Laying Some History On You: Chinatown, 1906

San Francisco’s Chinatown is famous; it’s one of the oldest settled parts of San Francisco and visitors to the City usually make a point of stopping by. It’s filled with colour and legacy, dumplings and lanterns, and it’s a fascinating microcosm of the history of Chinese people in California; beneath those elegant fake pagodas lie racism, pastiche, political machinations, and an extremely turbulent history that built to a head on 18 April, 1906, when an early morning earthquake triggered cataclysmic property destruction in San Francisco.

Chinatown, San Francisco: A weathered sign for a restaurant against a worn, shabby building

(Photo by Flickr user coltera, Creative Commons license.)

Chinatown was intensely crowded; Chinese people were only allowed to live in this part of San Francisco and they flocked into cramped tenements, running a wide variety of businesses. White narratives about Chinatown during this era tend to focus on prostitution, gambling, and opium, but the Chinese community also ran restaurants, laundries, maid services. In the early morning of 18 April, the area would have been particularly packed.

It is difficult to get information about the extent of the devastation in Chinatown. The exact population of Chinatown at the time isn’t known, with estimates ranging from 14,000 to 20,000 people. Passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act had led to a radical decline in Chinese immigration and a shrinkage of the Chinese population in California, but by no means eradicated the Chinese population, much to the dismay of some anti-immigration advocates. Much of Chinatown was destroyed in the fire and no one bothered to keep a record of the dead; the city of San Francisco at first tried to underplay all deaths, and later estimates are based primarily on data from the white community.

Chintatown after the earthquake. A few brick walls are standing and the ground is covered in rubble.

The devastation in Chinatown was a direct consequence of racist immigration and social policy. What happened next was a direct outgrowth of that. By 26 April, an exploratory committee proposing a permanent relocation of Chinatown had formed. That committee consisted entirely of white people, including several people who were political enemies. They managed to breach the gaps of graft, corruption, and bitter political disputes, united in hatred of San Francisco’s Chinese community.

Why relocate Chinatown? It’s prime real estate, that’s why. Visitors to San Francisco may note that it’s in a premium area of town, readily accessible both from docks and the financial district. Early Chinese settlers chose well when they initially started building on the spot, and the city saw the earthquake as an opportunity to shunt the Chinese population off somewhere else.

Fire has reclaimed to civilization and cleanliness the Chinese ghetto, and no Chinatown will be permitted in the borders of the city…. it seems as though a divine wisdom directed the range of the seismic horror and the range of the fire god. Wisely, the worst was cleared away with the best. (The Overland Monthly, source.)

The ‘exploratory committee’ claimed to be concerned with the interests of the Chinese population and people who expressed concerns were placated with statements like this:

Some concern is expressed regarding the mooted possibility of the Chinese formerly in business here transferring themselves to other quarters. Such apprehensions are groundless. The Oriental, like the Western merchant, is in trade for profit, not for sentimental reasons. Like the Western, he will see that there are opportunities here and he will seize them. He is not enamored of any particular quarter of the city, and will probably be as glad to get away from his former noisome surroundings as we shall be to have him removed to some convenient place where he can conduct his affairs in a manner that will reflect credit rather than discredit on his race. (The San Francisco Chronicle, source.)

Much to the surprise of the relocation organisers, the Chinese government protested. A delegation including Chow-Tszchi, first secretary of the Chinese Legation in Washington; Chung Pao Hsi, Consul-General of San Francisco; and Ow Yang King, his assistant consul, made it clear to the city fathers that the Chinese government intended to rebuild their embassy exactly where it was before the earthquake: In the heart of the Chinese community. A number of hints suggesting that forced relocation would be extremely bad for foreign relations were also dropped. The message was clear: force the Chinese population to relocate at your own peril.

Yet, the saga doesn’t end there.

Visitors to Chinatown in San Francisco often take note of the distinctive architecture. That architecture is there for a very specific reason: Pastiche. A Chinese businessman, Look Tin Eli, took it upon himself to build a fantasy version of China, drawing upon the Orientalist themes so appealing to many Westerners. The goal was to make Chinatown a destination location, a distinction that remains to this day.

San Francisco - Chinatown Gate: Ornate Orientalist architecture spans the formal entrance to Chinatown.

(Photo by Flickr user Barry Yanowitz, Creative Commons license)

The architecture of Chinatown draws heavily on temple architecture; Chinese homes and businesses are usually not covered in a floofy wedding cake of nested roofs. Chinatown’s Chinese population built an artificial version of their homeland to create a playland for white people. To keep Chinatown viable? Thinking ahead to tourism? An fierce assertion of the right to belong? Probably a mixture.

Chinatown’s complex history is something for my fellow white folks who were unaware of it to ponder the next time they happen to be there, as is this side note: The destruction of city records in the fire led to a flood of ‘paper sons,’ family members people brought over from China because they were able to falsify their citizenship records. In response to the perceived peril of ‘unchecked’ Chinese immigration, the city established the Angel Island Immigration Station. Chinese and other Asian immigrants to the United States sometimes never made it past Angel Island, looking across the bay to the city before being deported on ships back to their homelands, a reminder that the ‘American dream’ was only open to some.