By Stacey Lee
If it weren’t for the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, Chinatown as we know it would not exist, and neither would I. Though I am not from Chinatown, many of us Chinese Americans who trace our history to the late 19th century find our family trees have sprouted from the dust of that famed corridor.
Called ‘the worst natural disaster in U.S. history,’ the 7.9 trembler shook much of the west coast, from Oregon to Nevada, to Los Angeles. In a double punch, the earthquake set off a major fire that destroyed about 500 city blocks in four days, causing $8.2 billion in damage in today’s dollars.
City officials lowballed the casualties at 700 (hoping not to deter reinvestment into the city) but more modern calculations say about 3,0005,000 directly lost their lives. No one knows how many people died in the densely packed blocks of Chinatown, with an estimated population of 14,000 (some say 25,000). Chinese people weren’t counted.
For the Chinese, the earthquake was a watershed moment. The Chinese Exclusion Act had barred most Chinese from entering the United States since 1882. San Francisco Chinatown had long been the target of relocation efforts by city leaders, who considered the Chinese filthy, dangerous, and an economic threat, and coveted Chinatown for its prime real estate. The fourteen blocks boasted commanding views of the oceans and central location between Nob Hill and the financial heart of the West.
Following the earthquake, before even a week had passed, a committee was appointed to decide how to permanently locate the Chinese to the mud flats on the outskirts of the city. The committee included political rivals, such as exmayor James D. Phelan, and Southern Pacific Railway’s Abe Ruef, against whom Phelan had launched a graft investigation. The men despised each other, but even more, they hated the Chinese.
United by a common enemy, the committee began to concentrate the Chinese left in San Francisco in preparation for relocation. But it did not anticipate stiff resistance from the government of China. Chinese officials told thenGovernor Pardee of the Empress Dowager’s displeasure with relocation efforts, and of her intention to rebuild the consulate in the heart of old Chinatown. This pronouncement, together with City Hall’s fear of losing trade with the Orient, ended the relocation scheme. But the new Chinatown was different than the one it replaced. Aware of the racist sentiment, the Chinese rebuilt Chinatown with an eye toward overcoming its reputation as an overcrowded slum. It hired American architects to recreate the ‘look’ of China, with pagodastyled rooflines and oriental motifs, a design strategy that was soon replicated in other states.
The earthquake had another, more farreaching impact. The ensuing fire destroyed city birth and immigration records, enabling Chineseborn men to claim that they were American citizens, which in turn entitled them to bring family to America. My father was one of the “paper sons” allowed to immigrate using false documents.
In a strange way, that earthquake had a silver lining for many Chinese Americans like myself, changing Chinese America forever.
*This post originally appeared at Diversity in YA, and has been
brought to you thanks to our partner, Cindy Pon!*