- Historic Sites
San Francisco’s Chinatown
A View From the Other Side of Arnold Genthe’s Camera
December 1978 | Volume 30, Issue 1
The laws were made so that it was very easy for the Chinaman to get in trouble. The picture of the vegetable peddler with his two baskets on a pole could have gotten that man jailed, fined, or deported. There were laws against using poles on San Francisco streets. The U.S. Supreme Court overruled certain state and city laws, such as a San Francisco health-inspection law for laundries, on the grounds that they had been passed for the purpose of harassing Chinamen, but often as soon as a law was repealed, it would be passed again in another form by another legislature or city council. Other anti-Chinese laws included a “police tax,” which every Chinese over eighteen not already paying a monthly miner’s tax had to pay for the extra policing he needed, a queue tax, a shoe tax, special curfews, a “cubic air ordinance” (which required that each residence have so many cubic feet of air for each inhabitant, thus keeping Chinese from sharing housing). Chinese said that they were treated like dogs, who also had to be licensed and chased by dogcatchers. It was easy for a Chinaman to become a criminal, and inevitable that he would take the law into his own hands with his own courts and police system. An 1850 law held that “Mulattoes, Negroes, and Indians” could not testify in court “either for or against any white man”; later, it was broadened to include “Mongolians” on the grounds that they were racially related to Indians.
There are no farmers in Genthe’s pictures, even though farming was sometimes the only legal work left for a Chinaman. After building the Central Pacific Railroad, the Chinese, using shovels and wheelbarrows, leveed and filled in the California delta and created one of the most fertile farm regions in the world. Nonetheless, there were laws that Chinese could not own land.
Periodically, the state of California as well as various cities forbade “Mongolians” from obtaining business licenses. Also, any individuals or corporation representatives who hired “Chinese or Mongolians” could be imprisoned or fined. The 1879 California Constitution provided that public works hire no Chinese labor. Chinese were thrown out of the cigar industry and the shoe industry. In Marysville and other places, white miners dynamited shafts and tunnels with Chinese miners inside. Only Chinese fishermen had to pay fishing taxes and shellfish taxes—even though they had begun the shellfish trade. As California tried to corner him and annihilate his livelihood with laws, the Chinaman moved from the coast inland, from the cities to the countryside, from the countryside back to San Francisco, from the Valley back to the coast; there was no getting rid of him.
Jobs were legal or illegal depending upon the need for Chinese labor. It was all right to hire Chinese as cooks and nursemaids. Genthe took several pictures of such men, including the one of the sunny, smiling cook. During the Driving Out period after the building of the railroads, Chinamen were captured and locked up in a shed near the presidio. Housewives selected “houseboys” to take home, as if the Civil War and Emancipation had not happened.
Genthe took pictures of Chinatown on the brink of change. Nineteen hundred is the midpoint of Chinese American history. The one image that symbolizes this change for me is the queue. Almost every male in the photographs wears a pigtail. The spirit of revolution had not reached San Francisco. Over the centuries, Chinese men had grown pigtails as signs of subjugation to the Manchus and their successors. By the turn of the century, Sun Yat-sen already had made several inspiring appearances in San Francisco, and young revolutionaries were cutting off their queues in defiance of oppression. I can see from Genthe’s photographs that the movement still had not become popular. But the revolution was to come very soon, and just a few years, possibly a few months, after these pictures, there would not have been any man with a queue on these streets.
If Genthe were to take pictures in Chinatown today, there would be at least one similarity to the pictures of the past: the settings would still be the streets. Even now, Chinese and Chinese Americans would not take him into Chinatown homes. I would not invite him to come with me to visit my aunt and uncle. Homes are for families and for friends who are almost family. Also, it is very embarrassing for us to have outsiders see us cramped into closets. I wouldn’t want to have to explain that the rent is as high as for houses or apartments outside Chinatown. On the other hand, Genthe was not one to feel sorry for the people he photographed. He looked at them in wonder.