- Historic Sites
San Francisco’s Chinatown
A View From the Other Side of Arnold Genthe’s Camera
December 1978 | Volume 30, Issue 1
Once a year or so, we drive our parents to San Francisco to spend the day in Chinatown, where they stock up on Chinese goods like picture frames, petit-point patterns, honey, mushrooms. They believe that they could not buy picture frames better than these unless they traveled to Asia. Sometimes they skip a year or two because a trip from Stockton to San Francisco is a journey into foreign territory—urban, competitive, the people like Hong Kong city slickers, not at all like the people in the San Joaquin Valley, where villager is still neighborly to villager as in the Chinese countryside they remember, helping one another, “not Chinese against Chinese like in the Big City.”
San Francisco Chinatown shows off for the tourists; our Chinatowns blend into the Valley towns and cities. Our businesses and houses are spread out, not concentrated into a few blocks. Yet our communities are more tightly knit. We speak the peasant dialects. We know one another. Gossip gives each person a reputation. The boys would find it very uncomfortable to dress like punks and hoods, because everybody would talk about them and stare and point. In San Francisco there are Chinese and Chinese Americans who are fabulously rich and hire immigrants at twelve cents and twenty-five cents an hour. In the Valley, even the richest women work in the fields. We are closer to the earth; no one lives in apartment houses. If we don’t have a farm, we work our yards into fruit groves and vegetable gardens.
It’s not only the older generation which sees differences between the Big City Chinese and the rest of us in Stockton, Sacramento (Second City), Marysville (Third City because it was the third largest in Gold Rush days), Lodi, Locke, Watsonville, Tracy, and other central California towns. My own scholarly friends have complained how the Big City Chinamen refuse to share research work, whereas we Valley Chinamen will help each other get ahead. We show notes and let each other read manuscripts in progress. (The term “Chinamen,” by the way, is used here as neither denigration nor irony. In the early days of Chinese American history, men called themselves “Chinamen” just as other newcomers called themselves “Englishmen” or “Frenchmen”: the term distinguished them from the “Chinese” who remained citizens of China, and also showed that they were not recognized as Americans. Later, of course, it became an insult. Young Chinese Americans today are reclaiming the word because of its political and historical precision, and are demanding that it be said with dignity and not for name-calling.)
I was raised to say “Hello, Aunt” and “Hello, Uncle” to all older Chinese people I passed in the street, whether or not I had ever met them before. Although in recent years this custom has been practiced less frequently because of the large influx of strange immigrants, in San Francisco I still have a sense of committing many rudenesses as we walk through crowds of ethnic Chinese without greeting them, treating them like white people.
Paradoxically, my parents also see San Francisco Chinatown as a relic of the past, foreign not because it is so American but because it is like an exciting Chinese city before the Revolution. As if she were in the Canton or Shanghai or Macao of the thirties, my mother bursts into the San Francisco stores yelling at the clerks and bargaining fiercely. “You won’t sell me these picture frames, huh?” she shouts. “We’ll sell them,” they answer, “but not at your price. You have to pay the price on the tag.” They are modern young American salesclerks who have not had to deal with a woman like her. “All right for you,” she shouts. “If you won’t sell them to me, I’m taking them for free.” She picks up the frames and walks toward the door; she seldom has had to take such drastic measures, but she is dealing with clerks who have not come down one cent. We are embarrassed that our mother is making such a scene, but she doesn’t often get a chance to bargain so combatively. The clerks are out-bluffed and rush to the door to stop her. They agree to a huge discount, which they’ll probably have to make up out of their own pockets. We carry the frames for her, and go on to the next store.
Instead of lunching in a restaurant, my parents want to eat with my aunt and uncle, recent immigrants from Hong Kong. We find their building, then tunnel along looking for their door among the many doors on either side of the dark hallway. They and their children live in a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchen the size of a closet; the children have bunk beds in the bedroom, and the adults sleep on the sofa, which takes up all the space in the living room. The entire apartment is about the size of one room in an ordinary house. We leave our parents with our aunt and uncle, no room anyway for so many of us, and go to Ghirardelli Square and other parts of San Francisco that our parents have no curiosity to visit.