Pan-Asian Metropolis — Orange County’s Lost Chinatowns

Pan-Asian Metropolis


Today, Orange County is widely recognized for its prominent Asian-American population. There are significant numbers of of Vietnamese, Koreans, Taiwanese, Filipinos, Indians, Japanese, Cambodians, Chinese, Pakistanis, Thais, Indonesians, and Laotians living there, as well as many smaller groups. Metro Los Angeles (which includes Los Angeles and Orange counties) is in fact home to the largest populations of Vietnamese, Koreans, Taiwanese, Filipinos, Cambodians, and Thais outside of their respective homelands. The communities of Westminster, Midway City, and La Palma all have Asian-American pluralities, if not outright majorities (the 2020 census may reveal otherwise) and at 17.9% of the county’s total population, Asians comprise the largest racial minority by far. Orange County is home to the Asian-American enclaves of Little Saigon, Little Seoul, and Little Arabia (which is geographically Asian, even if Arabs are generally counted as “white,” by the US census). There is no Chinatown, however… although this was not always the case. In fact, it used to have three. 

Although all are long-since vanished, the city’s of Anaheim, Orange, and Santa Ana all once had their own Chinatowns. Today Anaheim is the most populous city in Orange County and tenth most populous city in California.  As of the 2010 census, 14.8% of its population was Asian (with Vietnamese the plurality). At the same time, 11.3% of the population of the city of Orange was Asian. Santa Ana — Orange County’s second most populous city and the county seat — was then 10.5% Asian, with a 66% Vietnamese majority.

Although today about one in five Orange Countians is Asian-American, it was not always as diverse, nor was it always welcoming. Chinese were among the region’s earliest non-Native settlers and shunned by their non-Asian neighbors, they settled in enclaves which, though small, were briefly among the region’s most vibrant communities. Today, however, scarcely a trace of any remains and I have found that their existence is generally under-documented and under-acknowledged. 


Today, more ethnic Chinese live in the US than in any country outside of Asia. Only China, Taiwan, Thailand, and Malaysia are home to more. According to the 2010–2015 American Community Survey, Chinese were then the 15th most numerous ethnicity in the US, just below Swedish-Americans and just above Indian-Americans. Nearly half the country’s approximately 3.8 million live in either New York or California.


On 24 January 1848, gold was discovered in California. On 3 February 1848, the Mexican-American War ended with the victorious US conquering much of Mexico, including California, which was made the nation’s 31st state in 1850. The California Gold Rush attracted miners and prospectors from around hoping to strike it rich, although they were not at all treated equally. In 1850, California imposed the Foreign Miner’s Tax, which was primarily used against Chinese miners. White miners also regularly attacked Chinese miners and drove them from their claims.

Despite the hostility targeting them, in 1852 alone, more than 20,000 Chinese arrived in the state which means that they’d have compromised roughly 10% of the entire population. In 1858, California passed the “Act to Prevent the Further Immigration Immediately challenged of Chinese or Mongolians to This State.” The story of early Chinese immigration was never merely one of victimization, however, and when the act was challenged in court it was ruled unconstitutional.

Chinatowns soon emerged throughout the West. They were not, nearly all cases, the sort of Chinatowns most are familiar with today — the sort of neighborhood where chop suey fonts advertise Cantonese restaurants and pagodas, dragon gates, and shishi market the neighborhood’s Chinese character with an aesthetic recognized by tourists. Most, rather, were shabby, cramped, quasi-slums where Chinese lived their lives as best they could in the face of legal discrimination and racial hostility.


In 1862, California imposed a “police tax” of $2.50 a month on every Chinese. The following year, California passed a law that Asians could not testify in courts against whites. With the abolition of slavery in 1865, industrial employers turned their attention to Chinese immigrants as the latest exploitable cheap labor force. With most white working class choosing to work either in mines or agriculture, the Central Pacific Railroad Company relied on poorly-paid Chinese workers to undertake the backbreaking work of building the nation’s first transcontinental railroad, which was completed in 1869. Soon, right wing politicians, white supremacists, and media outlets would do their best to exploit fears of a so-called “yellow peril.” 


