Although in 1936 San Francisco's Chinese American population was larger than anywhere else in the country, its Chinese American community was still fairly small and isolated. By 1936, the U.S. government had shut down immigration from China for over half a century. Between 1882 and 1943, the Chinese American community had very little contact with family and friends in China. As several generations of children grew up in the United States during this 60-year span, they may have spoken Chinese and learned about Chinese culture at home, but they primarily spoke English and identified with mainstream American culture.
While Chinese Americans grew up with mainstream American culture, they were also excluded from it. Chinese Americans born in China were not permitted to become American citizens and therefore could not own property. De facto segregation, or segregation enforced through social pressures and not by law, was common. Chinese and other Asian Americans were barred from schools, jobs, and neighborhoods that mainstream American society wanted to keep predominantly white.
As a result of this enforced isolation, in the 1930s Chinese Americans lived either in primarily Chinese urban Chinatowns or in rural agricultural areas, almost exclusively on the West or East Coasts. Chinese Americans in California were no exception, although they formed only one part of a large Asian immigrant and Asian American population that included Chinese, Japanese, Asian Indians, Filipinos, and Koreans. California's huge agricultural industry recruited and employed this Asian American population, using other Asian groups after Chinese immigration was halted.
As a result, California's rural communities were often more multiracial than California's urban cities and included Asians, Latinos, and American Indians along with whites and some blacks. More rarely, in some urban communities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Oakland, Chinese American families comprised just one part of multiracial neighborhoods. Notably these neighborhoods' residents were united more by their working-class economic status rather than separated by racial differences. Even so, San Francisco's Chinatown reflected the norm, where separate schools, hospitals, nightlife, and even a separate telephone service illustrated how Chinese Americans both lived in America and in a world apart.
This enforced separation caused mainstream America to view Chinese Americans as exotic and different. Illegal drugs, gambling, prostitution and violent gangs in the Chinese community provoked both interest and disgust in whites, although white American society was in the full swing of Prohibition where those and other dubious activities were commonplace.
Nevertheless, Chinatowns became popular tourist attractions on both the West and East Coast. The incredible success of Pearl S. Buck's best-selling 1931 novel The Good Earth showed white America's fascination with exotic Chinese culture. The 1937 Hollywood movie version of The Good Earth exemplified America's determination to ignore the presence of Chinese Americans in the United States: it featured a white woman in the leading role wearing make-up to "look Chinese."
11.5 Students analyze the major political, social, economic, technological, and cultural developments of the 1920s. (11.5.2)