The Three Tales of Chinatown: Why Racism Is Not Enough to Create a Race-based Coalition among Marginalized Groups

By Jae Yeon Kim

Since the appearance of COVID-19, anti-Asian hate crimes have risen across the U.S. and Canada. The virus is new, but anti-Asian racism is much older. Today, Canada enjoys the reputation of being a much more inclusive country than the United States. The history of discrimination against Asian communities, however, runs deep in both countries. Both the U.S. and Canadian governments banned Chinese immigration in the late nineteenth century and incarcerated Japanese people during World War II. However, the shared experience of racism was not the only determinant of how Asian groups reacted to threats against their communities.

Racism Is Not Enough

In the post-World War II period, urban renewal projects swept across North America. They threatened the existence of Chinatowns because these ethnic enclaves were founded and located near central business areas. Community activists in the Chinatowns of San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver mobilized their only resource, people, to stop gentrification and call for affordable housing. To generate greater influence, they formed community-based organizations in the 1960s and 1970s based on a coalition with other ethnic minority groups.

Despite the shared legacy of anti-Asian racism, these Chinatowns across the U.S. and Canadian border produced distinct movements. The Chinese built a coalition with other Asian groups in San Francisco and Seattle, but not in Vancouver. In Vancouver, the Chinese allied with southern and eastern Europeans. This was the result of specific historical and social conditions.

Marginalized Groups Are Strategic

My research, published in Studies in American Political Development (2020) and supported by the Hildebrand fellowship, explains why this divergence emerged. The Chinese community activists constructed and expanded their coalitions to alter the course of urban policies. They were forced to be strategic because their resources were scarce and stakes were high—losing the battle meant losing their homes. Specifically, they needed to consider the following two factors: the size of their movements and the strength of their social relationships with prospective partners. Larger groups help increase the assertion of political power. Nevertheless, they also risk inflating coordinating costs and are conditional on how deeply these groups know and trust each other. Activists needed to weigh the trade-off between these two factors carefully to avoid risks and missed opportunities.

How Historical Legacies Matter

By the 1960s and 1970s, when the Chinese needed to form a coalition, the candidates for inclusion had been determined by historical legacies. Past immigration and segregation policies shaped each city’s demographic and residential patterns and influenced the community organizers’ strategic calculations. The Chinese in San Francisco and Seattle allied with other Asian groups because they were large and familiar to them as friends and neighbors. In contrast, their Vancouver counterparts, using the same strategic calculus, considered the southern and eastern Europeans ideal partners.

Because the Japanese internment was longer and harsher in Canada (1942–1949) than in the U.S. (1942–1946), it reduced the number of Japanese much more severely in Vancouver than in San Francisco and Seattle (see the figure below). After World War II ended, half of the Japanese internees returned to San Francisco. The city’s Japanese population returned to its prewar size within two years. In Vancouver, most internees did not come back because they had lost their social and material connections to the city during the harsher and more prolonged internment period. As a result, Vancouver’s Japantown vanished and became an industrial area. The Chinese and Japanese populations were the two largest Asian ethnic groups in these cities in the prewar period. Had the Japanese internment been shorter in Canada, the Chinese would likely have formed a coalition with the Japanese.

Graphs of the size of the Chinese and Japanese populations in San Francisco and Vancouver

The Size of Chinese and Japanese Population in San Francisco and Vancouver. Sources: U.S. Census (1890–1950) and the Census of Canada (1891–1951).

Meanwhile, Vancouver’s segregation pattern increased the chance for the Chinese to form a coalition with southern and Eastern Europeans. In the U.S., racial segregation in public schools was rigid. In San Francisco, Chinese students were allowed to attend the Chinese School, opened in 1859. In 1905, the city government renamed it the Oriental Public School to segregate the Chinese students along with other Asian students. In Vancouver, racial segregation was porous. Chinese students went to school with other poor immigrant students from Japan as well as from southern and eastern Europe. These students all grew up in Vancouver’s East End, the city’s working-class immigrant neighborhood. Locals called the Strathcona School, which these students attended, the League of Nations. When some of the students became accidental activists to protect their homes and neighborhoods, their intimate relationships helped them to build trust and work together.

Students at Lord Strathcona Elementary School in Vancouver

Group portrait of students and teachers at Lord Strathcona School (1923). The mix of Asian and European students is easily noticeable. Photo credit: the City of Vancouver Archives.

This tale of three Chinatowns helps to illuminate why racism is not enough to create a race-based coalition among marginalized groups. Racism forms the hierarchical relationship between different races. A subordinate ethnic group, however, only reaches out to another subordinate ethnic group when they believe in the efficacy and reliability of their coalition-building strategy. Coalition-building among marginalized groups is not an automatic response to stigmatized experience. It is a hard-earned result of long-term strategic thinking, commitment, and investment.

Jae Yeon Kim is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at UC Berkeley. Kim studies political learning, organizing, and mobilization among marginalized populations in the U.S. and beyond.

Works Cited

Kim, Jae Yeon. "Racism is not enough: Minority coalition building in San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver." Studies in American Political Development 34, no. 2 (2020): 195-215.