China BeachA cul-de-sac off El Camino Del Mar near 28th Avenue in San Francisco leads to a lovely stretch of publicly owned coastline. At the head of the trail down to the beach is a large trapezoidal stone marker placed by Chinese Americans in 1981: China Beach.
Since Gold Rush times, this cove was used as a campsite by many of the Chinese fisherman who worked in and around San Francisco Bay. Their efforts to supply the needs of a young city helped establish one of the area¹s most important industries and traditions.
It¹s proper to have some Chinese American history on the California landscape because Chinese Americans played a major role in the West, not just building the railroads but also in mining, farming, business, personal service, heavy construction, and as this maker tells, fishing. Indeed, in the early 1880¹s Chinese Americans made up 50 percent of all fishing crews in the Bay area. But this marker tells only half the story.
During most of the twentieth century, the beach was not called China Beach but Phelan Beach, as whites expelled Chinese people from the beach and from the fishing industry in the 1890¹s. In 1880, California passed "An Act Relating to Fishing in the Waters of this State": "All aliens incapable of becoming electors of this state are hereby prohibited from fishing, or taking any fish, lobster, shrimps, or shell fish of any kind, for the purpose of selling, or giving to another person to sellŠ" Conveniently, only Chinese were aliens not eligible to vote. Courts declared the bill unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment, but the legislature continued to pass similar measures until the end of the century. California¹s senators got Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which cut Chinese immigration from 39,500 in 1882 to just ten persons five years later. Meanwhile white fishermen resorted to extralegal strong-arm tactics. By 1890 only 20 percent of the fishing community were Chinese, and their numbers continued to dwindle the rest of the century."
By 1893, riots and boycotts in San Francisco and the farming districts of California created conditions "approximating civil war," according to a 1997 exhibit at the Autry Museum in Los Angeles. White thuggery forced many Chinese Americans back to Chinatowns for protection. Prejudice against Chinese Americans ran so high that San Francisco¹s public schools admitted African Americans to desegregated schools in 1899 and Native Americans in 1921, but kept Chinese Americans out until 1929.
Some might argue to leave the China Beach marker as it is let bygones be bygones. But all too often, all across America, historic sites emphasize only the good parts of our past. Surely historian Paul Gagnon is correct to say, "We do not need a bodyguard of lies. We can afford to present ourselves in the totality of our acts." Rather than leaving out the bad parts, as this marker does, hoping that anti-Chinese sentiments will never recur, San Franciscans could engage in a civic dialogue to formally declare the beach as China Beach. Thus they would dishonor, rather than continue, to honor the anti-Chinese sentiments exemplified in Mayor Phelan¹s career. *
*Lies Across America: What Our Historic SiteLies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong by James W. Loewen