2006

Earthquake: The Chinatown Story

Chinese Historical Society of America

The Rebirth of San Francisco Chinatown 1906-2006
Fire in Chinatown after the earthquake, as onlookers watch. (Library of Congress collection)

On Wednesday, April 18, 1906, 5:13AM, a devastating earthquake hit San Francisco. Although the earthquake and aftershocks were powerful, it did not cause serious damage to the structures in Chinatown. However, the quake caused widespread fires and broke the water mains. Soldiers used explosives to create a firebreak. By 4:00PM, the troops demolished the buildings on Kearny and Clay Streets. Unfortunately, instead of stopping the fire, the explosions caused new fires. By April 19, all of Chinatown was reduced to a heap of ashes. The fire burned for four days and four nights.

EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS

Downtown at Bush and Market Streets. (California Historical Society)
Jessie Lee Quon

Jessie Lee Quon remembered the building shaking and pots falling from the shelves during the earthquake. After collecting necessities in a laundry basket, the Quon family left for Golden Gate Park.

Ruby Tom Joe

Ruby Tom Joe awoke to her father yelling “EARTHQUAKE” in Cantonese. Later, the children went outside and watched the massive flames approaching their home. The family fled Chinatown, seeking refuge at Golden Gate Park.

Lee Yoke Suey Birth Certificate

After fleeing Chinatown, merchant Lee Yoke Suey returned home to retrieve his birth certificate. Without proof of citizenship, he risked being detained or deported. Mistaken for a looter, a soldier bayonetted him. Lee Yoke Suey played dead, and eventually rejoined his family.

Lee Yoke Suey family portrait, 1909

PLANS FOR RELOCATION

(Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)
Other around the Bay Area also used the post-quake moment to advocate for removing the Chinese members of their communities. (Oakland Enquirer April 23m 1906)
(Him Mark Lai Collection/ East Asian Library, University of California, Berkeley)

“On the eighth day of this moon, the San Francisco Examiner reported: Those who managed the properties of Chinatown said that the lands in Chinatown would eventually be sold to rich Westerners to build opulent residences, because the hill behind was an effective wind barricade and in front was the arresting beauty of the port and the river. Furthermore, Chinatown was right next to the commercial areas that offered great convenience, Chinatown in the old days was an expensive location. Now that Chinatown is burnt down to the ground, perhaps the same high price ca be fetched once more. In fact, many people have already gone there to negotiate prices.”

Proposed 1906 relocation site for Chinatown. Today the site is a power relay station and marshy land along Bayshore Boulevard. (CHSA)

CHINESE RESPONSE TO RELOCATION

AS SOON AS MAYOR SCHMITZ DECREED CHINATOWN'S DESTRUCTION, CHINESE LEADERS MOBILIZED TO FIGHT THE RELOCATION.

Chung Sai Yat Po, the only Chinese Newspaper to resume operation after the quake, helped galvanize the Chinese community. Editor Ng Poon Chew published three suggestions to keep the Chinatown location:

1) hiring lawyers to protect the Chinese interests

2) rebuilding immediately without waiting for city officials, and

3) signing new leases with white landlords to assist in rebuilding

While some San Franciscans discussed removing Chinatown, others realized its loss would strike a severe blow to the city's economy.

Ng Poon Chew, Editor of Chung Sai Yat Po (CHSA, Thomas W. Chinn Collection)
(Courtesy Him Mark Lai Collection/East Asian Library, University of California, Berkeley)

ON HOW THE CHINESE SHOULD REBUILD CHINATOWN AS SOON AS POSSIBLE

Ever since the city has been devastated by fire, all Chinese yearn to rebuild their community and their homes. However, Though everyone wants to rebuild, everyone insists in different ways. Why? Westerners have suggested moving the Chinese people out of Chinatown. This suggestion has been raised for quite a while and for quite a number of times. Now that the Great Fire has happened, it provides an opportunity to raise the issue again. Can we not move? There is widespread public opinion that now Chinese must necessarily move out of Chinatown. But if we try our best to fight to stay, who knows who will win in the end? If we are united, if we help ourselves and help each other , we can make the difficult possible. I humbly offer the following suggestions for the Chinese to tackle the present situation. 

