A History of Resilience in San Francisco: How AAPI Communities Built Back

Banner in the SOMA Pilipinas district courtesy of @somafilipinas on Instagram.

As a native San Franciscan and third-generation Filipino American, the Bay Area has always been a place for me to reflect on my Asian American identity and heritage. I remember growing up seeing communities with different Asian identities laid out across the city. From going to Chinatown and Japantown to eating chirashi bowls and sisig, being immersed in Asian culture in this city has formed who I am as a person. 

According to U.S. Census data, the Asian community makes up at least 34.8% of San Francisco, compared to the national average of just 6.3%. This includes the Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino populations, among others. 

Although these diasporas are well-established in San Francisco, historically, our communities and livelihoods have been threatened by anti-Asian sentiment and policy. We need to acknowledge and reflect on this history to truly engage with Asian heritage in the Bay Area.

The first wave of Asian immigrants to the United States were Chinese migrants who arrived through the ports of San Francisco during the Gold Rush. They played a huge role in building the transcontinental railroad, which revolutionized American travel in the late 1800s. 

However, in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law, which prohibited Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. for 10 years, which restricted the growth of the Chinese community. The Act spurred anti-Asian sentiment across the nation, and was one of the first pieces of legislation in U.S. history that specifically targeted an ethnic group from entering the country. The act wasn’t repealed until 1943

San Francisco’s Chinese American population has survived through this oppression. Approximately a fifth of the city’s population, 180,000 people, are of Chinese descent, and the city’s Chinatown, where the community has been historically anchored, is the oldest of its kind in North America.

During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order which forcibly interned Japanese Americans. In San Francisco, most of those affected were displaced from their homes in the Fillmore District. Despite this horrific internment, San Francisco’s Japanese American population has demonstrated incredible resilience. Today, the city’s proud Japanese heritage can be seen in Japantown, a flourishing staple of the Fillmore District, and the oldest Japantown in the U.S.

In the 1960s, the Filipino community had a thriving neighborhood in San Francisco called “Manilatown” centered on the I-Hotel on Kearny Street. In the name of “urban renewal,” a misguided policy which demolished many ethnic communities, San Francisco officials destroyed the Manilatown enclave. Community activists organized around the hotel, resisting the policies that would eventually demolish the building in 1977.  Afterward, the Filipino community built back, and can now be seen in San Francisco’s South-of-Market (SOMA) Pilipinas District.

Despite anti-Asian sentiment and policy, our history is being told and people are paying attention. Although, anti-Asian discrimination is not exclusive to these three major ethnic groups, nor is it a thing of the past. 

Other Asian ethnic groups, such as the Vietnamese, Korean and Indian communities have established their own spaces in San Francisco. 

Little Saigon, located in the Tenderloin, is known as a cultural hub for the Vietnamese community, which preserves Vietnamese culture through businesses and shops selling delicacies, like Banh Mi sandwiches and pho noodle soups. 

San Francisco’s Korean Center seeks to create spaces to explore the richness of Korean culture and history. It is a community-based organization in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood, which creates a vibrant, engaged community and a spot to explore Korean heritage.

Since 2015, Spring India Day has celebrated Indian culture one day each summer in Union Square. It features a traditional Indian wedding ceremony, bollywood dancing, and Indian food booths.

Among these various communities, one theme remains consistent — Asian American heritage in San Francisco is a heritage of resilience and preservation.

Asian history is intertwined with American history, and should never be left out or excluded. San Francisco’s diverse history was created by people of color, and their community resilience should be acknowledged. 

Editor-in-Chief: Megan Robertson, Chief Copy Editor: Sophia Siegel, Managing Editor: Jordan Premmer, Opinion Editor: Chisom Okorafor 

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