when the Mayor and 4 members of the party were elected. Between 1876 to 1891 the city passed a series of discriminatory laws to prevent Chinese from working or living in Oakland: Unfair taxes on Chinese laundries, laws against vegetable peddlers, laws against tenements, barring Chinese from working in specific industries. They were forced into the lowest paying jobs; the dams at Lake Chabot and Temescal, caves in wine country, the levees on the way to Sacramento, and of course the railroads were built by Chinese laborers. They farmed the Oakland foothills introducing asparagus and other fruits/vegetables. They also worked as cooks, domestics, cigar makers and shrimp industry. White workers demanded that Chinese be fired and were often successful. Some worked in the very dangerous gun powder and explosives industry.
The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 would cut off immigration (first and only Congressional act barring a specific nationality) and forbade Chinese from becoming citizens. This would destine 8 decades of lonely labor for most Chinese workers who left families behind in China. Chinatown would shrink but persevere. Three generations of my family would live apart divided by the Pacific Ocean.
The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake would swell Oakland Chinatown as 4000 Chinese refugees took the ferry across the bay. San Francisco provided no relief and tried to prevent the Chinese from rebuilding. Eventually half would stay including my great grandfather and his 3 sons. Once again the city would try to force the Chinese to leave and eventually squeezed them into the current area surrounding 8th and Webster. Some of the Chinese, who stayed were the wealthier families who were allowed to bring wives, they preferred the better climate here for their children. They were segregated into Lincoln School where most Chinese Americans would go to school through the 50's.
The Chinese American Citizen's Association founded in 1880's to fight the anti-Chinese movement was established in Oakland, as well as several other family associations such a my association the Leung Kong Tien Association (Liu, Quan, Jeung, Chiu), Wong and Lee Family Associations, Suey Sing Tong, and Bing On Tong.
<<Oakland voters Emma Hoo Tom and Clara Chan Lee would be the first Chinese American women to register an vote in the US.
Social clubs would be formed by American born Chinese like WaSang which formed boys and girls baseball teams and would later become a service club still volunteering in Chinatown today. Only in the 1930's would some Chinese be allowed to live outside of Chinatown. The Mosswood Park area would be their first destination, later East Lake. Chinese Exclusion was officially repealed in 1943 but a quota of only 105 Chinese immigrants would make it only symbolic.
It was World War II that would see the next big change. China was an ally during the war and Chinese American GI's like my dad would be allowed to bring their wives to America. My mother would be the first woman in our family to be allowed into America and I would be the first child born here. Some Chinese Americans would be able to find employment in government jobs.
Chinatown meanwhile would be under attack physically as the 880 freeway would go right through the heart of the community, the building of Laney College and the Lake Merritt BART would tear down much of the residential housing of Chinese immigrants and they would move east of the Lake and then to the suburbs.
The next big expansion of Chinatown would come in the 60's when the Kennedy Administration's immigration reforms would prioritize family reunification and long divided families would be reunited. My sister and her family, my aunt and many others would be among those. After the Cold War and Nixon's visit, the small Chinatown would explode with more authentic restaurants and products from China would come flooding in after the US-China relations thawed with Nixon. Children and parents separated for decades would be reunited. I would be part of the first group of Chinese Americans to visit China in 1971 and I would meet both my grandmother and my husband's grandmother before they died.
Over 20 family associations and cultural groups would be established. This coincided with redevelopment and the Chinese community would fight to preserve its core including the first low income housing and the building of the Oakland Asian Cultural Center and Asian Library Branch. The first Chinese American council members would be appointed in the 60's -- Dr. Raymond Eng and Frank Ogawa. Henry Chang and Danny Wan would be appointed in the 90's. Wilma Chan and I were elected to the School Board in 1990. I was the first Asian American and first Asian American woman to be directly elected to the Council in 2002.
This year Congress apologized for the Chinese Exclusion Act and the national Chinese American Citizens Alliance gathered in Oakland for their convention to plan an education campaign about the Act. Today Asian Americans live all over Oakland but Chinatown remains a first stop for many immigrants, comfortable home for many seniors and a cultural home to American born and suburban Asians, who return to shop, eat, enjoy cultural institutions and youth services. The City is working with the community to complete the Lake Merritt area plan and the future of Chinatown is about to change again.