- Historic Sites
San Francisco’s Chinatown
A View From the Other Side of Arnold Genthe’s Camera
December 1978 | Volume 30, Issue 1
Genthe’s pictures show so much, and yet do not tell enough. There is, for example, an interesting picture of a Chinaman contemplating a dead, strung-up wildcat, which Genthe claimed would be eaten “raw” by hatchetmen. I am sure that the lynx will be eaten: from my own experience, I know that Chinese will experiment with all kinds of food. But it will not be eaten raw by thugs in some sort of savage blood ceremony. Some housewife or group of men who cook together will buy the lynx and go home to prepare it, probably with a good sauce.
Another example of his seeing the details but missing the overview is the preponderance of children in his pictures. We see men carrying children, walking hand in hand with them, groups of children playing—the wonderful picture of the row of children playing like circus elephants, holding on to one another’s pigtails—and this gives the impression that Chinatown was a healthy community of flourishing families when exactly the opposite was the actual, lonely situation. Notice how formally and carefully the women and children dress—elaborate headdresses, silks, not a child among them in street-urchin rags. Women and children were valued, specially treated because they were so rare. How protective and attentive the men in the pictures are. It was not until the second half of this century that the American immigration laws allowed Chinese women to enter the U.S. on the same basis as men—whose own immigration was restricted by the Chinese Exclusion Acts. The wives of treaty merchants and ambassadors were allowed to accompany them, and these may be the aristocratic-looking women we see in the pictures. Genthe said that women rarely walked about in the streets except on certain holidays, and women who were valued would certainly act that way. (I question whether the girls in the photographs whom he called “Slave Girls” were really slaves; even in China, slaveowners were duty-bound to find husbands for their slaves at an early age, and to free them upon marriage. There would have been no problem in this country finding husbands; and men found it difficult enough to smuggle themselves into this country, let alone bring slave girls.) There are even now Benevolent Associations and hotels filled with old men who never could send for their wives. No wonder white housewives defended Chinamen as good nursemaids, no matter what heathenish rites they practiced on their nights off in Chinatown; white children were the only children they could cuddle and cherish. The typical Chinaman was a bachelor; Chinatown was a bachelor society. The Chinese American family and the Chinese American woman like me are relatively new phenomena. Genthe’s pictures of crowds consisting entirely of men was the way Chinatown usuallv must have looked.
There is a photograph Genthe entitled No Likee that breaks the heart. To me and to the people I showed it to, the man looks as if he were weeping in public and covering his face with his big sleeve. I saw him as a man who could no longer face his hard American life stoically and, alone in this alley of a street, began to cry. Genthe said he was merely hiding from the camera. “He would notice you no more than a post—unless you pulled a camera on him.” He thought that Chinese did not like having their pictures taken because of primitive superstitions. Therefore he devised ways to hide his camera, which caught people in natural poses. The people Genthe asked to be his subjects must have been fooling him; even Chinese in China enjoyed having their pictures taken. When the camera was invented, instead of just writing their names on plaques for the family hall, Chinese had their portraits hung. No public event was complete without a group photograph of all participants. Homesick men and waiting wives, parents, and children exchanged photographs whenever they could afford it. They refused to let Genthe take their pictures, not because of exotic beliefs but because they were afraid of incurring trouble from the white authorities with their Exclusion Acts and deportation laws. Those Chinese who allowed Genthe to take their pictures full face—the sword dancer, the paper gatherer, the smiling cook—were probably bona fide Americans with no secrets to hide.