As far as we can find, the term “Chinatown” or “China Town” is American in origin. According to what historian Anthony Lee tells us, it was already used in local San Francisco publications in the 1850s. Yet the term was not widely known outside California until twenty years later. One of its first appearances in a national publication was in an article by General George Custer of Little Bighorn fame, published by him in The Galaxy Magazine in 1874. In it he quotes a letter written to him by one California Joe, who described his arrival back in Sacramento and how eventually he “slid out across to chinatown and they smelt like a kiowa camp in august with plenty buffalo meat around …”
The term appeared again a few times in 1875 and 1876 — for instance, in 1875 in an article in Scribner’s Monthly and in 1876 in the Chicago Tribune (referring to the Chinese district of Virginia City, Nevada) — and rapidly gained in popularity after that. By 1890, it was used in thousands of articles and books per year.
We do not know whether the term came into California English from some other language. One possibility is Malay, which frequently uses terms like Kota China and Kampung Tionghoa (both meaning China Town) and where many Chinese miners worked in the 19th century. Another possibility is one of the Chinese languages or dialects — Cantonese, Taishanese, Chaozhounese, Minnanese, Hakkanese. We are still looking for early Chinese newspapers or other documents that might refer to overseas Chinese communities as Chinatowns.
The term was not regularly used to refer to the Chinese community in Chicago until the 20th century. Before 1890, the earliest such community, the one around Clark and Van Buren, was rarely if ever called “Chinatown” in contemporary newspapers.
“Chinaman” also may be American in origin. The first use cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is in a letter by the Bostonian intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson, published in his Letters and Society, 1854. Emerson did not use it in a pejorative way. However, this is much later than “China-man” as used by the English sea captain John Meares in 1789 (see above).
Anthony Lee teaches in the Program in American Studies, Department of Art History, Mt. Holyoke College
References: G.A. Custer, “Life on the Plains,” The Galaxy, vol 18, no 4, p 471; Thomas J. Vivian, “John Chinaman in San Francisco,” Scribner’s Monthly, vol 12, no 6, pp 865, etc.; Chicago Daily Tribune, Mar 4 1876, p 3.
Research & writing by Ben Bronson and Chuimei Ho; copyright 2004-2006 by the Chinatown Museum Foundation.