The Children of Chinatown and Chinese New Year

Today our author Wendy Rouse Jorae writes on the occasion of Chinese New Year.  In her book, The Children of Chinatown: Growing Up Chinese American in San Francisco 1850-1920, Jorae  challenges long-held notions of early Chinatown as a bachelor community by showing that families–and particularly children–played important roles in its daily life. Facing barriers of immigration exclusion, cultural dislocation, child labor, segregated schooling, crime, and violence, Chinese American children attempted to build a world for themselves on the margins of two cultures. Their story is part of the larger American story of the struggle to overcome racism and realize the ideal of equality.

In this post, she looks closely at Chinese American children’s experiences at the New Year, and how this holiday spoke to their importance in their community and their formation of their unique and complex Chinese American identity.  –beth

Chinese New Year festivities have begun in celebration of the year of the tiger. San Francisco’s Chinatown is the site of a two-week long celebration culminating in an elaborate parade featuring floats, acrobats, bands, martial artists, lion dancers, firecrackers, and a 200-foot golden dragon. Thousands of local residents and tourists will visit Chinatown’s quaint shops and restaurants and line the streets to watch the parade just as they have for over a century.  The children of Chinatown have always been very active and visible participants in these festivities.  Their presence has aroused the curiosity of many a Chinatown visitor who clamors for their camera to record an image of a cute Chinese child to bring home as a memento of their trip.  In the early twentieth century, photographer Arnold Genthe became famous for his photographs of Chinese American children recorded mostly during the Chinese New Year when families took to the streets to celebrate with friends.

During the earliest period of Chinese American history (1850-1920) children were relatively rare in San Francisco’s Chinatown, constituting no more than about 11% of the population. Their presence on the streets of Chinatown elicited the attention and praise of all who chanced upon them.  Genthe and other artists and photographers recognized an opportunity to profit from white middle-class American’s fascination with an exoticized view of Chinatown and its seemingly foreign inhabitants.  This attraction to Chinatown seems especially ironic given that anti-Chinese hostility during this era had culminated in the passage of a series of restrictive immigration laws which specifically sought to exclude Chinese immigrants from the United States.  At the same time, the children of Chinatown faced the reality of discrimination through legalized segregation which prevented them from interacting with white children at school and at play.  The photographs produced by Genthe and his contemporaries fail to paint a complete picture of the lives of Chinatown’s youngest inhabitants.

Still, the prolific images of Chinatown produced by outsiders are important not only because they record the presence of Chinatown’s children but because they reveal aspects of Chinese American culture during this early period of Chinese American history.  Chinese American children enjoyed the New Year’s festivities as a holiday from the reality of the exclusion and segregation that characterized the Chinese American experience during this early period of history.  The children donned colorful and elaborately embroidered new costumes specifically designed by their mothers for the occasion.  Children enjoyed a sense of relative freedom as they wandered the streets watching the parades and the explosion of firecrackers.  A young boy named Fong Sun Chow, wrote to his Presbyterian mission teacher in 1893 to practice his English language skills and to express his delight about the arrival of the Chinese New Year.  “I have new coat and new hat and new red pants and new shoes and have flowers.  I have new picture and all Chinese men new year and all stop work, and take walk and plenty orange and good eat breakfast, and good eat dinner, and good eat supper.”  In addition to the consumption of special foods such as candied ginger, coconut strips, lichee nuts and sweet-and-sour plums, children especially looked forward to the numerous balloons, toys, and li shee (good-luck money) they would accumulate throughout the days of the celebration.

The importance of Chinatown’s children in the formation of a Chinese American community is illustrated through the perpetuation and evolution of holiday rituals such as those associated with Chinese New Year.  Children played active roles in adapting and incorporating the Western traditions and holidays they celebrated in the public and mission schools into the Chinese rituals and festivals they celebrated at home and within the Chinese American community. Chinese American children recalled learning about the significance of Christmas and enjoying gifts from Santa Claus at school while preparing for the Chinese New Year and collecting li shee at home.  Through these unique combinations a distinctive Chinese American identity was forged. Although most Chinese American children during this period celebrated a number of Chinese and American holidays both at home and at school, Chinese New Year remained the most popular holiday among the children of Chinatown.

Wendy Rouse Jorae
author of The Children of Chinatown: Growing Up Chinese American in San Francisco, 1850-1920