The Surprising Reason Why Chinatowns Worldwide Share the Same Aesthetic, and How It All Started with the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Anti-Chinese racism runs deep in American culture and law, beginning in the 19th century as competition intensified in California gold and land rushes. Chinese immigrants were pushed into teeming cities, then denigrated for surviving in overcrowded slums. To get a sense of the scope of the prejudice, we need only consider the 1882 law known as the Chinese Exclusion Act — the only legislation passed to explicitly restrict immigration by one ethnic or national group. The law actually goes back to 1875, when the Page Act banned Chinese women from immigrating. It was only repealed in 1943.

Although routinely evaded, the severe restrictions and outright bans on Chinese immigration under the Exclusion Act drove and were driven by racist ideas still visible today in tropes of dangerous, exoticized “dragon ladies” or sexually submissive concubines: roles given in early Hollywood films to the first Chinese-American movie star, Anna May Wong, who, after 1909 — despite being the most recognizable Chinese-American in the world — had to carry identification at all times to prove her legal status.

Wong was born in Los Angeles, a city that — like every other major metropolis — became home to its own Chinatown, and a famous one at that. But the most famous of the segregated urban areas originated in San Francisco, after the 1906 earthquake that nearly leveled the city and “came on the heels of decades of violence and racist laws targeting Chinese communities in the US,” notes Vox. “The earthquake devastated Chinatown. But in the destruction, San Francisco’s Chinese businessmen had an idea for a fresh start” that would define the look of Chinatowns worldwide.

The new Chinatown was more than a new start; it was survival. As often happens after disasters, proposals for relocating the unpopular immigrant neighborhood appeared “before the dust had settled and smoke cleared,” notes 99 Percent Invisible. “The city’s mayor commissioned architect and urban designer Daniel Burnham to draw up plans aligned with the City Beautiful movement.” Feeling they had to cater to white American stereotypes to gain acceptance, Chinese-American business leaders “hired architect T. Paterson Ross and engineer A.W. Burgren to rebuild—even though neither man had been to China.”

The architects “relied on centuries-old images, primarily of religious vernacular, to develop the look of the new Chinatown,” and the result was to create a genuine tourist attraction — an “iconic look,” the Vox Missing Chapter video explains, that bears little resemblance to actual Chinese cities. The Chinese immigrant community in San Francisco “kept their culture alive by inventing a new one,” a deliberate co-optation of Orientalist stereotypes for a city, its merchants decided, that would be built of “veritable fairy palaces.”

The New Chinatown was “not quite Chinese, not quite American”; safe for middle-class tourism and consumption and safer for Chinese businesses to flourish. The model spread rapidly. Now, in whatever major city we might might visit — outside of China, that is — the Chinatown we encounter is both a unique cultural hybrid and a marketing triumph that offered a measure of protection to beleaguered Chinese immigrant communities around the world.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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