A Brief History of Oakland’s Madison Square

Madison Square has been home to the Chinese community since the 1860s.

Madison Square, originally called Caroline Square, was one of seven public squares in the early days of Oakland. The residential district that grew up around it makes up the residential end of Tong Yan Fow--Chinatown--and has housed the Chinese community since its earliest days. By 1860, there were 200 Chinese residents out of a total population of 1500 in Oakland. 

In 1882 President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act which prohibited Chinese workers from coming to America and denying citizenship to those Chinese nationals already living and working here. This act suppressed the Chinese population in America for decades; Oakland’s Chinatown was no exception. There was widespread housing and employment discrimination. Few white employers would hire Chinese except as houseboys or agricultural workers. Even the refugee camp along the shores of Lake Merritt after the Great Quake of ‘06 was racially segregated with the Chinese refugees clustered in an area called the Willows, near the south banks of Lake Merritt, along the estuary channel.

Yet by 1906, due to the displacement of Chinese in other areas of the state, Oakland had gained 1,500 Chinese to its population. The Chinese community finally settled around 8th and Webster Streets where a business center sprang up with financing from very prominent and enterprising Chinese-owned firms. There were laundries, restaurants, retail stores, herb shops, and gaming rooms. Madison Square was a district of small Stick-style Victorian houses and light industry.

After the 1906 earthquake and fire thousands of Chinese poured into Oakland to escape the devastation in San Francisco. Oakland's current Chinatown is the latest (and hopefully the last) in a long line of relocations. Racial discrimination kept the Chinese community moving in Oakland. The first Chinatown was located around 14th and Washington Streets in the early 1860s. Then the community resettled in the east side of Telegraph Avenue at 17th Street. A fire in 1867 destroyed the Telegraph Avenue enclave which had grown significantly with the influx of Chinese men who had come to California to work on a variety of public works projects after the building of the the transcontinental railroads. They built the dams that formed Lake Chabot and Lake Temescal. They helped dredge the Tidal Canal that made Alameda an island. They also worked in jute mills and in the redwoods, clearing trees. They worked in explosives factories and in the fishing industries. The Chinese were again forced to move to the west side of San Pablo Avenue between 17th and 19th Streets, then to the Embarcadero between Brush and Castro Streets.

Just two months after the earthquake, the former chief of police and president of the South Improvement Club Louis Schaffer pleaded with city officials to restrict the growth of Chinatown. Schaffer, in a written resolution to council and the board of health, requested they:

“restrict the district in which Chinese shall be permitted to reside (other than domestic servants), to that portion of the city lying south of Fifth Street and west of Harrison street, upon the ground and for the reason that the threatened invasion of Chinese to the territory south of Fifth street and east of Harrison will mean the practical destruction of a fine residence portion of the city, in which large numbers of costly homes have been erected and in which their owners now reside; and upon the further ground as a sanitary measure and, in the interest of the public health and good morals, the Chinese should be restricted to that portion of our city already occupied by them.”


During the Second World War many Chinese were drafted into military service and many others volunteered, particularly after Japan invaded China. Laws that once restricted Chinese immigration and employment eased as the United States became more entrenched in the war and the demand for labor and soldiers increased significantly. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was repealed in 1943, making it possible for foreign-born Chinese to apply for American citizenship. Madison Square residents found employment in the shipyards, at the Naval Supply Depot, and in canneries. With better job opportunities, Chinatown prospered. The Chinese population increased from 3,000 people in 1940 to 5,500 by 1950. There were 200 Chinese-owned business in Oakland including 44 grocery stores. By mid-century housing discrimination against the Chinese had eased somewhat and people began to relocate to other parts of town, but Chinatown remained the chief business and social district for the Chinese community.

The Madison Square district was also the site of one of the city's most infamous miscarriages of justice. On February 19, 1942 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed executive order 9066, he authorized the Secretary of War to round up people of Japanese descent and relocate them to camps in the U.S. interior. Oakland's small Japanese community was also based in Madison Square. The building at 125-12th Street, now the home of the Alameda County Law Library, was the processing center for internees. Store owners, students, seniors, teachers, community leaders were among those instructed to report to this building, bringing only what they could carry. They were transported first to Tanforan Race Track before being taken by rail to Topaz, Utah. Photographer Dorothea Lange’s most evocative photos were taken in Madison Square.


In 1964 the City of Oakland decided to sell Madison Square Park to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) District. This park had been the community's gathering point since the late 19th century. The agency's administrators wanted the land to locate its headquarters. They planned a six-story building between 8th and 9th Streets, Oak and Madison Streets, just above the Lake Merritt BART Station. The administration building was to house 400 employees, according to an Oakland Tribune article (1/28/1970). 

The Chinese community protested BART's encroachment on their neighborhood. Hundreds of people would be displaced. The construction of the Nimitz freeway had already destroyed a large portion of the neighborhood. The Laney College/Chinatown redevelopment plan and the building of BART in the early 1970s helped displaced 10,000 residents of the neighborhood. The city council was not in agreement about what to do with the proceeds of the sale of the park; some thought the sale could help finance the relocation of Madison Square, others thought it should go into the General Fund, and others thought the park relocation should be put off till some time in the future. The BART headquarters were eventually located across 8th Street from Madison Square Park.

Threats to the community space continued into the 1980s and 1990s. BART bought the 98-unit Madison Park Apartments, damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, in a 1990 foreclosure sale with the intention to tear the building down and build its administrative offices on the site. At the time of its construction in 1908, the Madison Park apartment building was the largest wooden apartment building in the West. At the time of the sale, it was on the National Register of Historic Places. That didn't deter BART's plans. Chinatown community leaders along with preservationists rallied to save the building, urging the transit agency to sell the building to the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC). The community badly needed affordable housing. Eventually in 1991 BART relented. EBALDC bought the apartment building and renovated it into a much-needed low-income housing development.

To learn more about Oakland's Chinatown, visit the Oakland History Center in the Main Library where the staff maintains books, municipal reports, newspaper clipping files, periodicals, and photographs on the Chinese community. Here are a few items you might find interesting:

BART Archives (41 scrapbooks, newspaper clippings files, brochures, and agency reports)

Peralta College - Chinatown general neighborhood renewal plan / April 14, 1967

Oakland Cultural Heritage Survey, volume 8/ Oakland Planning Department

Ted Dang oral history/ Oakland Chinatown Oral History Project

The Chinese of Oakland: unsung builders/ Eve Armentrout Ma and Jeong Huei Ma

Executive Order 9066: the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans/ by Maisie and Richard Conrat