Urban Archeology

Unearthing the San Francisco Chinatown Garment Industry

Recovering archaeological material from San Francisco Chinatown is rare. There are few opportunities to excavate and a high rate of site disturbance or destruction. In 2015, while excavating for Chinatown’s new Rose Pak Station of the Central Subway Project, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency discovered a trove of historical artifacts buried underground at 1018 Stockton Street. The collection consisted of garment-industry related artifacts. These “needle-trade” relics began to tell a specific story about Chinatown, immigration, early labor unions, and ultimately community identity in relation to globalization.

Prepared by:
Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA)
Anthropological Studies Center, Sonoma State University
&
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA)

Urban Archeology

Unearthing the San Francisco Chinatown Garment Industry

Recovering archaeological material from San Francisco Chinatown is rare. There are few opportunities to excavate and a high rate of site disturbance or destruction. In 2015, while excavating for Chinatown’s new Rose Pak Station of the Central Subway Project, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency discovered a trove of historical artifacts buried underground at 1018 Stockton Street. The collection consisted of garment-industry related artifacts. These “needle-trade” relics began to tell a specific story about Chinatown, immigration, early labor unions, and ultimately community identity in relation to globalization.

Prepared by:
Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA)
Anthropological Studies Center, Sonoma State University
&
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA)

Unearthing History

When the Rose Pak station in San Francisco Chinatown was being built, archaeologists uncovered a basement beneath the sidewalk at 1018 Stockton Street. Hidden there were treadle sewing machines from the 1870s that had been buried during the 1906 earthquake. These sewing machines were sealed in time, buried by fill as the streets were widened and new buildings were constructed on top of the rubble. Unearthing them today directly connects us to the past, to the specific history of this site, and the people that lived here. They help unveil a broader history of an industry that was largely responsible for shaping, supporting, and expanding San Francisco Chinatown into what it is today.

Unearthing History

When the Rose Pak station in San Francisco Chinatown was being built, archaeologists uncovered a basement beneath the sidewalk at 1018 Stockton Street. Hidden there were treadle sewing machines from the 1870s that had been buried during the 1906 earthquake. These sewing machines were sealed in time, buried by fill as the streets were widened and new buildings were constructed on top of the rubble. Unearthing them today directly connects us to the past, to the specific history of this site, and the people that lived here. They help unveil a broader history of an industry that was largely responsible for shaping, supporting, and expanding San Francisco Chinatown into what it is today.

Chinese Seamstresses: It Was A Man’s World

San Francisco’s Chinatown holds the distinction of being the oldest Chinatown in the nation and largest enclave outside of China (Yung 2006:7). Its history begins not long after the fateful discovery of gold in the California hills in 1849. During the Gold Rush, young men flocked to America. Anti-Chinese sentiment took hold and continued in the mid-1850s and as yields from gold mines slowly decreased, miners began returning to San Francisco looking for work. Chinese laborers were unfairly blamed for the state of general unemployment.

One of the main industries that supported the hustle and bustle of 19th century Chinatown was the garment industry. Garment factories first emerged in San Francisco Chinatown in the 1860s. By 1880, 80% of shirt makers and more than 90% of undergarment makers in San Francisco were Chinese. Chinatown was unique because the Chinese “seamstresses” who worked in the garment factories were all men. Typical Victorian seamstresses at that time were female, but a lack of Chinese women combined with discriminatory laws and practices that forced the Chinese out of other industries such as gold mining, led to an all-male workforce. The sewing machines found in the basement of 1018 Stockton Street were likely used by these pioneering Chinese garment workers.

Chinese Seamstresses: It Was A Man’s World

San Francisco’s Chinatown holds the distinction of being the oldest Chinatown in the nation and largest enclave outside of China (Yung 2006:7). Its history begins not long after the fateful discovery of gold in the California hills in 1849. During the Gold Rush, young men flocked to America. Anti-Chinese sentiment took hold and continued in the mid-1850s and as yields from gold mines slowly decreased, miners began returning to San Francisco looking for work. Chinese laborers were unfairly blamed for the state of general unemployment.

One of the main industries that supported the hustle and bustle of 19th century Chinatown was the garment industry. Garment factories first emerged in San Francisco Chinatown in the 1860s. By 1880, 80% of shirt makers and more than 90% of undergarment makers in San Francisco were Chinese. Chinatown was unique because the Chinese “seamstresses” who worked in the garment factories were all men. Typical Victorian seamstresses at that time were female, but a lack of Chinese women combined with discriminatory laws and practices that forced the Chinese out of other industries such as gold mining, led to an all-male workforce. The sewing machines found in the basement of 1018 Stockton Street were likely used by these pioneering Chinese garment workers.

The Guilds

Chinatown’s early male garment workers realized the value of their skills. They banded together to form labor guilds, a practice that had been popular in China. These guilds were formed to provide job security, protection, decent working conditions, and higher wages. In addition to these goals, the guilds in San Francisco also aimed to protect its members from being taken advantage of, since many of them did not speak English. Some believed that the most important goal of the guilds was, “to protect their members from being wronged by white people”. Garment industry workers were highly skilled and very organized so their guilds grew quite powerful. They helped make the garment industry a huge success and were rewarded with job security and higher wages than most other Chinatown workers.

The Guilds

Chinatown’s early male garment workers realized the value of their skills. They banded together to form labor guilds, a practice that had been popular in China. These guilds were formed to provide job security, protection, decent working conditions, and higher wages. In addition to these goals, the guilds in San Francisco also aimed to protect its members from being taken advantage of, since many of them did not speak English. Some believed that the most important goal of the guilds was, “to protect their members from being wronged by white people”. Garment industry workers were highly skilled and very organized so their guilds grew quite powerful. They helped make the garment industry a huge success and were rewarded with job security and higher wages than most other Chinatown workers.

