By 1852 there were about 18,000 Chinese in California, perhaps 1 in 10 of the gold seekers. Chinese miners kept a low profile, given the anti-foreigner sentiment of many American miners. They often mined claims that had been abandoned by American miners, or rewashed the tailings of other miners. They had learned to survive on relatively little. If they made a major strike they kept quiet about it, for fear that they would be driven off the claim by Americans.
Most of the Chinese went to Chinese Camp, a town a few miles south of the junction of Highways 108 and 120 that now has a tiny population, but which in the 1850s had five thousand Chinese. Chinese laborers, known as coolies, were typically brought here under a contact under which the worker agreed to work for white miners for a certain amount of time to pay for their passage here. This was arranged by Chinese associations in San Francisco. Most Chinese intended to return to China. Many had families, and under the contract system, about half of the $3 or $4 that the Chinese made per month was deducted to send to the minerís family in China. The young Chinese men typically went back to China at some point, stayed a year or two, and then came back to the mines. Some had never seen their children. There were very few women in the camps, and those were mostly brought to this country as slaves. Divorces were allowed according to Chinese law and custom for criminality, incompatibility, and too much talking by the wife.
Many of the Chinese moved to Sonora, and its Chinese population was about 400 in the 1860s and 70s. The main drag was an alley that ran from this street, Stewart Street, east to Shephard Street for only a single block. On this alley were Chinese stores, built side-by-side. Behind the stores were small shacks used for residences.
Some of the rooms in the shacks were used as dens for smoking opium. An opium den had a round table with opium pipes, a small box of opium, and a tool to scrape the crusted residue from the pipe. Smokers would lie on their side on a bench and smoke the opium, then scrape the residue, smoke it, scrape the residue from that, and put it in their mouth. The smoker then climbed into a bunk to let the drug work--this was called "going to heaven."
The wooden shacks and stoned-out opium smokers made for a big fire hazard, and all of Chinatown eventually burned to the ground.