header by Emerson Taymor, 2005

1. The Colonial Era: 1607-1763

2. The Revolutionary Era: 1763-1789

3. The Early National Period: 1789-1824

4. Jacksonian America: 1824-1848

5. Antebellum America: 1848-1860

6. The Civil War Era: 1861-1877

7. The Gilded Age: 1877-1901

8. Progressivism: 1901-1920

9. The Twenties

10. Depression and New Deal: 1929-1939

11. World War II: 1939-1945

12. Early Cold War: 1945-1963

13. Social Ferment: 1945-1960

14. The Sixties

15. The Seventies and After




San Francisco's Survivors

April 18, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor


ONE hundred years ago today, at 5:12 a.m., the quaking earth jolted Wong Bok Yue out of his bed in San Francisco's Chinese quarter. As the walls shook, Wong and his family fled their one-room apartment on Clay Street with nothing but the clothes on their backs. A neighbor carried Wong's two-year-old daughter, Bessie, while he carried his wife, who had bound feet. They hurried to Van Ness Avenue, where they huddled as buildings collapsed and fires spread. By nightfall flames had consumed Chinatown, home to the city's 25,000 Chinese.

The Chinese were just one group among the 200,000 San Franciscans left homeless by the great earthquake and fire of 1906. But their experience was singular, for only they faced the threat of permanent displacement — a threat, fueled by racism, they somehow managed to defeat.

Anti-Chinese prejudice, a staple of California politics since the 1870's, was still in full force at the time of the earthquake. In the days after the disaster both San Francisco and Oakland (where thousands of people sought refuge) barred Chinese from white relief camps. San Francisco officials put Chinese in tents at the foot of Van Ness, but worries that they might stay in the neighborhood led to their relocation to the golf links on the Presidio. After white neighbors protested that "the summer zephyrs will blow the odors of Chinatown into their front doors," the city moved the refugees again, to a more remote location on the Presidio near Fort Point.

Meanwhile, looters (mostly members of the National Guard) ransacked Chinatown. A crowd stoned to death a young Chinese man who tried to retrieve items from his home.

Taking advantage of the situation to promote their anti-Chinese agenda, nativists mobilized to drive the Chinese out of the city for good. The Overland Monthly proclaimed: "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."

Mayor Eugene Schmitz formed a committee to oversee the permanent relocation of the Chinese quarter. The goal was to move it from valuable land next to the central business district to Hunters Point, just over the city's southern border.

As the city began to rebuild, organized labor forbade union members from working on buildings at sites that had been cleared by Chinese labor. The Asiatic Exclusion League kept up the pressure: "We can withstand the earthquake. We can survive the fire. But the moment the Golden State is subjected to an unlimited Asiatic coolie invasion there will be no more California."

In the face of this opposition, the Chinese Six Companies, the community's merchant leadership group, and the Chinese consulate fought back. As property owners, they made it clear they would rebuild on their land. An official of the Chinese Legation told city officials, "America is a free country, and every man has a right to occupy land which he owns provided he makes no nuisance."

But it was economic interest — rather than patriotic appeal — that checked the momentum for removal. City officials realized that they stood to miss out on revenue from taxes paid by Chinese. Perhaps more important, San Francisco risked losing the China trade, as Oakland, Los Angeles and Seattle quickly offered their ports. Moving Chinatown to another area in San Francisco proved impossible because no other neighborhood would stand for it.

Keenly aware of racist sentiment, Chinese leaders sought to rebuild in a way that would let Chinatown overcome its reputation as an overcrowded, diseased bachelor's slum full of gambling and opium halls.

Promoting wholesome tourism was part of the plan. Look Tin Eli, a wealthy merchant and founder of the Bank of Canton, wanted to create a city of "veritable fairy palaces."

Toward that end the merchants hired American architects, who stuck pagoda-inspired rooflines and other Asian motifs on the facades of standard Western buildings to create an "Oriental" streetscape. The style, which had been used to great effect in the Chinese Village at the 1893 Chicago world's fair, gave the new Chinatown the air of a theme park.

Look Tin Eli's building at Grant and California, one of the first to feature the faux-Chinese style, housed a restaurant and an Oriental bazaar that sold ivory, porcelain, silks and other exotic items. The design strategy would soon be replicated in Chinatowns across the country.

In addition to promoting tourism, community leaders sought to bring about social change. Inspired by American reform movements at Hull House, Tuskegee and elsewhere, they promoted public hygiene, nuclear families and middle-class respectability.

They also emphasized Americanization, building a Chinese hospital with Western medicine, a Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A., a Chamber of Commerce and the Chinese-American Citizens Alliance. Other projects simultaneously strengthened the community's ties to Chinese culture and China: Chinese language schools were built, Chinatown residents worked to topple the Manchu dynasty back home.

For decades after the earthquake, San Francisco's Chinatown would remain a poor and marginalized community. Still, it was a community that never left town — despite the pressure to do so. What's more, out of the mix of rebuilding and reform a new Chinatown emerged, one that helped Chinese-Americans claim a place not just in San Francisco, but in cities across the United States.