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Historic Portrayal of SF Chinatown in Atlantic Cities Offensive When Lacking Historical Perspective


Chinatown San Francisco Bancroft LibraryA piece published in the Atlantic Cities seems like it was written in the 1800’s.

Surely no 21st century journalist with an iota of education about Asian American history would write such an offensive and stereotypical story about the early beginnings of San Francisco Chinatown (photo from Bancroft Library)

The problem is writer John Metcalf seems to have no interest in adding context to what is a sensationalistic  piece of yellow journalism reminiscent of a time when Hearst newspapers were warning of a yellow peril.

His piece based on a map of Chinatown in 1885 pinpoints every brothel, every gambling house and drug den in Chinatown in 1885.

It was a map the San Francisco Board of Supervisors commissioned to drum up anti-Chinese sentiment in the city.

Lacking that historic perspective, Metcalf merely rattles off a list of criminal activity very similar to what took place on the Barbara Coast, San Francisco’s red light district which overlapped into Chinatown in the 1850s.

Chinese immigrants lured by the discovery of gold and recruited to work on the Transcontinental Railroad were thrust into a bachelor society and confined to the boundaries of Chinatown by racist hysteria that made it dangerous for Chinese to venture outside their immediate community.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 made it nearly impossible to bring wives and other loved ones to the United States.

Lacking families and loved ones and denied by law the opportunity to marry non-Chinese, the Chinese resorted to making their own forms of entertainment. Parts of Chinatown were turned into a breeding ground for the sex industry and other illegal activity.

Without this context, the article in the Atlantic Cities  is a sad piece  of journalism.

It is also a product of a Eurocentric education system that fails to acknowledge that Asian Americans and other minorities exist in this country.




  1. RE: Offensive portrayal of SF Chinatown in Atlantic Cities: I agree. The tone of the article is very disrespectful and dismissive. The author conveyed the impression of boredom and titillation as if prostitution and crime characterized the entirely of Asian American experience. The article is reminiscent of something a bored freshman college student would quickly write for a homework assignment so that he could dash off and enjoy his next racist frat party.

  2. From TraciGLee via Twitter Re: Offensive article about SF Chinatown in Atlantic Cities: Thank you @citycalfe for hearing out @AsAmNews and making the much-needed clarification to this piece: theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/…

  3. From AsAmNews RE: Offensive article about SF Chinatown in Atlantic Cities: @traciglee Yes, thank you @citycalfe and thank you @traciglee for bringing it to my attention.


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