With their work on the railroad completed, many Chinese began to settle in San Francisco‘s bustling Chinatown and Los Angeles’s emerging oneIn October 1871, Los Angeles rancher Robert Thompson was killed (apparently accidentally) when he attempted to intervene in a heated confrontation between members of the Hong Chow and Nin Yung tongs. As word spread of a white man’s death at the hands of a Chinese, a mob of about 500 Angelenos raided Chinatown, lynching, shooting, and in one case mutilating random Chinese citizens in what most sources describe as the largest mass lynching in US history.

Meanwhile, in the San Francisco riot of 1877, two days of rioting result in the death of four Chinese and hundreds of thousands of property destruction in what some sources have characterized as a pogrom. Over in Sacramento, California ratified its second constitution in 1879, which actually included language making it illegal for municipalities and and corporations from employing Chinese. Other laws were passed denying Chinese the right to own property or marry whites.  Many have suggested that it was this relentless anti-Chinese racism that accounts for the fact that today more Chinese live in the New York City metropolitan area than in Los Angeles, which is otherwise home to most of the largest Asian-American populations (New York is also home to the largest population of the nation’s Indians and Honolulu is home to more Japanese).

In addition to Los Angeles’s and Orange County’s, there were also Chinatowns in Redlands, Riverside, and Pasadena. The first to arise in Orange County was Anaheim,’s a town founded by German vintners in 1857. In 1873, 125 Chinese laborers worked to extend the Southern Pacific Railroad line from Los Angeles to Anaheim and many settled in what became the community’s Chinatown. Anaheim incorporated in 1876, making it only the second city in Los Angeles County to do so (Orange County didn’t split from Los Angeles County until 1889). In fact, that same year an editor at the Anaheim Gazette estimated that one-sixth of the newly incorporated city’s population was “oriental.” Many of the railroad laborers transitioned into work in Anaheim’s vineyards and celery fields. Other Chinese found work in Anaheim’s Chinatown as laundrymen, shopkeepers, cooks, tailors, grocers, and barbers.

Horse-drawn vehicles in Chinatown, Riverside, California, ca. 1900. Photo courtesy of Special Collections & Archives, UCR Libraries, University of California, Riverside.

For the Chinese, the 1880s brought no respite from anti-Chinese hostility. Two of the most infamous anti-Chinese incidents took place outside of California — the Tacoma Riot of 1885 and the 1885 Rock Springs Massacre. In Southern California, however, anti-Chinese violence was rife as well and the same year as both those more famous events, Pasadena’s Chinatown was burned down and the so-called Riverside Expulsion resulted in the displacement of Chinese from that town. Ultimately, between 1848 and 1906, there were more than 200 purges of Chinese residents in the state of California alone. The 1880s also saw Congress pass the first (and so far only) immigration and naturalization ban of a specific nationality with the Chinese Exclusion Act. When the ban ended after ten years, it was extended for another ten by the Geary Act.

The county seat of Orange County, Santa Ana, was founded in 1869. The city’s Chinatown arose after Chinese railroad workers extended the Southern Pacific Railroad line to Santa Ana in 1877. Their work complete, many Chinese began renting a collection of redwood buildings owned by Martha Schaffer, located around the intersection of 3rd and Bush streetsIn 1906, an elderly Chinese man in Santa Ana’s Chinatown was reported to have leprosy although there was doubt about this diagnosis and he died, quarantined in a tent, before a doctor could diagnose him. Furthermore, leprosy was commonly and conveniently used as an excuse to burn down Chinatowns and on 25 May 1906, hundreds of Santa Anans duly gathered to watch the city council do just that. Unlike the burning of Pasadena’s Chinatown, the burning of Santa Ana’s didn’t come as a surprise, following as it did a recommendation from the health department and official approval from city council. That gave time for Chinese activists to mobilize but ultimately they were assuaged by guarantees of reimbursement in the form of housing and food. The city also assured Chinese-American leaders that the fire was not being set to drive Chinese from the city (many believe that it took place because the real estate was valuable) but at least some Chinese did move away in the aftermath. Over in the Inland Empire, another Chinatown, another fire. In the Redlands Riot of 1893, a mob of whites were looted and burned down that town’s Chinatown, a crime for in which 200 were implicated but not one was convicted of a crime.

