In 19th century California , Chinese people comprised about 10 percent of the population . Most worked in the mines, on the railroads, and at agriculture: A few were merchants. While they were all too often subject to prejudice and persecution, Chinese Americans also built strong neighborhoods. In San Francisco, Chinatown became a stable community that continues today.
Chinese Americans needed to perform financial transactions—send and receive money, letters and packages. Wells Fargo served them and found their business integral to the company’s success. Wells Fargo had a Chinese interpreter in its San Francisco head office—Tam Tong, 1863-64—and in Sacramento. Wells Fargo’s Letter Express Department enjoyed a large volume of mail. That department in San Francisco employed three Chinese men to sort and deliver mail going to the Chinese community.
In spite of prejudice and violence against Chinese Californians, Wells Fargo welcomed their business. Chinese Americans were a significant portion of the business in some offices—in Folsom, Calif., for instance, a quarter of money transactions involved Chinese customers. In 1875, when Wong Sam produced an English-Chinese Phrase Book to aid communication, he included a list of Wells Fargo offices. Wells Fargo produced bilingual merchant directories in the 1870s and 1880s—the height of the anti-Chinese movement—to promote the economic viability of American Chinese communities. These directories listed merchants in:
- San Francisco (674 businesses)
- Sacramento (105)
- Marysville (42)
- Stockton (57)
- Oakland (69)
- San Jose (79)
- Los Angeles (42)
- Virginia City, Nev. (7)
- Portland, Ore. (65)
- Victoria, British Columbia (44)
These businesses—barbers, boarding houses, butchers, carpenters, bazaars, cigar factories, clam dealers, candy shops, clothing factories, doctors, dry goods, druggists, grocers, jewelers, junk dealers, lanterns, laundries, restaurants, rice stores, tinsmiths, toys, lumber yards—were all potential customers.
Wells Fargo’s head office in San Francisco, the Parrott Building at Montgomery and Sansome streets, had special significance to the Chinese community. In 1852, banker John Parrott imported granite blocks from China for the structure, marked and ready for placement. But Parrott had picked an unlucky site , then refused the demands of Chinese workmen to have the site “exorcised.” Two of California’s largest banks, tenants of the building, subsequently perished in the Panic of 1855 . Wells Fargo weathered the Panic, acquired the building, and invited the Chinese to purify the site. Thus cleansed, Wells Fargo moved into the Parrott Building and became “the bank of the Chinese.” Wells Fargo also managed to acquire the two failed banks!