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San Francisco’s Chinatown

July 2024
12min read

A View From the Other Side of Arnold Genthe’s Camera

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.


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.

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.

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.

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