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 It was only repealed in 1943.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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Learn the Untold His­to­ry of the Chi­nese Com­mu­ni­ty in the Mis­sis­sip­pi Delta

The Utopi­an, Social­ist Designs of Sovi­et Cities

The His­to­ry of West­ern Archi­tec­ture: A Free Online Course Mov­ing from Ancient Greece to Roco­co

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


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