Alfred Twu Painting and Illustration
art      graphic design      sketches      tools
This is a story of two centuries of California Chinatowns. From the mining camps of the Gold Rush to the urban neighborhoods of the late 1800s, to the suburban strip malls of the present day, to the yet to be built neighborhoods of the next few decades. Throughout it all, these vibrant communities have been, and continue to be, immigrant gateways, economic engines, social hubs, political bases, and heritage sites.

200 Years of California Chinatowns begins with lesser-known parts of Chinese-American history. Starting from rural communities in Marysville and Locke, the story continues through to Chinese-American contributions to the Bay Area's numerous political movements.

Next, the artwork will look at today's Chinatowns. Whether they are historic ones such as San Francisco, new suburbs in the South Bay or San Gabriel Valley, or emerging areas in college towns like Berkeley, today's Chinatown reflects a shift from forced isolation to becoming part of the national fabric. Today's Chinese-American could be a newcomer, could be third generation, could be mixed ethnicity. Likewise, no longer exclusively Chinese, the Chinatown of today is sometimes pan-Asian, sometimes fully international, sometimes as American as fortune cookies, and sometimes all of the above.

The third part will look at Chinatowns of the future. As urban living continues to grow in popularity, what better model to look at than the dense, lively urban Chinatowns - or perhaps, their younger cousin - the clusters of Chinese businesses in college towns. It was in one of these college town Chinatowns - Durant Avenue in Berkeley - that I had my first Chinatown experienced. Here was a place where I might have a milk tea with pizza or grab a lunch of avocado and rice. I'd hang out with Chinese friends, but with a mix of Cantonese, Mandarin, Taiwanese, and English speakers, when we were together, we'd all talk in English.

In the 21st century, it's no longer a choice of isolation or assimilation into the mainstream Rather, there's a choice of worlds to go between. As we look at the future of Chinatowns, let's honor the past, reflect on today, and make plans for tomorrow! -Alfred

200 Years of California Chinatowns      Acrylic on panel, each 36"x12"

Top panel:
On the left is Marysville Chinatown, a major center during the gold rush and home to a few businesses and a museum ( today. Marysville was the nearest city to the gold fields and one of California’s largest cities at the time. There is a book about it called “Marysville’s Chinatown”.(Link) On the right is San Francisco Chinatown, the oldest of several Chinese neighborhoods in the city. The geography is somewhat reimagined, with both the gate and Portsmouth Square in the center (in reality they are a few blocks apart). The long building on the right is one of the Ping Yuen public housing buildings.

Lower panel:
On the left is part of Oakland Chinatown, located near 9th St and Broadway at the edge of downtown Oakland. Growing rapidly (along with the rest of Oakland) after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, it saw additional growth in the late 20th century as it had more space to build than SF Chinatown. In the center is part of Fremont, one of many suburban Asian communities in California. These cities were expanding rapidly during the post-1965 era when Asian immigration was re-allowed. Unlike older Chinatowns, the shopping centers and neighborhoods of Fremont are not majority Chinese, reflecting the greater mixing and pan-Asian identity of the late 20th century. At the far right are buildings based on ones proposed in Milpitas, another heavily Asian South Bay city. Unlike the last wave of suburban investment in strip malls and tract homes, the latest wave of Chinese investors are also bringing over a high density design that combines businesses and housing - a common model in most Asian suburbs but rare in US suburbia.

Locke, California      Acrylic on panel, 24"x18"

In the mid 1800s, landowners in the Bay Delta region hired large numbers of Chinese immigrants to construct levees to drain the delta for use as farmland. Afterwards, many stayed to work on farms, forming many small Chinatowns in farm towns up and down the Central Valley. However, faced with increasing racial violence in the late 1800s, some decided it was time to move to a town of their own.

Located one mile up the Sacramento River from the town of Walnut Grove, Locke was founded on a few acres of land leased from George Locke's orchards. At the time, Chinese residents were barred from owning land, so they had to lease it. The Chinese phoneticisation of the word “Locke” is 樂居, or Happy Home.

At its peak, Locke boasted over 1500 residents, almost all Chinese, crowded into a few dozen one and two story buildings. In addition to the usual stores and services, Locke also had its own school and hotel.

After World War II, Chinese Americans were able to buy their own land to farm, or find jobs working for the government or non-Chinese businesses. Many who had gone to school, moved to the cities and suburbs, or simply moved to larger and more spacious housing elsewhere in the Delta.

By the 1970s, the population was in steep decline. Many houses emptied out. A few dozen non Chinese residents, attracted to living in a quiet little town, moved in. George Locke's heirs sold the town to a Hong Kong businessman, who planned a tourist attraction and housing development. These plans were shelved due to the town's crumbling infrastructure, as well as opposition from some of the new residents. Finally, in 2004, the remaining Chinese residents of Locke secured government funding to buy the town, fix the infrastructure, preserve a few historic buildings as museums, and sell the remaining buildings to individual homeowners. Today 80 people live in Locke, of which about 10 are Chinese.

