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Bridging the Pacific
San Francisco Chinatown and Its People
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Bridging the Pacific
San Francisco Chinatown and Its People

By Thomas W. Chinn
1989, 330 pages, Hardback.
Book Description from Back Cover
Description from the Introduction
Comments from the Front Cover Flap
About the Author

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Book Description from Back Cover

"At long last, the history of San Francisco Chinatown has received the chronicling it deserves. Bridging the Pacific succeeds on many levels. First of all, it is a story of international importance because for more than a hundred years San Francisco has been the central destination for Chinese immigration to the United States. Secondly, this history underscores an important aspect of the national experience, for we are only now beginning to appreciate the contribution of Asian immigrants to the creation of modern America. Bridging the Pacific is a first-rate California history as well. From the Gold Rush onward, California occupied a special place in the imagination and experience of Chinese immigrants. Lastly, this is a San Francisco story; for the Chinese community is one of the founding communities of this city. Without their contribution, there would be no San Francisco. In the midst of telling this dramatic and historically relevant story, Thomas W. Chinn has also paid close attention to the human dimension. Bridging the Pacific is filled with the stories of hundreds of real men and women who came to San Francisco from China, rolled up their sleeves, and proceeded to create for themselves a Chinese-American society and identity, which today, in the last decade of the twentieth century, contains a paradigm for the future."
---Kevin Starr, author of the series Americans and the California Dream

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Description from the Introduction

As far back as I can remember, I’ve had a strong desire to learn more about Chinatown – not so much from historical records, but from the point of view of the Chinese themselves: their everyday lives, their joys and sorrows, their work and thoughts and personal experiences. Slowly, over the years, I began collecting stories and other information for my own benefit. Then, I was approached about writing just such a book. I decided to give it a try, and persuaded a few friends to advise me – people who had spent much of their lives in Chinatown or in San Francisco, and who knew a great deal about some of the things I wanted to describe. I wanted to make sure that my own conceptions of Chinatown would be shared by others.

Each of the book’s five parts begins with a brief description of the historical context for the stories it contains. Each chapter begins with a few general comments about the person or events it describes. Part I and II deal mainly with the period before WWI. Part I, “Early San Francisco Chinatown,” describes some of early Chinatown’s institutions, cultural activities, and business enterprises. Part II, “The First Generation,” gives brief accounts of some individual Chinese immigrants who decided to stay in this country – and of Chew Fong Low, one of the few Chinese women born in the United States before 1870.

Chinese-Americans today owe a great debt to these pioneers, as well as to the many American businesses and service organizations that did so much to help the early arrivals. We are also indebted in large measure to the churches that, from the very beginning, established missions in Chinatown and took many Chinese under their wings, providing much practical help in the form of English classes and other aid.

On May 6, 1882, Congress passed a bill called the Chinese Exclusion Act. This law prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country, although merchants and their families were still allowed to come in. It was the first and only time that the United States government has enacted legislation to exclude a specific nationality from immigration. The act had a profound effect on the Chinese in the United States. From a peak of more than 125,000 before the act was passed, the number of Chinese dwindled to 61,000 by 1920. The act was not repealed until 1943.

Parts III and IV of the book focus on the period between WWI and WWII, although many of the stories that begin in that period continue into the present. Part III, “Chinatown Comes of Age,” describes how times were changing for Chinese-Americans, and how they improved their lot through their own organizations as well as making use of existing institutions such as the Boy Scouts, the YMCA and YWCA, veterans’ organizations, and still later the Lions, Masons, and Optimists, to mention just a few. Although there were still hardships and obstacles to assimilation, the generation described in Part IV, “Breaking Through the Barriers,” was finally able to go beyond Chinatown and find acceptance in the mainstream of American society. These stories describe many firsts for Chinese-Americans. The hard work and sacrifices of their parents paid off, and the new generation achieved success in fields their elders never dreamed of entering.

Finally, Part V, “Contemporary Chinatown,” reveals some of the organizations that have come into being since the 1960s that are helping to shape the Chinatown of today. As the influence and well-being of the Chinese community grows, an increasing amount of energy is going into providing health services for the elderly and needy, helping new arrivals in this country become established, and preserving the cultural heritage of Chinese-Americans. In addition, a major effort is under way to persuade eligible Chinese to register to vote. The increase in the Chinese population is gradually making the Chinese voter an important factor in American politics.

The appendixes contain material that some people may find helpful while reading the rest of the book. Appendix A contains charts of the major clans and clan organizations in Chinatown. Looking down the clan chart, one can almost visualize some instances in which disaffection led to secession from the original groups. Appendix B lists some of the early Chinese newspapers in America. Appendixes C, D, and E contain business directories for Chinatown from 1876, 1931, and 1988, respectively. The two maps in Appendix F show the core area of Chinatown and the gradual spread of Chinese homes into adjoining areas. Appendix G contains some brief notes on the transliteration of Chinese names used in this book.

