The City and County of San Francisco has a storied history. The Chinese have been an integral part of San Francisco since the days of the 49ers.
Urban legends tell us the Central Pacific Railroad brought the Chinese over to work on building the Transcontinental Railroad. History tells us that two Chinese men and one woman arrived in San Francisco in 1848. 54 Chinese were counted in San Francisco in 1849
Discrimination greeted the Chinese almost upon their first presence in the City. The state enacted a Foreign Miner’s Tax of $20 on all foreign miners. Another statute prohibited “Negroes and Indians” from testifying against “white men.” The word “Indian” was construed to include Chinese.
San Francisco banned the sons and daughters of the Chinese immigrants from the public schools.
Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 to bar further Chinese immigrants to the United States.
Miscegenation laws and deed restrictions were enforced against the Chinese. They were barred from entering professions, such as the law and medicine. Chinese laundries were banned in San Francisco. Aliens, i.e. Asians, were barred from land ownership throughout the West.
By 1876 about ¼ of San Francisco’s population of 116,000 was Chinese. They mostly lived in the tight confines of Chinatown.
Denis Kearney, the Irish firebrand, organized in 1878 “The Workingmen’s Party,” whose unofficial motto was “The Chinese must go.” Race riots followed in San Francisco, as well as riots and lynchings elsewhere in the West.
The city leaders had mixed views on Chinatown, at one point proposing to eliminate it and then during the plague drawing boundaries that resulted in Chinese, but not Caucasian, blocks being quarantined.
All along, the Chinese quietly persevered while avoiding politics. One by one, the legal barriers ended. Chinatown expanded into the largest Chinese population outside Asia. The residents flowed out of Chinatown into the city, especially the avenues of the Richmond and Sunset Districts.
Roughly 1/3 of San Francisco’s current population of 815,000 is Asian Americans.
Chinese Americans comprise about 150,000 of the population. The sons and daughters now constitute a majority of the student body at San Francisco’s Lowell High School, and matriculate at Berkeley, Stanford, and the Ivies.
The Chinese finally entered politics, claiming their proper place in the public life of San Francisco.
San Francisco had 42 mayors until last week. They included Germans, Greeks, Irish, Italians, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, competent, incompetent, honest, corrupt, wise, dumb, sober, alcoholics, eloquent, tongue-tied, rich, poor, male, female, adulterers, lawyers, dairymen, career politicians, and an African-American, but never a Chinese American until last week.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors inaugurated Ed Lee as Interim Mayor on Tuesday, January 11, 2011. Mayor Lee was the city’s Administrator. He will serve until next November’s election. He promised not to stand for election in November, but two of the candidates are expected to be David Chiu, President of the Board of Supervisors, and Assemblyman Leland Lee. Four members of the Board of Supervisors are Asian Americans.
San Francisco will never be politically the same again. We are all the better for it.
Ironically, San Francisco is not the first major city to have a Chinese mayor in California. Jean Quon was elected Mayor of Oakland last November.