2. Article in Time magazine

Funding the 1911 Revolution      Acrylic on panel, 14"x14"

Throughout the 1800s, as China's Qing Dynasty suffered military defeats, invasions, and economic turmoil from European colonial powers, dissatisfied citizens began to revolt in greater frequency. By the late 1800s, Chinatowns around the world - connected to booming economies and also far removed from monitoring of the imperial government - became centers of revolutionary organizing. To raise funds for weapons, revolutionaries such as Dr. Sun Yat-sen sought donations and also sold "revolutionary bonds" - more on this at

In many Chinatowns, secret societies and tongs were a source of fundraising and organizing. These organizations arose as mutual support networks for Chinese immigrants and evolved into gangs that helped protect immigrants from racial violence. Some also became operators of illegal enterprises. The larger socities would have meeting halls in Chinatown.

After the 1911 revolution, these organizations went on a gradual journey from underground revolutionaries to the charitable foundations and business associations of today, shedding most of their violent past by the late 20th century.

Angel Island      Acrylic on panel, 14"x14"

From 1910 to 1940, Asian immigrants to the US went through the Angel Island Immigration Station. Located on a large island just inside the Golden Gate, this was the point of entry a few hundred thousand of immigrants from China, Japan, India, and other areas.

Unlike Ellis Island, which welcomed in most arrivals in just a couple of hours, Angel Island had more in common with today's immigration detention centers. Racist immigration policy such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act placed heavy restrictions on who was allowed in, and immigrants were subject to interrogation and medical quarantine. On average, people were detained for two weeks, but sometimes for months. Roughly 18% were deported.

After part of the facilities burned down in 1940, immigration processing returned to the mainland. The war and further legislation continued to limit Asian immigration to a few hundred people a year. It was not until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that significant numbers of people were allowed in. Today, Angel Island is a state park. Immigration detention facilities have now moved to local jails and privately run facilities.

1. Wikipedia article on 1965 Immigration act
2. Angel Island State Park

The International Hotel      Acrylic on panel, 24"x18"

Also known as the I-Hotel, the International Hotel was a large 3-story residential hotel on the corner of Kearny St and Jackson St in San Francisco. This 10-block area, between Chinatown and downtown, was known as Manilatown. Immigrants from the Philippines, banned by state law from owning property, formed a community in this area's low cost housing and affordable businesses. True to its name, the International Hotel also had many Chinese residents and residents from other places as well. In addition to being a cheap place to live, the I-Hotel was also an informal community center where residents stayed connected to friends and work opporunities, and also home to many small businesses on the first floor.

In the 1960s, as San Francisco's downtown expanded, real estate developers demolished most of Manilatown to build new office buildings. The I-Hotel was the last surviving block. In 1968, local developer Walter Shorenstein bought the I-Hotel, planning to replace it with a parking garage. Activists organized locals as well as students at Cal and SF State, where the Third World Liberation Front protests were taking place. This was a major event in the creation of a pan-Asian movement in the 1960s. The protests put demolition plans on hold for five years. During this time, many organizations such as Kearny Street Workshop and the Chinese Progressive Association moved into some of the building's storefronts. Many of today's Asian American politicians got their start defending the I-Hotel.

Then, in 1973, Shorenstein sold the building to Chinese-Thai businessman Supasit Mahaguna, who again proposed demolishing the I-Hotel. Based out of Thailand, his company held profitable liquor monopolies in Thailand. When a revolution in Thailand threatened his wealth in Thailand, he started moving his money to the US real estate (this kind of practice has a long history in Asia and continues today). With this new ownership, the battle for the I-Hotel divided Chinatown. On one side were progressive groups that built multi-ethnic alliances with other activists, on the other were business interests that wanted stronger ties to growing Asian wealth.

In the end both sides lost - the I-Hotel was demolished in 1977 after a siege involving mounted cops and ladders, and the site acquired such a legacy that no commercial development was politically feasible. Mahaguna eventually unloaded his SF real estate holdings, and stayed in the original alcohol business, buying up some wineries in California. With the last of Manilatown gone, SF's Filipino American population relocated to the Mid-Market area around Sixth Street and to Daly City just south of San Francisco. Another legacy of the I-Hotel and similar struggles is that today, when developers plan new office development, sites with housing are avoided, and new affordable housing is being planned into these new projects.

Activists continued to pressure the government to rebuild housing on the site, and got a zoning change that mandated housing on the site, as well as funding for a new building. The I-Hotel site was sold to the Catholic Church in 1994, which built a school on one half of the site and sold development rights to Chinatown Community Development Center to build a new I-Hotel on the other half. The new 14-story building was completed in 2005 and contains permanently affordable senior housing above a community center and parking garage.