Due to time and space limitations, I have not been able to describe all my friends in this book. For me, recollections of pleasant associations with friends of long standing make living worthwhile.

Please note the publication of this book was made possible by a grant from Bei Shan Tang Foundation in Hong Kong. Mr. J.S. Lee, chairman of the foundation, made the grant as a tribute to the Chinese in America and their role in American society. Mr. Lee’s grandfather, Mr. Lee Liang Yick, lived and worked in San Francisco Chinatown in the late nineteenth century; and his father, Mr. Lee Hysan, attended school there. A donation by Mr. Chien Lee, son of Mr. J.S. Lee, provided for a computer that improved flexibility in writing and editing the manuscript.

I especially want to thank my panel of advisors, who have given so wholeheartedly of their time since this project first started on January 2, 1986:

Gladys C. Hansen, Archivist, City and County of San Francisco.

Lim P. Lee, San Francisco Fair Political Practices Commissioner, State of CA, 1985-1988; San Francisco Postmaster, Retired.

Albert C. Lim, Past President, Chinese Historical Society of America; Past President, Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association; Past Vice President, Chinese Chamber of Commerce; Former Member, San Francisco Asian Art Commission.

Sylvia Sun Minnick, President, City of Stockton Cultural Heritage Board, 1988-89; author of Sam Fow: The San Joaquin Chinese Legacy.

Jackie Wong Sing, attorney; Past National President, Wong Family Association; Past Chairman, National Chinese Welfare Council.

William F. Strobridge, Historian, Wells Fargo Bank History Department; Colonel, U.S. Army, retired; formerly Chief, Army Historical Services.

Alan S. Wong, Executive Director, Chinatown YMCA; Past President, San Francisco Community College Governing Board.

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Comments from the Front Cover Flap

"This is the first book I've seen that describes San Francisco Chinatown from the inside. Thomas W. Chinnn's historical and biographical sketches provide fascinating glimpses of Chinatown over the years---sobering, unexpected, humorous, but always true to life."
---March Fong Eu, California Secretary of State

"At last, a definitive history of San Francisco Chinatown! Thomas W. Chinn, historian and cofounder of the Chinese Historical Society of America…has carefully recounted the history of Chinatown, including biographies of many pioneer families and numerous rare photographs. San Francisco is now one-quarter Chinese; of these a large percentage are newcomers, with no knowledge of the struggles and hardships of the earlier builders of Chinatown. This book is a must for these recent immigrants and their children. It is also highly recommended to all, without reservations.
---Dr. Albert Shumate, President Emeritus, California Historical Society.

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Background on Thomas W. Chinn

Mr. Thomas W. Chinn was the founder, publisher and editor of the Chinese Digest, the first English language weekly newspaper for Chinese Americans in the United States. In 1940, he also founded the Chinese News, which he published and edited.

He was the primary founder of the Chinese Historical Society of America, now a nationally known organization, and served as its president in 1972 and 1973. From 1963 to 1980, he was editor of the Society's research papers and its monthly bulletin.

Mr. Chinn was born in Marshfield, Oregon, in 1909 and moved to San Francisco with his family in 1919.

In the early 1930s, he became increasingly interested in the history of the Chinese in California, later broadening his interest to the history of Chinese immigration in the United States.

Since his maternal grandfather arrived in California in 1849, he qualified for membership in the Society of California Pioneers. He also served on the board of trustees of the California Historical Society.

In 1966, he began serving on the Mayor's Citizens Committee, working within San Francisco's Chinese community and the broader multiethnic community.

In 1987 he received the city's prestigious Powers Memorial Award for distinguished service in enhancing San Francisco's ``historic renown.'' A member of the Boy Scouts of America since 1921, he also received the Silver Beaver Award for ``distinguished service to boyhood.''

In 1969, Mr. Chinn was editor of ``A History of the Chinese in America -- A Syllabus,'' which is now in its sixth reprinting. The same year, he presented a paper at the World Conference on Records in Salt Lake City, entitled ``Genealogical Sources of Chinese Immigrants to the United States.''

Between 1972 and 1976, he was the chairman of the first national Conference on the Life, Influence and Role of the Chinese in the United States.

A prolific writer, Mr. Chinn wrote dozens of books and articles, as well as making tape recordings of his reminiscences for the Regional Oral History Office at the University of California at Berkeley's Bancroft Library. The tapes have been transcribed into a 286- page book: ``A Historian's Reflection of Chinese-American Life in San Francisco, 1919-1991.''

He is also the author of a history of Chinatown: ``Bridging the Pacific, San Francisco Chinatown and Its People,'' published in 1989.

A lifelong Freemason, Mr. Chinn was a member of E. Clampus Vitus, the Society of California Pioneers and the California Historical Society.

Thomas Wayne Chinn, an eminent author, cultural historian and authority on the history of the Chinese people in America, passed away on 9-11-1997 after surgery in San Francisco. He was 88. He is survived by his son, Walter W. Chinn, and his daughter-in- law, Fran Chinn, of San Mateo, three grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
---J. L. Pimsleur

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