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Taking Care of Our Own

Chinatowns also provided Chinese immigrants with the social support networks that were not available to them anywhere else. District associations, made of up immigrants who came from the same part of China, performed many of the roles that government agencies or charities would otherwise have fulfilled: They found jobs for new arrivals, cared for the sick and poor, and arranged for the bones of the dead to be sent back to their homeland. These associations soon became like a secondary system of government, and their leaders served as representatives to the non-Chinese population, sometimes becoming well-known public figures. Organized crime also arrived in Chinatowns, sometimes associated with organizations called tongs, but the district associations fought, usually successfully, to keep the neighborhoods free of serious gang activity.

Other civic organizations also formed to provide needed services in America's Chinatowns. In 1925, for example, fifteen service groups in San Francisco's Chinatown combined their efforts to raise funds to build the city's Chinese hospital. District associations, social service organizations, cultural groups, churches, and temples all played an important role in the social life of Chinatowns. Though most Chinese Americans now live outside of Chinatowns, many still participate in these organizations as a means of strengthening the fabric of community life.

Chinatowns soon became a source of fascination to many non-Chinese Americans. They were popular destinations for adventurous tourists, and were often portrayed in the media as either romantic enclaves of colorful Asian life, or as dangerous pits of vice. Tours of Chinatowns sometimes included staged arrests of supposed gangsters and assassins, who were then released as soon as the tourists and cameras had passed by. Today, the public image of Chinese American culture is much less sensationalistic, but tourism continues to be an important part of life in many Chinatowns.

For more about Chinatown in San Francisco, visit The Chinese in California, 1850-1925: San Francisco's Chinatown.

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