They Came for a Better Life
In 1850, all eyes turned to California. The discovery of gold enticed men from all over
the world to this place which held dreams of a better life. During the same period
(1850-1864), the Taiping Rebellion was creating hardships in China. When the
attraction of prosperity in a new land is combined with political unrest at home,
people are attracted to change.
Merchants living along the southern coast of China (Guang
Dong Province) had centuries of experience in the seafaring
trade between China and other coastal nations. For these
people, the trip to the New World was not as daunting as it
would have been for most. Combine this with a favorable
current flowing around the north Pacific from China to the
California coast and travel to Gum San (Gold Mountain)
becomes an easy step to take. People from all levels of
society made the passage, including merchants, doctors, and
Beyond the Gold
By 1852, 20,000 Chinese had arrived in San Francisco and
make up 1/3 of all the immigrants to California. Statewide,
one in ten people are Chinese and in some mining counties
the ratio was three in ten. Along with everyone else, the
Chinese pioneers discovered that the gold rush was more
hype than reality. They quickly adapted by starting up
businesses and performed services in the communities where they settled. Located
half-way between San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo (SLO) became a focal
point for the Central California Chinese community.
A large portion of Chinese pioneers established residence along the California Coast
and began the business of gathering, drying, and exporting seafood resources back to
China. In the 1870's California's largest export was dried seafood bound for Hong
Kong. Other Chinese pioneers began vegetable gardens and became the main
purveyors of fresh vegetables in the county. There were stores, laundries,
restaurants, and labor-contracting businesses owned and operated by the new
pioneers. In addition to the single men, families such as the Wong, Chong, and Ginn
families settled SLO.
In 1867 the Pacific Mail Steamship Company began regularly scheduled runs between
Hong Kong and San Francisco. Between 1870 and 1883 an average of 12,000 Chinese
were arriving in San Francisco each year.
By 1872, a one-block area of SLO was being called "Chinatown" in the papers and on
Wong On (later nicknamed Ah Louis) established a store on that block in SLO in 1874
and in 1875 began taking out newspaper ads advertising his store and labor
contracting business. His store is still run by his son and sits at the corner of Chorro
and Palm Streets. Chinese businessmen like Ah Louis saw the need for a labor force to
assist in the construction of public works projects. He also saw the need to assist his
fellow countrymen in their passage to the New World. It became common practice for
a Chinese pioneer's passage to be sponsored by a businessman such as Ah Louis. This
fee would then be repaid by the new immigrant through a labor arrangement with the
business. Thus, many of the new pioneers were involved in building California's
infrastructure (roads, bridges, mining, railroads, etc.).
For many years, California truly was a land of promise and a place where a hard
working pioneer from China could earn a better life. The Chinese population was
responsible for California's greatest exports (dried seafood, valued at $0.5 to $5
Million annually) and its greatest imports (rice, tea, and opium valued at $2 to $3
million annually). This prompted the signing of the Burlingame Treaty in 1868,
opening up immigration between China and the US.
Unfortunately, 1868 was also a year which began a flood of unemployed Caucasian
immigrants into California and later, the 1873 US depression forced even more
unemployed into the state.
Site maintained as a public service by Archaeological Research, PO Box 1353, Lucerne, CA 95458.
|San Luis Obispo Chinatown
|History and Prehistory of Lake County
As early as 1850, Chinese miners competing with Caucasian miners prompted the
passage of a "Foreign Miners License Law" which was aimed at limiting and
discouraging Chinese miners.
But serious discrimination leveled at California's Chinese community began when
the growing unemployed Caucasian population began looking for a scapegoat to blame
the 1873 recession on. The Caucasians saw the Chinese Californians as having a
"strange" culture, language, and habits. The Caucasians were also jealous that most
Chinese Californians were employed. An 1870 editorial in the SLO newspaper stated
"We (Republicans) differ from the Democrats in that the less Chinese the better."
In 1873, both Republican and Democratic parties adopted resolutions against the
Burlingame Treaty of open immigration between China and the US.
In 1877 a new political party was established (The Workingman's Party) with but one
slogan; "The Chinese must go". Although it only lasted 5 years (till the depression was
over), it had a major impact on the politics of Chinese discrimination. That same year
saw a major 2-day riot between Chinese and Caucasians in San Francisco's Chinatown
In 1879, during a special statewide election, all but 5 San Luis Obispo County voters
opposed continued immigration from China. That same year a San Luis Obispo
Chinese man was taken from his home and shot. No one was found guilty of the crime.
In 1880, the San Luis Obispo City Council passed a motion to remove the Chinese
laundries from the city limits.
1882 sees the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (United State's first immigration
law) which denied the Chinese the right to US citizenship and cut off all immigration
except for merchants, educators, diplomats, and students. Just a few months before
the law took effect, a record 39,579 Chinese immigrated to the US. The Exclusion Act
remained in effect until 1943.
In 1886, the Caucasian population of Arroyo Grande forced the Chinese out of their
town by threatening to hang anyone who didn't board the railroad boxcars and leave
In 1888, the Scott Act is passed preventing any Chinese who return to China from
coming back to the US.
The Geary Act, an 1892 outgrowth of the Chinese Exclusion Act, required all Chinese
people who were legally in the US to obtain Certificates of Residence. In 1894, San
Luis Obispo's Chinese population began the registration process.
One must admire the tenacity of families like the Chongs, Ginns, and Wongs. These
families managed not only to survive, but also to prosper in the face of such
The late 1800's campaign of discrimination against the Chinese took its
toll. From 10% of the population in the 1870's, people of Chinese
ancestry make up only 2.5% of the US population today. In addition, the
discrimination left a huge hole in California's history. No one knows
that the first brick kiln in San Luis Obispo County was established by
Ah Louis. Few know about the Chinese creation of California's import
and export economy or the many accomplishments, which set the
infrastructure foundation for California's later prosperity.
Today, San Luis Obispo has a very active Chinese Business Community
as well as a strong Asian student's organization on the Cal Poly Campus.
Although most of the Chinese community is represented by people who
have immigrated to the US after WWII, there are still members of those
original Ginn, Wong, and Chong families living and prospering in San
Chinatown Archaeological project. Use the buttons on the left to
learn about the project. The buttons on the right take you to pages
highlighting some of the artifacts and features discovered.