Underpaid And Overworked

By the early 1900s, Chinatown’s male garment workers were getting old. It was difficult to replace them as no young male laborers were being let into the country after the passing of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. However, Chinese merchants were still able to bring over their families. This created a new pool of cheap labor made up of immigrant women who spoke little to no English and had no other opportunities for work besides the garment industry. By the 1920s, Chinatown garment workers were almost all female. Their experience in the industry was very different from male workers. Women were not allowed to join labor guilds so they had no protection or bargaining power. They were paid less than men and were forced to work long hours under harsh conditions. In the meantime the San Francisco garment industry prospered on the backs of these underpaid and overworked female workers.

Underpaid And Overworked

By the early 1900s, Chinatown’s male garment workers were getting old. It was difficult to replace them as no young male laborers were being let into the country after the passing of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. However, Chinese merchants were still able to bring over their families. This created a new pool of cheap labor made up of immigrant women who spoke little to no English and had no other opportunities for work besides the garment industry. By the 1920s, Chinatown garment workers were almost all female. Their experience in the industry was very different from male workers. Women were not allowed to join labor guilds so they had no protection or bargaining power. They were paid less than men and were forced to work long hours under harsh conditions. In the meantime the San Francisco garment industry prospered on the backs of these underpaid and overworked female workers.

All She Did Was Sew

By the 1930s, the garment industry directly or indirectly affected more than half of the Chinatown community, making it one of the most important influences on the economy, character, and livelihood of San Francisco Chinatown. Growth continued and by the 1960s Chinatown factories produced about half of San Francisco’s clothing output. Those who lived and grew up there at that time remember a community in which everyone, or everyone’s mother, sewed. Mothers worked long hours at factories, came home to cook and take care of children, and then continued sewing at home late into the night. Babies were brought to the
factory while their mothers worked, young children played in and around factories after school, and older kids helped out at the workplace and at home. Sewing machines, factories, and mothers constantly working defined the experience of growing up in San Francisco Chinatown.

All She Did Was Sew

By the 1930s, the garment industry directly or indirectly affected more than half of the Chinatown community, making it one of the most important influences on the economy, character, and livelihood of San Francisco Chinatown. Growth continued and by the 1960s Chinatown factories produced about half of San Francisco’s clothing output. Those who lived and grew up there at that time remember a community in which everyone, or everyone’s mother, sewed. Mothers worked long hours at factories, came home to cook and take care of children, and then continued sewing at home late into the night. Babies were brought to the
factory while their mothers worked, young children played in and around factories after school, and older kids helped out at the workplace and at home. Sewing machines, factories, and mothers constantly working defined the experience of growing up in San Francisco Chinatown.

Fighting Back

Organized labor has essentially been a part of the Chinatown garment industry since its origin, beginning with traditional all-male guilds. Later, attempts were made at unionizing the mostly female Chinatown garment workers. A Chinese branch of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (CLGWU) was established in 1937. In 1938, the CLGWU launched a strike against the National Dollar Store, owned by one of the nation’s wealthiest and powerful
Chinese businessmen. The strike lasted a record 105 days, the longest strike in San Francisco Chinatown garment industry history. Although the CLGWU eventually disbanded, their successful strike against the National Dollar Store helped prove the strength and power workers could wield when they banded together, and helped achieve better wages and conditions overall.

Fighting Back

Organized labor has essentially been a part of the Chinatown garment industry since its origin, beginning with traditional all-male guilds. Later, attempts were made at unionizing the mostly female Chinatown garment workers. A Chinese branch of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (CLGWU) was established in 1937. In 1938, the CLGWU launched a strike against the National Dollar Store, owned by one of the nation’s wealthiest and powerful
Chinese businessmen. The strike lasted a record 105 days, the longest strike in San Francisco Chinatown garment industry history. Although the CLGWU eventually disbanded, their successful strike against the National Dollar Store helped prove the strength and power workers could wield when they banded together, and helped achieve better wages and conditions overall.

1018 Stockton

Site of the Rose Pak Chinatown Branch of the Central Subway Station.

During the late 1800s, hundreds of Chinese laborers worked and lived at 1018 Stockton Street. Although we do not know all of their individual stories, together they help tell the story of 1018 Stockton and are an example of the broader Chinatown story. Beginning in the late 1870s, a series of businesses operated here including a lodging house and Chinese-run cigar
and garment factories. The cigar factories lasted until the 1880s while the garment factories operated until 1896 when the location became Wong, Chan Hing & Co. Previously located next door at 1016 Stockton, the business sold sewing machines,spool cotton, silk, and other products related to clothing manufacturing. The sewing machines found in the basement may have been the store’s outdated inventory. The discovery of these sewing machines provided an opportunity to better understand this influential industry and to appreciate those whose hard work made it so successful.

1018 Stockton

Site of the Rose Pak Chinatown Branch of the Central Subway Station.

During the late 1800s, hundreds of Chinese laborers worked and lived at 1018 Stockton Street. Although we do not know all of their individual stories, together they help tell the story of 1018 Stockton and are an example of the broader Chinatown story. Beginning in the late 1870s, a series of businesses operated here including a lodging house and Chinese-run cigar
and garment factories. The cigar factories lasted until the 1880s while the garment factories operated until 1896 when the location became Wong, Chan Hing & Co. Previously located next door at 1016 Stockton, the business sold sewing machines,spool cotton, silk, and other products related to clothing manufacturing. The sewing machines found in the basement may have been the store’s outdated inventory. The discovery of these sewing machines provided an opportunity to better understand this influential industry and to appreciate those whose hard work made it so successful.