1. Hire famous attorneys to represent us as soon as possible.

2. If the Chinese living in Chinatown are also themselves landlords, they should restore their building as soon as possible. And there is no need to inform local officials. According to U.S. laws, if the land belongs to the building owner, the landlord has the right to build on his land. Local officials have no right to stop him. The present city officials are [with the anti-Chinese union faction]. If we apply through them, they will try to stop us. So it's better not to go through them.

3. If the Chinese rented from the western landlords, the Chinese renters should speak with their landlords as soon as possible and ask them to rebuild and rent the building. Western landlords like to rent their houses to Chinese because the rent in Chinatown is higher than elsewhere. Secondly, Chinese are content with the status quo and they demand very little, if at all, from their landlords. Western landlords find renting to the Chinese good deals.

The above three strategies should be implemented by we Chinese quickly, or we will soon regret it.

NOW FEAR THAT THE CHINESE MAY ABANDON CITY

San Francisco Chronicle May 2, 1906

Citizens of San Francisco Are Now Confronted With Problem in Which Trade With Orient Is Involved.

CHINESE PROTEST

Oakland Tribune May 10, 1906

A mighty wail has gone up from the Chinese merchants of San Francisco, now quartered, many of them, in Berkeley, over the proposal to move them all from Chinatown in San Francisco to Hunter's Point. Their ideas are voiced by Gee Gam, pastor of the First Chinese Congregational Church in Berkeley, and Chinese interpreter for all the courts in Alameda county. He opposes the idea of the proposed situation for the new Chinatown at Hunter's Point. He declares that it would prove a disadvantage to the Oriental race of San Francisco, and says that the proposed plans meant downright oppression to his race, and the Chinese would never “stand for this oppression.”

“Why should the Chinese be isolated any more than the people of Tar Flat? Why should they be singled out? The mayor has no power to isolate the Chinese. Chinatown should go back where it was-that would be nothing but justice.... We are objecting to the removal of Chinatown on the grounds that it is the Chinese right to remain where they own land.

”If the citizens of San Francisco will use the Chinese and drive them away, they will flee to other cities and take the Oriental trade from San Francisco.... China at present is one of the greatest markets in the world for American goods and it will be greater in time to come, and all nations will be glad to have her trade... It would not be best to San Francisco's interests to isolate the Chinese. It will work against her at the end....

“The Chinese are wide awake today. They are not the Chinese of thirty years ago. They will remember any injustice done to them.”

REBUILDING A NEW CHINATOWN

THE CHINESE MERCHANTS WASTED NO TIME IN REBUILDING CHINATOWN BEFORE IT COULD BE RELOCATED

Chinese tenants renewed leases with white landlords. To counter the exaggerated negative stereotype of an overcrowded and dirty Chinatown, a select group of Chinese merchants-including Look Tin Eli and Tong Bong-planned a new “Oriental” city that appealed to a romanticized and whimsical idea of China. Chinese motifs, colors, and decorative elements were used to portray a new, orientalized Chinatown.

The 1906 Earthquake and Fire changed San Francisco Chinatown. Survivors spirit of fortitude and resilience rebuilt the Chinatown community for a new century.

To convey an exotic image, the post-quake buildings for Sing Chong (left) and Sing Fat (right) Bazaars were topped with a pagoda, a form used in China only to mark religious structures. (Ross & Burgren, Architects and Engineers) CHSA, Daniel K. E. Ching Collection
Look Tin Eli, native of Mendocino County and manager of Sing Chong Bazaar. (National Archives and Records Administration)
In 1866 Tong Bong opened Sing Fat Bazaar, a pioneering firm in merchandising Chinese arts and antiques in the West. (San Francisco Examiner June 25, 1909
Chinese and Classical elements combined in the facede of 745-47 Grant Avenue, built i 1920 for the Ying On Merchants and Labor Association. (Courtesy Brian Choy, Philip P. Choy Collection)
Credits: Story

Editor — Pam Wong, Program Manager
Editor — Chris Heins, Him Mark Lai Fellow
Based on CHSA Traveling Exhibit — Earthquake: The Chinatown Story (2013)
Exhibit Design — Amy Lam, Designer
Exhibit Development — Pam Wong, Program Manager
Sue Lee, Executive Director

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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