I Voted!      Acrylic on panel, 14"x14"

It was close to a hundred years since the first Chinese Americans that they finally got the right to vote. In 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. Although immigration was still limited to just over 100 people a year, the repeal of the Act did allow existing Chinese Americans who were born in the US to become citizens – something they were not able to do up until then.

Political representation took a little longer. In San Francisco, Gordon Lau was the first Chinese American supervisor, elected in 1977. The second wasn't until the 1990s. It wasn't until the late 2000s that SF's power structure finally started to reflect a population that is roughly a quarter Chinese. Today, SF boasts the first Chinese American mayor of a major city as well as substantial representation on the Board of Supervisors.

Compton's Cafeteria Riot      Acrylic on panel, 14"x14"

One of the first LGBT uprisings in California took place in 1966 at Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. Located at the edge downtown, the TL was (and still is, for now) a densely populated, affordable, multi-ethnic, neighborhood notable for its large number of residential hotels.

In the 60s, prior to the Castro becoming SF's LGBT district, the Tenderloin was where many called home, as police and businesses harassed them less there than other parts of the city. Nonetheless police harassment and arrests were common. Unable to get regular jobs, many queer people made a living as sex workers, and were targeted by police. Compton's Cafeteria was a 24-hour eatery in the TL that served as a hangout and community center of sorts for queer people, and was considered one of the few safe havens where one could relax and catch up with friends over a coffee.

As the queer movement got more politically active and outspoken in the mid 60s, Compton's management did not approve, and frequently called the cops to eject and arrest LGBTQ customers, leading to picketing and protests in July 1966. Police raids continued, and one night, a few weeks after the protests, a cop grabbed a trans woman at Compton's. She threw her coffee in the cop's face, setting off a riot that smashed up Compton's as well as a cop car. More protests and pickets followed the next night. A similar riot also occurred in 1959 at Cooper's Donuts, a 24-hour donut shop in LA.

After the riots, police policies began to change. However, over the years the interests of wealthy white gay men have diverged from the rest of the community, leaving behind the queer and trans people of color who got the movement started in the first place. Today, police harassment of LGBT people of color and criminalization of sex work continues to be a major problem in San Francisco.

- - -

I've included this story in this series of Chinatown topic paintings even though it didn't take place in a Chinatown partly because I didn't find anything recorded about specifically Chinese American LGBT events of the 1960s (if you know of any, please share!), and partly as a reminder that the Tenderloin's queer community that led these fights was a racially diverse one that included people of all races, including Asian activists such as Tamara Ching. In the mid 2000s, organizations addressing the intersectional issues of Asian American and Chinese American queer identities were founded in Asian neighborhoods and on college campuses.

Also the film "Screaming Queens" was made in 2005. You can find parts of it on YouTube.

The 30-Stockton Bus      Acrylic on panel, 14"x14"

Running from San Francisco's Marina District to the Caltrain station, the 30 Stockton is perhaps best known for the portion of its route that runs through Chinatown's Stockton street. Having to slog through heavy traffic and packed to standing room only even with buses running every 5 minutes, it is one of Muni's slowest lines. Still, it remains popular as it's the fastest way to get to Chinatown, at least until the Central Subway opens in 2019.

Well, there used to be a faster way - the Embarcadero Freeway. Built in 1959, this freeway was damaged in the 1989 earthquake and closed. Chinatown businesses suffered a loss of customers that it still has not fully recovered from, and was one of the main opponents to the plan to remove the freeway. In a key show of political muscle, Chinatown helped vote out Mayor Agnos, who had supported the demolition. However, With the freeway removal and new Embarcadero Boulevard being hailed as a major urban planning success, rebuilding it became out of the question. Instead, a deal was cut with mayor Willie Brown to bring a subway to Chinatown.

1. Central Subway
2. Embarcadero Freeway

Thank You for the Pink Bags      Acrylic on panel, 14"x14"

Throughout the late 20th century, the pink plastic bag was a symbol of Chinatown business, given out at grocery stores, shops, and takeout restaurants. Bright pink with a red flower and "Thank You" printed on it, the bags were once famous not just in SF Chinatown but also in New York's Chinatown. The designer of this icon is unknown, but for those who wonder, why pink, it's because red is considered an auspicious color. For example, at New Year's, kids get money in red envelopes. However, making red bags uses a lot of costly ink, and for an item stores are giving away, light pink is much cheaper.

The bags were also an environmental hazard, easily blown out of garbage cans by the wind and ending up in the bay. By the early 2010s, SF started banning disposable plastic bags, starting with large supermarkets and expanding it eventually to all businesses. Today, the original Chinatown pink bag is gone, replaced by nominally reusable bags made of slightly heavier plastic that you have to pay 10 cents for (which now can afford to be made in actual red sometimes), as well as genuinely reusable fabric bags (often printed with colorful advertisements). Around the time pink bags went away, local artist Julie Chang designed and sold pink fabric tote bags with the classic "Thank You" design.

