Chinatown school was at center of anti-Japanese crusade in S.F.

Gordon J. Lau Elementary School is a bustling, modern institution in the heart of Chinatown. Few people know that in its earliest incarnation, it was the focus of a racist school segregation law that led to a diplomatic crisis so serious that President Theodore Roosevelt was forced to intervene.

It’s no secret that from the 1860s on, San Franciscans were hostile to Chinese immigrants. Trade unionists and blue-collar workers saw the Chinese as economic threats because they would work for less money, and white people in general regarded them as immoral inferiors. In 1882, California lobbying led to congressional passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which froze Chinese immigration for more than 60 years.

What is less well known is that San Francisco was also the birthplace of the nation’s most virulent anti-Japanese movement – one whose first major battle erupted over the Chinatown elementary school, then called the Chinese School.

Until 1880, San Franciscans did not take much notice of Japanese immigrants, mostly because there were so few of them. According to the 1880 census, there were only 148 Japanese in all of the United States. But as Japanese immigration increased, prejudice against them grew.

Whites saw the Japanese as even more dangerous, conniving and ambitious than the Chinese. The journal Organized Labor opined, “The sniveling Japanese, who swarms along the streets and cringingly offers his paltry services for a suit of clothes and a front seat in our public schools, is a far greater danger to the laboring portion of society than all the opium-soaked pigtails who have ever blotted the fair name of this beautiful city.”

As with the Chinese, San Francisco’s anti-Japanese movement was driven by organized labor, which became a power in the city in part by unifying against Asians. As Roger Daniels notes in his 1962 book, “The Politics of Prejudice: The Anti-Japanese Movement in California and the Struggle for Japanese Exclusion,” “The struggle against the Chinese is generally acknowledged to have ‘contributed more than any other one factor’ to labor’s strength.”

In 1888 the Coast Seaman’s Journal, the most important labor weekly west of Chicago, warned that there was “a recently developed phase of the Mongolian issue”: Japanese seamen were working on American ships. In 1892, the Morning Call newspaper ran a series of articles warning that Japanese immigration was “taking work away from our boys and girls (and) men and women.”

In 1900, California’s first large-scale public protest against the Japanese took place in San Francisco. The featured speaker was Mayor James Phelan, whose otherwise progressive political views were marred by his virulent anti-Asian attitudes.

“The Chinese and Japanese are not bona fide citizens,” Phelan told the crowd. “They are not the stuff of which American citizens can be made.”

Global outrage

In 1905, The Chronicle launched an all-out crusade against the Japanese, warning that an invasion of “the little brown men” constituted a grave peril to California.

Labor unions again took the lead in demanding that Japanese be barred from the country, and that those already here be denied citizenship and the right to marry white women.

The event that created an international firestorm was a seemingly trivial decision by the San Francisco Board of Education in fall 1906.

A year earlier, the Board of Supervisors had announced plans to remove all Japanese students from public schools and enroll them in the Chinese School on Clay Street between Powell and Stockton streets.

School board decree

The plan was not immediately implemented, but after the earthquake anti-Japanese tensions rose. Hoodlums assaulted a Japanese seismologist who was inspecting the damage, and other Japanese were beaten up.

In October, under mounting public pressure, the school board ordered all Japanese and Korean pupils in San Francisco to join the Chinese in what had been renamed the Oriental Public School.

The Japanese government reacted with outrage – some in Tokyo’s right-wing circles even talked of war. Roosevelt quickly dispatched his secretary of commerce and labor, Oakland native Victor Metcalf, to San Francisco to report on the situation.

Worried about Japan

Roosevelt was himself a confirmed racist, but he was also a pragmatist who did not want to fan tensions with Japan, which had recently announced itself as a world power by defeating Russia in the Sino-Japanese War. In a December speech to Congress, Roosevelt said, “To shut (Japanese students) out from the public schools is a wicked absurdity.”

Metcalf’s report revealed that instead of the hundreds or thousands of Japanese the press had warned of, there were only 93 Japanese students in all 23 public schools in San Francisco, 25 of them native-born U.S. citizens. He recommended that all Japanese in the U.S. be given the “fullest protection.”

The people of San Francisco, Phelan and the press were enraged at Roosevelt and even more at Metcalf, whom they regarded as a traitor to his state. The reaction was so violent that Roosevelt arranged a face-saving compromise with the Japanese government, the Gentleman’s Agreement, in which Japan agreed to severely curtail immigration.

A loophole, however, allowed Japanese in California to bring over wives known as “picture brides.”

Racism prevails

Infuriated whites saw the Japanese population growing, not diminishing, and their agitation helped lead to the Immigration Act of 1924, which prevented any further Japanese immigration for the next four decades. The anti-Japanese movement had won.

Today we associate outspoken racism with the fringe of the far right, but the campaign against Asians was supported by most Californians, including liberals and socialists. No less a champion of the working man than Jack London said, “I am first of all a white man, and only then a socialist.”

Come World War II, Californians’ anti-Japanese sentiment contributed to one of America’s greatest injustices. As Daniels writes, “Manzanar, Gila River, Tule Lake, White Mountain and the other relocation camps are the last testaments to their patriotic zeal.”

Editor’s note

Every corner in San Francisco has an astonishing story to tell. Every Saturday, Gary Kamiya‘s Portals of the Past will tell one of those lost stories, using a specific location to illuminate San Francisco’s extraordinary history – from the days when giant mammoths wandered through what is now North Beach, to the Gold Rush delirium, the dot-com madness and beyond.

Trivia time

Last week’s trivia question: Where did the longtime owners of three historic San Francisco restaurants – Tadich Grill, Sam’s Grill and Maye’s Oyster House – come from?

Answer: Croatia.

This week’s trivia question: Who owns the highest point in San Francisco?

Gary Kamiya is the author of the best-selling book “Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco,” awarded the 2013 Northern California Book Award in creative nonfiction. All the material in Portals of the Past is original for The San Francisco Chronicle. E-mail:

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Chinatown school was at center of anti-Japanese crusade in S.F.
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