While Chinese people have been immigrating to the United States as far back as the 1848 California Gold Rush, they only moved to Cleveland in the late 1800s, numbering fewer than 100 until 1900. These settlements in Cleveland were spurred on by discrimination and acts of racial violence in the western United States. The most disturbing of these incidents was the 1871 Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre, which resulted in the lynching of 19 Chinese residents. Cleveland’s Chinatown became the theater for a wide array of historical events such as the 1911 visit by Dr. Sun Yat-sen and the Tong Wars. While the racial violence and discrimination did not cease upon entering Cleveland, the Chinese managed to build a strong community based on a love of Chinese culture, community aid, and a willingness to struggle for their democratic rights.
Chinese immigration to the United States sprang from a wide variety of factors that exposed the conditions of China itself. Corruption and opium consumption led to the disaster that was the First Opium War in 1840, which provided the foundation for the colonization of much of China. Additionally, a lack of economic opportunities in China led Chinese people to emigrate in search of gold, jobs, and education. Chinese immigrants worked in the gold mines of California and moved on to the Transcontinental Railroad. They moved east as racial discrimination grew, finding work as laundrymen and restaurant workers in cities across the United States. To protect their businesses, the Chinese formed merchant associations known as tongs, which functioned as both guilds and gangs. The feuds between tongs frequently got out of hand, leading to attacks from racist neighbors and police. Fearing the “Yellow Peril” associated with Chinese immigrants, the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, restricting immigration until World War II. Around the same time, a small population settled in Cleveland, creating what would become one of the nation's most notable Chinatowns.
Cleveland’s Chinese community started as a tiny enclave along Seneca Street (later West 3rd) but shifted two blocks east by the early 20th century to the block of Ontario Street immediately north of Public Square. Much like other Chinatowns across the United States, most Chinese businesses in Cleveland were restaurants or laundries. After moving to Cleveland from Chicago, Wong Kee opened the first Chinese restaurant in the city on Ontario Street and then opened a more prominent one called the Golden Dragon on the northwest side of Public Square. Businessmen formed tongs to protect their interests. Over the decades, the two main tongs that emerged were known as the Hip Sing Tong and the On Leong Tong.
While the Chinese faced a great deal of racism from surrounding communities, one notable exception was the congregation at Old Stone Church which was located on Public Square at the southern edge of the small Chinese settlement. Seeking to win converts and aid the local Chinese, the congregation sent missionaries, provided Chinese-language church services, and protected Chinese immigrants from racist policemen. Two notable members of the congregation, Mary and Marian Trapp, founded a Chinese Sunday School, and their efforts were rewarded with an embroidered depiction of Jesus Christ made by the students. With these successful efforts, the church would serve as both a school and community center. The founding of businesses and support from Old Stone Church established the Chinese as crucial contributors to the local economy and gave them local support.
With the establishment of a stable Chinese community came the concern for issues in China itself. Centuries of dissent against Manchu Qing authority in China crystalized into the Chinese Revolutionary Movement, which succeeded in 1911 after nearly two decades of trial and error. One leading figure of the movement was the exiled revolutionary and future president of the Republic of China Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who frequently visited communities in the Chinese Diaspora to raise funds for the revolution. Sun notably visited Cleveland in April 1911, raising money at Old Stone Church, and having his likeness depicted in the Cleveland Press. Months later, the Chinese Revolutionary Movement culminated in the Xinhai Revolution, ending Manchu rule and continuing the tradition of Cleveland’s Chinatown being involved in Chinese affairs.
The tongs of Cleveland had many feuds during their existence, but it was only in 1925 when what became known as the Tong Wars that they gained attention from the police. Wong Bao led the Hip Sing Tong while the brothers Wong Kee and Wong Xing swapped the responsibility of leading the On Leong Tong. The brothers’ leadership of the tong was also tied to the Golden Dragon restaurant, which they jointly managed for many years. This relationship to the tongs and the Golden Dragon restaurant also likely existed for Bennie Shea Lin, who was related to the Wong brothers and wrote a brief article on the Golden Dragon in 1964. Soon, the police arrested local Chinese residents in many raids, including many who were not in the tongs as well. Many Cleveland residents disputed these arrests, standing in solidarity with the Chinese community. One notable example was Reverend William Foulkes of Old Stone Church, who defended his Chinese neighbors over WHK radio. The raids and arrests ceased, but racial violence remained.
As the Tong Wars raged on, Chinatown moved to Rockwell Avenue. The On Leong tong had already purchased land along Rockwell Avenue and the purchase was apparently one of the causes of the Tong Wars. As the businesses on Ontario Street were torn down after the Tong Wars, many Chinese put their resources towards the new On Leong tong Headquarters on Rockwell. They donated ebony tables, chairs, drums, gongs, and other artifacts to the building. Various Chinese businesses soon moved to Rockwell and the area became the center for the Chinese community as the Great Depression began.
While the Chinese had found difficulty in settling in the United States, their love of Chinese culture and community aid gave them a sense of mission and made Cleveland’s Chinatown regionally and even nationally prominent. As in other cities, they created a strong business community that was organized via tongs. Their education at Old Stone Church attracted the attention of figures such as Sun Yat-sen. Their efforts to protect their democratic rights during the Tong Wars and support for the United States and China during World War II played a vital part in undoing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943. Cleveland celebrated by naturalizing one Zhu Yun On under the name Bennie Shea Lin, the first Chinese American to be naturalized since 1882. The Chinese faced many difficulties during their early years such as tong feuds, racial violence, and the police, but they overcame such challenges through strong community aid and a willingness to fight for their rights.