Monday, September 10, 2012

US San Francisco: China Town (Testament of Blood and Sweat)

Chinese people has been known around the world as a very resilient and adaptive breed of people, hardworking, long suffering and business savvy. They are everywhere today and in many countries,  have assimilated into the culture and history of their country of residence.  China Town throughout the world has always remained an intriguing site for visitors and as always, come with a colorful and many at times, tough history.

The China Town in San Francisco is the oldest China Town in Northern America and reputed to be the largest community outside Asia. 
The mention of Chinese immigrants in America conjures images of pony tailed bare chested Chinese males boarding ships from ancient China, to some, a mean of escape from a poverty stricken country and to others, a hope for a better future and wealth. After all, America was called "Gold Mountain" (金山), and the actual destination of this "Gold Mountain" is San Francisco.

In the early 1850's during the California Gold Rush era, many were brought into America to work at the mines, many with a dream of striking it rich and going back to their homeland basked in glory. However, the working condition of the mines were far from what they have imagined or told and the treatment they received from the mines operators were far from friendly.

When the plan to build the Central Pacific Railroad was put in place forming part of the transcontinental railroad across North America, immigrant Chinese workers were recruited in thousands, either from the existing gold mines or imported directly from China. Initially thought to be too weak or fragile for the task, the Chinese proofed of their resilience only after being put on the job for a few days. They were so impressive that 90% of the entire work force for this massive project were Chinese, numbering well over 12,000 people.

When the project was over, a large number of these immigrants remained in America, mostly settled near the San Francisco Bay, where the current China Town is located.

Today, China Town in San Francisco covers an area of over 24 square blocks, within a area of approximately 1 mile long and 1.34 miles wide, covering some prime estate land with some of the best view in San Francisco.
But how could a group of immigrants and workers occupy such a piece of prime real estate? 

The reason is because this piece of prime real estate was once considered too hilly that is of no worth or use to the locals. History has it that when the Great San Francisco Earthquake in 1906 wiped off the entire colony, the government then, had conspired to move the immigrants to another part of town and take the entire piece of land back for their own use. Undeterred, the local Chinese community with American commercial interest and with the backing of the Chinese government protested and reclaimed the right to stay.
Many of the immigrants who finally made it to America underwent a treacherous journey from China by boat, often in deplorable condition, spent months being kept on Angel Island of San Francisco while being processed to enter, suffered unimaginable tough living and working condition and treatments before settling down here.

As with all immigrant communities, crime and turf wars were inevitable especially in the early days of smuggling, vice, gambling and opium dens. Although the great earthquake, which leveled the entire site in 1906 brought an end to much of this, triads and underworld in constant struggle for more control still prevails today. The Golden Dragon massacre in 1977 between two triad groups at the Golden Dragon Restaurant resulting in 5 dead and 11 wounded (most of which were innocent by standers) were a testament of this.

Taking a walk through the vibrant streets of China Town is an exciting experience, especially if it is done with a tour guide with interesting revelation and stories of this tourist attraction rich in history and culture.

Purchasing the 48 hours ticket of the city's Hop On and Off buses, comes with two free walking tours, one of which is through China Town. The tour starts off from Union Square and takes you through China Town, visiting places such as the St Mary's square and the back lanes of China Town, ending just outside Little Italy.
It is also here at the St Mary's Square that you would find the old Saint Mary Cathedral, reported to be the first building to be erected as a cathedral in California. She was established by Father Henry Ignatius Stark as a mission with the purpose of introducing the Catholic faith to the Chinese. The bricks for the construction were brought from Cape Horn while the granite were cut and shipped in directly from China.
The back alleys of China Town, something that I would not have done on my own but a sight that offers a glimpse of the daily lives of those who have make this place their home. Do you know that the first immigrant according to the China Town website from China to San Francisco were 2 man and one woman who arrived in 1848 on board the American ship called the Eagle.
We will walk past this section of China Town every morning from our hotel in Union Square to Pier 39 and we were fortunate to have experienced the vibrant Sunday morning market as scores of local Chinese came out to do their Sunday shopping and marketing with shop keepers busy plying their trade and shoppers bargaining and choosing anything from vegetables and fruits to imported Chinese products like dried food stuff and herbs.
This is definitely a must visit attraction when you are in San Francisco and as a Chinese myself, a descendant of immigrant who have emigrated to Malaysia decades ago, to understand and appreciate what our fore fathers have gone through to establish what we are now enjoying and probably would have taken for granted....China Town is truly a testament that was built with blood and sweat.

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