"New Chinatown," commonly known as Chinatown, is an excellent example of an immigrant, working-class and merchant community that developed in cities throughout America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is difficult to determine the exact date when Chinese first came to Portland but it can be assumed that many of the arrivals came overland from California about 1850. Most of the Chinese who settled in Portland originally lived in the Toi Shan, Yan Ping, Hoi Ping, and Sun Hui districts near Canton, in southeast China, and were from the same family, or clan.
Many of the early sojourners came to Portland from the northernmost gold fields of California and southwestern Oregon, while others arrived directly by steamship from China via San Francisco. In 1851, steamship service was established between Portland and San Francisco in order to supply goods and services to miners working in the gold fields. Direct trade between Portland and China was also established in 1851, when the brig "Amazon" came up the Willamette from Whampo, China, with a cargo of coffee, tea, sugar, and syrup. However, regular trade between the two
countries did not develop until several years later.
Although population growth was slow, several events caused an increase of Chinese in Portland. The lure of gold along with political unrest and economic deterioration in China was responsible for the migration of many Chinese across the Pacific. The Chinese laborers who came to Portland were usually poor peasants who came by choice because of the opportunity to make enough money to improve their lifestyle when they returned to China. From the beginning a majority of the Chinese that entered this country were sojourners, who did not intend to stay permanently. For that reason they retained their ancient customs and cultural traditions and lived inwardly within their own refuge, safe from the foreign ways they encountered in the new world. The demand for their traditional medicines, foods, and clothing encouraged entrepreneurial Chinese merchants to establish businesses in Portland.
Although the national economy was not flourishing in the early 1870's, Portland's economy was prosperous due to the development of woolen mills, paper mills and canneries. In 1872, for the first time, Portland and the State of Oregon had a large surplus in their balance of trade. Unfortunately, this year marked the first major anti-Chinese activities in Portland. On December 22, 1872, a fire destroyed two blocks of Portland's downtown business district. Chinese were accused of starting the fire and, within a short period of time, three separate anti-Chinese groups were formed who harassed the Chinese for a year until their interest in racial-conflict diminished.
During the next ten years there were no more vigilante actions but politically, the "Chinese Question" remained an issue. Several exclusionist politicians and Portland mayors were elected because they were anti-Chinese. The "Chinese Question" finally became a national issue in February, 1879, when Congress passed an act which prohibited Chinese immigration. However, President Rutherford B. Hayes vetoed the legislation because it violated previous treaties with China. In reaction to the veto, a mass meeting was held in Portland on March 3, 1879, and five resolutions were passed demanding that the bill be approved by the President. In 1880, President Hayes appointed two men to re-negotiate the Burlingame Treaty with China; it had been in effect since 1868 and recognized the right of free immigration. The new 1880 treaty allowed the United States to regulate, limit, and temporarily suspend but not completely prohibit Chinese immigration.
Two years later, a series of Chinese Exclusion Acts were passed, prohibiting an entire ethnic group from immigration for the first time in United States history. It also denied Chinese the right of naturalization. These acts were in effect for only ten years, but other acts such as the 1888 Scott Act, the 1892 Geary Act, and the 1924 Immigration Act, effectively limited Chinese immigration, without limiting Other nationalities. After 1924, most Chinese-Americans also lost their right to bring spouses and children to the United States. This policy was repealed in 1943, when China gained status as a U.S. ally.
--adapted from the National Register of Historic Places registration form