Chinese-Americans find unity in difficult history


Izzie Ramirez

In San Francisco’s Portsmouth Square Plaza, regulars crowd the area. Some read newspapers while others chit-chat on the wooden benches. Groups of men huddle over each other to play cards and toddlers roam around, cheerfully shouting.

However, there are signs that it’s a special day. A small parade makes its way through the sidewalk and a stage is set up under the pavilion. In fact, the Chinese-American community put up these events in celebration of Independence Day.

Despite the uphill battles Chinese-Americans have been fighting in the United States for decades, they continue to celebrate their American identity while carrying on their traditions.

When Chinese laborers first flocked to the west coast in light of the California Gold Rush in the 1850s, they were taken advantage of by fast-growing businesses and factories. These immigrants were considered cheap labor and found employment as farmers, gardeners and railroad workers. The Chinese also played a key role in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Because of this, San Francisco became home to one of the largest Chinese populations. Many of the Chinese preferred to live together and Chinese merchants began building shops in what is now called Chinatown.

In the 1870s, there was widespread economic depression in America and jobs were scarce. Many believed that Chinese immigrants were taking away jobs and, as a result, anti-Chinese sentiment grew. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, virtually banning all Asian immigration to the United States. This bill was repealed more than half a century later in 1943.

Although the situation for Chinese-Americans have vastly improved, as more Chinese Americans have been receiving a good education and landing better jobs, they still face many inequalities.

“It was hard for my parents to learn a new language,” said Janet Yim, a Chinese immigrant who lives at Chinatown. “They can only work for the Chinese people at that time [and] the Chinese employer [who did] not treat them fairly.”

Yim’s family first moved to the United States in 1980, looking for new opportunities. While her parents started off working low-paying, heavy-duty jobs, their move paid off: Yim’s son is now an undergrad at UC Berkeley.

“Yes, things will get better for Chinese-Americans,” Yim said. “Chinese people need not to be scared. They will have a better living and there are more service[s] for them. We have more Asian communities.”

Leland Wong, a senior who lives outside Chinatown but frequently visits the park, also shares a similar experience. Wong first moved to the United States from Taiwan after the communists took control of China’s government. Like Yim, Wong was met with prejudice.

“[When] I first came to San Francisco, there used to be signs saying no dogs or Chinese around, but the subtle racism is still here,” Wong said. “People look at [the] Chinese as an easy target.”

Nonetheless, even with the continued difficulties they face, Chinese-Americans are still proud of their American identity and put their own spins in their celebrations. Janet, for example, is part of a Chinese opera that sings for Chinatown residents in the afternoon.

“I think the U.S. at least very good country of opportunities and resources,” Wong said.