Back in Orange County, another Chinatown developed — this time along Glassell Street, near Santiago Creek, in the city of Orange. Orange had only just incorporated in 1888 (after being founded as Richland). Orange’s Chinatown was quite small, apparently consisting of fewer than half a dozen businesses. The Chinese population in 1900 was just sixteen and most lived in a single bunkhouse. Wing Wor operated a small market, Goon Gay a laundromat, and Yick Sing operated a store and provided services a a labor contractor. When he died in 1919, a journalist from the Santa Ana Register that he and “a group of other celestials” had settled on South Glassell after their homes were among those deliberately torched in Santa Ana’s Chinatown. The existence of Orange’s Chinatown was  quite short lived as the same article noted that, by 1919, that Orange’s Chinatown was vanishing, but that at its height it had boasted “a laundry, truck gardens and several stores.”

Angel Island Immigration Station

The Angel Island Immigration Station opened in San Francisco in 1910. Although sometimes described as the “Ellis Island of the West” it was widely known among immigration officials as the “Guardian of the Western Gate” and served mainly as a detention center for hopeful Asian-American would-be immigrants. Anti-Asian hostility continued on both the legal and vigilante fronts. The California Alien Land Law of 1913 prohibited “aliens ineligible to citizenship” (i.e. non-Filipino Asians) from buying land or leasing it for longer than three years. That same year, Korean farmers were driven out of Hemet.

In 1924 prohibitions against land ownership and naturalization were extended to all Asians (except Filipinos since the US had crushed their democracy conquered their country in 1898). That same year, a reporter for the Santa Ana Register reported on the eviction of Sing Lee, a laundry man who lived in Orange’s Chinatown, whom the reporter referred to as the “last oriental in Orange.” The reporter noted that developers planned to raze the “low rambling structures” of to make way for the redevelopment of Orange’s Gardner Ranch.

Union Station under construction in old Chinatown.

The decision to demolish Los Angeles’s Chinatown occurred shortly after. In 1926, Angelenos voted to demolish the half-century-old neighborhood to allow for the construction of the grand Union Station.  The displaced Chinese, many of whom had worked on railroads, were relocated nearby to what until recently been Little Italy (and before that, French Town). Others moved to an area of South Central, centered around the intersection of San Pedro Street and East Adams Boulevard. In Chinatown, two new developments, Peter Soo Hoo and company’s New Chinatown and Christine Sterling’s China City opened in 1938. Union Station opened in 1939. Pockets of old Chinatown survived into the 1950s, when the last traces of that neighborhood were obliterated to make way for the Hollywood Freeway.


By 1935, Anaheim’s Chinatown remained home to just one Chinese resident, an octogenarian named John Law who’d moved to San Francisco at the age of 13 and worked in a potato farm before moving to Anaheim. He explained to a Santa Ana Register reporter that his fellow Chinese had by then all died or moved away. Many  were buried in Anaheim Cemetery, although their wooden grave markers had all been removed. Law expressed his desire to live out the rest of his days in China but that he could afford the fare. The reporter counted just four Chinatown structures still stood: a former gambling house at 113 Cypress Street, a former “community kitchen” at 111 Chartres Street (a shed with a thatched roof), Law’s dirt-floored residence at 109 Chartres Street, and a residence at 119 West Chartres Street, which when torn down in 1940 erased with it the last physical vestiges of the neighborhood.


Despite years of legal challenges, it was really only after Japan attacked American military outposts that the US began to really ease its mistreatment of Chinese-Americans. With China and the US united against a common enemy, the ban on Chinese immigration was finally lifted after 61 years, in 1943. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, enacted in 1968, finally ended national origin quotas and thus allowed significant numbers of immigrants from Africa, Latin America, and Asia to immigrate to the US. Today Asians are the fastest growing racial minority of the US, California, and Orange County and legally free to own property where they may, although many eschew densely populated enclaves for the suburban sprawl of North Orange County, Southeast Los Angeles, and the San Gabriel Valley. Meanwhile, the history of the region’s original Chinatowns remain mostly untold, with not even an historic plaque to acknowledge their existence.

“Chinese Character Dies at Hospital” (Santa Ana Register, 1919)
“Lone Oriental in Orange Chinatown Will Move Out; ‘Alle Sammee Thro’ Verdict” (Santa Ana Register, 1924)
“”S.A. No Longer Scene of Gay Celestials” (Santa Ana Register, 1924)
“Battered Scrapbook Reveals Early History of Santa Ana; Burning of Chinatown Told” (Santa Ana Register, 1933)
“Chinatown in Early Anaheim is Remembered”  (Robert Raiche, 1935)

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from 1650 GalleryHe is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiTwitter, and Weibo.
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