San Francisco's Chinatown has long been the bedrock of Chinese America. Its colorful shops and exotic restaurants attract hundreds of thousands of global tourists each year. Now, as San Francisco prepares to mark the centennial of the 1906 earthquake and fire, historians recall how Chinatown, destroyed along with much of the city, almost wasn't rebuilt.
City leaders at the time of the quake set the total death count at more than 400. Researchers now think that 3,000 or more people died and that the fatalities were intentionally minimized so investors, needed to rebuild the city, wouldn't be scared away.
But no one knows how many people died in the densely packed blocks of Chinatown, with an estimated population of 14,000.
Racism against the Chinese was rampant in that age. Chinese immigrants had come to work in the railroads and mines and were widely viewed as a competitive threat to the working class, says California historian Kevin Starr.
"The most horrible moment of all was in the early 1870s in L.A., where some 14 Chinese were lynched by a mob," Starr says. "Fortunately, that never happened in San Francisco because even though there were anti-Chinese riots... the Chinese served notice they would meet anybody who came into their part of the city with rifles."
What the Chinese of San Francisco were prepared to defend was largely a bachelor society. Restrictive immigration laws prevented Chinese men from bringing their families to America. Before the quake, Chinatown had a reputation as a crowded slum rife with disease, brothels and opium. But Starr says Chinatown also had something that city leaders envied: it occupied one of the most desirable locations in the city.
"By 1906 on the verge of the earthquake, it suddenly dawned on the establishment of San Francisco that the prime real estate of the city... at the absolute epicenter, with its commanding views, was Chinatown," he says.
In fact, even before the '06 quake, the local newspapers editorialized in favor of moving the Chinese. After the quake, city leaders presented their plans to relocate Chinatown to the mud flats on the southern outskirts of the city. The plans were presented at a meeting between the city relocation committee, the Chinese Family Associations and the Chinese Consulate.
But the Chinese had different plans, says historian Judy Yung.
"The consul general said, 'The Empress is not happy about Chinatown being relocated. We intend to rebuild the Chinese consulate in the heart of Chinatown where it was,'" says Yung.
The Chinese also had another economic argument in their favor. They knew that their taxes contributed greatly to the city's coffers and that other Western port cities would welcome them.
San Francisco leaders relented and the reconstruction of Chinatown began about a year after the disaster.
But the buildings constructed were different from the ones destroyed, thanks to a businessman named Look Tin Eli. He convinced other merchants to follow his plan and hire American architects to redesign his building to look like China, in order to attract tourists. In many instances, the architects designed American-style buildings, but placed colorful pagodas with curled eaves and dragon motifs on top.
"And so you have this effect of the trademark of Chinatown today where it's very much an Oriental Disneyland," Yung says.
The earthquake of 1906 had a second, more far-reaching impact. Virtually all of the birth records in the city were destroyed. That allowed Chinese-born men to claim that they were American citizens, and therefore had the right to bring their families to America.
"To a certain extent the loss of the paperwork for immigration in San Francisco in April 1906 represented a kind of wholesale amnesty for the Chinese," Starr says.
The children who were brought to America came to be known as "paper sons," because many arrived with false or questionable documents.
When American immigration authorities discovered the ruse, they opened a way station on Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay where new Chinese immigrants were detained for months while they were subjected to tough interrogations to verify their identities.
But over time, Chinatown filled up again, with families that dwelled in overcrowded, single-room, dormitory-style hotels. Many, still in use today, are the focus of redevelopment efforts by the Chinatown Community Development Center, headed by Gordon Chin.
"This is the most densely populated neighborhood — 22 square blocks — in the entire country outside of Manhattan. There's not a single family-dwelling here," Chin says.
Chin wants tourists to see more than the neighborhood's many exotic restaurants and trinket and souvenir shops. So he has organized the "Adopt an Alleyway" Tours, conducted by young Chinese-Americans, to take tourists into Chinatown's alleys where they can see sights such as the famous Fortune Cookie Factory, a small shop in Ross Alley.
"People think that alleyways are dark, dank and dirty, but in Chinatown, alleyways are really shortcuts and they were my front door and playground," says Rosa Wong Chi, a tour guide who grew up in one of Chinatown's 41 alleyways.
The tours serve another purpose: They help bring young Chinese-Americans back to Chinatown. The neighborhood is still home to thousands of families, even though many may have moved on to other districts in or around San Francisco.
"This is a community where people are still engaged," Chin says. "That's why preserving Chinatown — keeping it a community where people will live and not just a tourist attraction — is very important spiritually."
And that's why the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco has a new exhibit called Earthquake, The Chinatown Story, to keep the history alive and make it relevant to the community. The society has been collecting stories and artifacts from the 1906 earthquake.
Milly Lee is a former librarian and grandmother. She recently donated some of her family's possessions to the CHSA. The most precious: an intricately carved wooden shrine about a foot and a half tall. Inside, there is a white porcelain statue of a female deity, Kwan Yin, "the one who hears the cries of the world." The shrine is one the few possessions that Lee's family saved as it fled Chinatown after the earthquake and fire on April 18, 1906.
"They knew what they must take when they left. This was a high priority," Lee says.
They also rolled up their ancestors' portraits and carried them on their cart.
Lee's mother was only eight years old at the time of the disaster. Lee wrote Earthquake, an illustrated children's book about her mother's experience:
"Up the steep hills, across the city, we pushed and pulled the heavy cart. All around us frightened people struggled with loads too dear to leave behind."
"My mother never sat down and told us about the earthquake," Lee says. "But we were on a camping trip and my daughter came home very excited and told PoPo, 'We slept in a tent.' My mother very casually said, 'I've slept in a tent before.' And I said where? And she said, 'Golden Gate Park. We were there for the earthquake.' Well, I had never heard it until then."
The Chinese Historical Society of America's exhibit, "Earthquake, The Chinatown Story," is on display at the Society's headquarters on Clay Street in San Francisco's Chinatown. It runs until Sept 17.