Touching Ground, Putting Down Roots: Chinese in Berkeley

April 30 – September 30, 2023

The history of immigration to the United States is often portrayed as a great western movement of European peoples, across the Atlantic and then across the North American continent. But beginning with the California Gold Rush, the U.S. has also been populated by people moving east, across the Pacific from Asia and the Pacific islands. Initially, they came from Hawaii and Australia, but by the early 1850s, large numbers of migrants were arriving from the Pearl River Delta in South China. Ever since, people of Chinese descent have been an integral part of American history. Berkeley’s small slice of that large national and international story is the subject of the upcoming exhibit.

In the 1850s and 60s, Chinese immigrants were attracted by the economic possibilities of California, first by the Gold Rush and then by work on the Transcontinental Railroad and the broad demand for agricultural and industrial labor. San Francisco had by far the largest Chinese immigrant community, but by the 1860s, some Chinese were also settling in Berkeley. They worked in factories in Ocean View (West Berkeley), on small farms, and as domestics in wealthy households. Unfortunately, anti-Chinese prejudice also came to the city. The Workingman’s Party, which was vehemently anti-Chinese, won Berkeley’s first municipal election in 1878.

During the long era of the U.S. policy of Chinese Exclusion (1882-1943), both Chinese American and Chinese foreign students at the university, as well as 1906 refugees from San Francisco’s Chinatown, which was devastated by the earthquake and fire, substantially increased the numbers of people of Chinese descent in Berkeley. Chinese residents established churches and other institutions, often in reaction to the racism of their white neighbors. World War II brought the official end of Chinese Exclusion and opened up new opportunities for Berkeley residents of Chinese descent. In the 1960s Chinese American students participated in the campus protests and played a major role in establishing Asian American Studies as an academic discipline. Most dramatically, the 1965 immigration reform law paved the way for a new era of significant Chinese immigration to the U.S.

The exhibit will tell the stories of prominent Berkeley residents of Chinese descent, including activists, artists, accomplished professionals, distinguished scholars and professors and even Madame Chiang Kai-shek. There will also be stories of regular family life and of workers and bosses in Chinese-owned laundries, restaurants, and other enterprises. Finally, the exhibit will document the remarkable increase in the numbers of Chinese and Chinese American students at Cal and the equally dramatic growth of Berkeley’s Chinese American population in the last three decades. For more than 150 years, people of Chinese descent have put down roots that have grown deep and spread in Berkeley’s rich social environment.

The exhibit was developed by a team chaired by Jeanine Castello-Lin. Introduction by Charles Wollenberg.