- Historic Sites
San Francisco’s Chinatown
A View From the Other Side of Arnold Genthe’s Camera
December 1978 | Volume 30, Issue 1
I remember, however, that when I was a child, our parents did once take us to a restaurant in Chinatown. Perhaps it was part of a wedding celebration. The walls were covered with blown-up black-and-white photographs of Chinese people. They were like pictures out of the earliest pages of our family album—that familiar—but not stiff and formal. People had been caught going about their daily lives; children were shown playing and not standing like soldiers. Because of their old-style Chinese clothes, which they were wearing while playing and not just for special occasions like school assemblies, it struck me that all those children had grown up and died, but they had been playing and didn’t think about that. The older people were very wrinkled, laugh wrinkles and work wrinkles. The way their eyelids folded and their noses grew, the way their faces showed hardships and dignity and humor—I felt connected to them, as if their faces gave me my face, as if I understood very clearly where my face came from. I felt enlarged. That was the first time I had seen Arnold Genthe’s photographs. “Those pictures are the way our grandfathers lived,” the adults said. “That’s the way it was in China.” “No, no,” others said, “it’s not China. Those were Americans.” As an adult, I have looked for this restaurant on my own rare trips to San Francisco Chinatown but have not found it again.
As I look at Genthe’s pictures now, essentially I feel the same way I did when a child, but I also see more particularly because I know more of our history. I can measure more exactly the distance between me and the people in the pictures. I know now that Genthe took the pictures before the San Francisco earthquake, which was only seventy-two years ago, not centuries. The people had looked so ancient—so Chinese. The earthquake, a true holocaust, must have suddenly changed everything. As the old people said, there were different San Franciscos before and after the holocaust. Out of the fire there was also born a new generation of American citizens; since it was illegal for Chinamen to apply for citizenship, they claimed that their American birth certificates had gone up in flames with the Hall of Records. Coincidentally—and many Chinamen believe it wasn’t coincidence at all but conspiracy—Honolulu, Los Angeles, and Walnut Grove Chinatowns were also burned completely, Honolulu ostensibly because a wind blew plague fires out of control; Los Angeles during a massacre of Chinamen; Walnut Grove because of “crowded conditions.” On the outskirts of Walnut Grove, the Chinese rebuilt themselves a new town of their own, Locke, the only town founded by Chinese in America. Chinamen were also lynched and driven out of Rock Springs, Denver, Seattle, Portland, Tacoma, Juneau. Whatever Chinatowns these cities have today have been rebuilt. No wonder Genthe’s Chinatown looks like such a foreign, bygone time and place.
Another person who left records of San Francisco Chinatown before the earthquake was Ng Poon Chew, the newspaper editor who founded the Chung Sai Yat Po (The ChineseWestern Daily) in 1900. He kept his readers informed about the continually changing, tricky employment and immigration laws, praised Chinese American accomplishments, deplored injustices. He gave Chinamen advice on how to survive in America. White Americans, he said, hated Chinamen because whites could not see the common humanity beneath the pajama pants, the gowns, the high collars, the queues. He recommended that Chinamen dress like whites and learn English; they ought to look and act like Americans because they were Americans. He made himself an example of such a well-dressed Chinese American gentleman by cutting his hair, growing a thick mustache, and always wearing a suit, vest, and tie in photographs. A Presbyterian who spoke eloquent English, he was one of the most popular lyceum attractions in the United States.
Looking over Genthe’s pictures, I see no men dressed like Ng Poon Chew. I wonder whether Genthe had to aim his camera selectively in order to frame out what he felt were anachronisms. There must have been men who took Ng Poon Chew’s sartorial advice. Indeed, Genthe, who managed to photograph Greta Garbo, could have tracked down Ng Poon Chew himself.
What is missing from Genthe’s Chinatown photographs are white people, whose presence would have broken the spell of a self-contained, mythical Cathay. There have been rough times when Chinatown was supposed to have been an armed stronghold inaccessible to Caucasians, but usually it has been an integral part of an American city, eight blocks in the very center of San Francisco. Chinatown depends on a vigorous, aggressive relationship with white America to survive. Surely, white businessmen, tourists, gamblers, customers could be seen dealing with the Chinese inhabitants. Some Chinese men brought white wives back to China with them. I would have enjoyed seeing pictures of those American women who were willing to give up their citizenship to marry a Chinaman. The immigration laws took citizenship away from such a woman, did not grant citizenship to her Chinaman husband. If Genthe could not find cosmopolitan people to photograph, he could have recorded the streets at the boundary of Chinatown. Perhaps there were Chinese business signs next to English signs, contrasts between crowdedness and spaciousness, squalor and affluence. Perhaps the differences were barely perceptible, everyone living like Chinamen at the turn of the century. But the context for Chinatown has always been white America, and by omitting Caucasians from the pictures, Genthe isolated the Chinese and added to the stereotype of the exotic, mysterious, inscrutable Oriental.