Dragon's Home, San Gabriel Valley      Acrylic on panel, 24"x18"

Also known as the SGV, the San Gabriel Valley starts just east of downtown LA and runs roughly 20 miles inland along the 10 and the 210 freeways. In the late 1800s and early 20th century, it was an agricultural area, dotted by small towns with the oocassional Chinatown serving the area's immigrant farm workers. In the 1950s, suburban development began.

When immigration laws changed in 1965 to allow Asians in again, LA's existing Chinatown lacked the space to accomodate all the newcomers. Many of the new immigrants also desired the classic American Dream suburban house. In the 1970s, realtors such as Fred Hsieh saw opportunity in the SGV, and pitched homes and commercial real estate in Monterey Park to new immigrants. By the 1980s, there was a backlash from the town's mostly white political establishment, and new construction was completely banned in 1988. Though this moratorium was overturned in 1989, further restrictions put the brakes on growth and the population of Monterey Park has not increased since then. Instead, new waves of immigrants moved further east to places such as Rowland Heights and Alhambra.

While often called "the new Chinatown", the SGV is only about 20-30% Chinese. Immigrants from other parts of world let in by the 1965 immigration act, such as Latin America and other parts of Asia, also moved to the SGV, making it one of the most diverse places in the world today.

More about the history of the SGV at and

California Chinatown      Digital image

Reimagining some of the various Chinese neighborhoods throughout California as one town:

San Francisco Chinatown:
- Stockton Street - Chinatown's main street, lined with markets and stores with homes and community halls above.
- Grant Avenue - This tourist oriented street runs one block parallel of Stockton Street, and is where the famous gate is located.
- Washington Street

San Francisco Richmond District:
- Clement Street - one of SF's newer Chinese districts, located on the west side.

Oakland Chinatown:
- 9th Street
- 8th Street
- Webster Street
- Broadway

East Bay:
- Fremont Boulevard
- Milpitas Boulevard

LA Chinatown:
- Broadway
- College Street

San Gabriel Valley:
- Valley Boulevard
- Colima Road (there's a music video about this street)
- Nogales Street

San Diego:
- Convoy Street

1920C CoWork      Acrylic on panel, 14"x14"

Coworking has a long history in Chinatowns – many small businesses got their start by subleasing spaces as small as a desk or few feet of wall within larger businesses. Today's modern version is coworking, where individuals share multipurpose workspace that can be used for working at a desk, holding meetings, or events. Not only does this lower overhead costs, but working near others also creates community and business connections.

1920C Cowork opened in 2015 on Grant Avenue in SF Chinatown. Unlike some other coworking spaces that have a high-powered startup atmosphere, 1920C focused on community and creativity, with many of the coworkers being small nonprofits such as Pacific Atrocities Education.

In 2016, the space reopened as Treehouse Society, and features coworking, an art gallery, and also hosts happy hours, mixers, speaker series, and fundraising events.

The Gardeners      Acrylic on panel, 14"x14"

As a center for both international commerce and the tech industry, San Francisco and the surrounding area have attracted huge amounts of jobs and new residents. However, with limited new housing or office construction, these jobs and residents come at the expense of existing ones. Displacement of residents, nonprofits, and businesses has become progressively worse with each boom.

Some accept this as the price of progress. Others want to declare the Bay Area to be full and to ask those wanting to move here to take a number and wait in line. Both of these are bad ideas, especially since the problem could be solved if taller buildings were built. To reach affordability, however, the Bay Area would need to build out millions of homes and workplaces and get to the size of a typical “capital of the world” city – which means more than doubling its current size.

Not to worry though - San Francisco may be the densest city on the West Coast, but it is also one of the most sparsely populated cities of the Pacific Rim. Chinese immigrants have contributed many valuable things to U.S. culture, from food to art to knowledge. Perhaps urban planning and design could be the next.

Tomorrow's Chinatowns      Acrylic on canvas, 36"x36"

Presently, one of the major destinations of Chinese migration (for both immigrants moving to the US, as well as existing Chinese Americans moving within the US) is Silicon Valley. This scene reimagines one of Silicon Valley's typical multilane expressways transformed into a lively linear urban space. In contrast to the present day Silicon Valley, which is affordable only to the richest individuals and businesses, a high density Silicon Valley could house thousands of families and small businesses in 20-story buildings. This scale of housing, perhaps reminiscent of Asian cities, would provide the population density capable of supporting lots of stores and services, while still having apartments large enough to appeal to modern middle class Californians.

Alfred Twu Painting and Illustration
art      graphic design      sketches      tools

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