In 1887, the Market Street Chinatown was burned to the ground. A major ethnic enclave in the Southern San Francisco Bay area during its heyday, it was the economic and cultural heart of the area’s Overseas Chinese community. As arsonists, emboldened by national, anti-chinese xenophobia, set fire to an American city, hundreds of spectators gathered to watched its destruction. A century afterwards, Archaeologists have started to uncover its buried ashes.
The history of Chinese immigration the United States began in the 19th century. Working as laborers for the California Gold Rush or in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, the vast majority of Chinese immigrants were men from China’s peasant class who intended to only stay in America temporarily and sent most of their wages home to their families. Fleeing the devastation of the British Opium War in the 1840s and the Taiping Rebellion in the 1860s, these early immigrants to California created the first Overseas Chinese communities in the United States.
Americans, not surprisingly, reacted with xenophobia. Chinese immigrants were seen as insular and foreign; unlike other immigrants, they were said to not assimilate into general American society, forming their own threatening communities. The perceived racial threat of Chinese laborers, who competed with white workers for economic opportunities, lead to a litany of anti-Chinese outbursts, discriminatory laws, and violent hate-crimes. This lead to the beginning of what is now known as Yellow Peril, the pervasive racism against East Asians in the West. Anti-Chinese sentiment became state-sanctioned as immigration from China to the United States was significantly slowed by passage of the Page Act in 1875 and completely prohibited by the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. 
In the 1980’s, construction at the Market Street site unearthed one of the largest assemblages of Overseas Chinese archaeological materials in North America. Glass bottles, ceramics, wood, charcoal, and botanical remains were all uncovered during excavation. Unfortunately, these artifacts were left unanalyzed until recently.
Lead by Barbara Voss, Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University, the Market Street Chinatown Project began in 2002 and continues today. Utilizing a multidisciplinary approach, they have committed themselves to uncovering the forgotten context of this site through rigorous analysis of the recovered archaeological materials.
So far, analysis of the excavated soil by archaeobotanists in the team have revealed what residents of the Market Street Chinatown ate and some of their economic activities. Looking at the remains of miro-botanicals, such as pollen,from different species which have been preserved in the archaeological record, can reveal what plants a population used and ate. During their analysis, the team first isolated pollen grains from the excavated soil through a complex filtration process and then identified and counted them under a microscope. What they found was that residents of the Chinatown ate a largely Chinese diet, importing some of their food from Asia, but also buying produce from the local community, no doubt supporting non-Chinese farmers in the region. Further research on animal bone remains have revealed that they also incorporated some western practices in their diet, including visiting non-Chinese butchers as evidenced by western cuts of meat in the recovered material.
An analysis of recovered medicinal glass bottles and their residual contents, by Pearle Lun, a Stanford graduate student, has also shed light on the medical practices of the residents. Lun notes that at the time of its destruction, the Market Street Chinatown was said to be a medical menace for the region’s wider community, a breeding ground for disease. Xenophobia had cast a specter of infection on the neighborhood and anti-Chinese sentiment led to the racist assumption that residents were vectors who needed to be dispersed. This no doubt contributed to the neighborhood’s destruction. However, Lun found no evidence of wide-scale contagious illness or a neighborhood disregard for medicine. Cataloging the recovered glass bottles, she found that the residents used traditional chinese medicine as well as the western alternatives that were in widespread use in the region.
Their work has challenged the narrative that the Chinese-Americans living in Market Street were insular or wedded completely to Chinese culture. This stereotype of Chinese-Americans, and other non-white, Asian immigrants as perpetual foreigners, began in the late 19th century and continues to this day. Voss and her team showed that while Chinese-Americans in the 19th century maintained strong cultural ties to Asia, they also became vital parts of their own American community, forging important business partnerships with non-Chinese and building economic links throughout the Pacific Rim. They did not find an isolated community, consciously separating themselves from the rest of the region. What they uncovered was a thriving community of Americans, embracing their new lives while holding onto their roots, which was forcibly destroyed in the fiery crucible of racism.
As Trump and other politicians riding the contemporary ethno-nativist wave continue to paint immigrants as perpetually foreign ‘Others’ who cannot assimilate into American society by virtue of their inextricable difference, the history of anti-Chinese sentiment and the archaeology of the destruction it leaves behind serves as a painful reminder of the result of this language. For immigrants who have been victimized throughout our history and the immigrants who are being victimized now, America was and is a dangerous place.
Voss, Barbara L. “The archaeology of overseas Chinese communities.” World archaeology 37.3 (2005): 424-439.
 Tchen, John Kuo Wei, and Dylan Yeats. 2014. Yellow peril!: an archive of anti-Asian fear.