Here’s a little experiment. Pull up a new tab and type in “San Francisco Chinatown.” What will you get? Regardless of the search engine, you will receive pages among pages of the postcard-worthy, iconic, must-see hotspots. The top-10 things to eat. The best locations to take a picture of. Phrases such as these will litter the page while bright, vivid images lure people in, tailored especially to the tourist.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is seen as a major tourist attraction. As one of the oldest Chinatowns in the country, it appeals to people of all ages. It’s advertised as a fascinating experience, something different, something fun.
However, to me, a Chinese girl, it is not an attraction. I’m drawn to Chinatown not for the different experiences but the community that I find, something that I can’t get anywhere else. I get a sense of belonging when I walk down the streets of Chinatown and see signs of my culture and heritage alive around me. It’s not a location worthy of a picture to me. It’s a home away from home, where I can exercise the language I grew up in, speaking Chinese in an environment that I am entirely familiar with and comfortable with.
The appeal of Chinatown is saturated with phrases to capture the local tourist, but the issue that arises is that it creates a subconscious assumption that Chinatown is for the tourists, a hotspot to bring in major business and not a place of safety and comfort for the people inside.
It’s easy to simply see it as an iconic symbol. Today, Chinatown is one of the biggest attractions of San Francisco, an asset. This status means that it’s easy to forget the history of how Chinatown came to be. It was created when bands of Chinese immigrants flocked together, faced with public discrimination and hatred. The effects of this discrimination limited the expansion of their community, trapping them in a tightly contained space. What people forget is that places such as San Francisco’s Chinatown are often hubs of history, the products of decades of discrimination, targets of public hatred.
My community was faced with physical violence, threats, campaigns against their presence, lack of acceptance and accusations of stealing livelihoods and jobs. The Chinese Exclusion Act is one such example of the discrimination that specifically targeted the immigration of the Chinese people out of rising Sinophobia. San Francisco’s Chinatown evolved over time. It was a safe haven for the marginalized Chinese community.
Now, Chinatown is viewed as a haven of Chinese culture, a way to go to another world while staying in the same city.
I’m grateful for Chinatown. I’m grateful for the opportunity to spread appreciation and acceptance of my own culture across the general population. I’m grateful for how people are able to see and experience Chinese culture. However, that gratefulness comes with the acknowledgment that Chinatown was the product of groups of Chinese Americans fighting for their own survival as discriminatory laws and public bias worked against my community. I myself am not free of this guilt. Even I have to remind myself that I have only begun to scratch the surface of the long history of Chinatown to recognize exactly how my community has fought to be here.
So the next time you visit Chinatown and go to boba tea shops and dim sum restaurants or enjoy the picturesque views and the iconic spots, take a second. Pause and appreciate the literal blood, sweat and tears that contributed to creating this little hub for the Chinese community.