Chinatown Survives S.F. Quake and Racism

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Gemperlein is a freelance writer based in San Francisco

Cows didn’t live in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1906, but about five days before the great earthquake that leveled the city, two were seen loping toward the bay. The sky, as the story goes, was brick-red, an omen of the fires that would finish off what the shaking ground hadn’t.

Mildred Fong’s father told her about the cows, the ones somebody outside the ghetto that was Chinatown should have paid attention to. But at the time, who cared what a Chinaman--or coolie, or celestial or Mongolian, take your pick of slurs from the era--saw or thought he saw?

The cow apparition is one of many hand-me-down earthquake stories told and retold by old-timers on Stockton Street, the heart of the 20 square blocks that house an undetermined number of San Francisco’s Chinese Americans. Newspaper accounts say that Chinatown had a population of about 30,000 on April 18, 1906, when, at 5:12 a.m, the first shock wave of an earthquake now estimated at magnitude 8.3 hit San Francisco.

The fire that followed raged on for three days; water mains had been ruptured by the quake.

The earthquake’s devastating toll is famous--3,000 dead, 28,000 buildings destroyed, more than half the people homeless.


But a little-known story also emerged from the ashes: how the city’s maltreated Chinese population found the moxie to demand a few basic rights.

For years, as the most visibly different population in the city, the Chinese immigrants of San Francisco had endured harsh racism. They feared every time they had to leave their ethnic enclave; taunting was the least they could expect, and lynching for imagined offenses was not unheard of.

Now, in the aftermath of the quake, the city’s power structure wanted to rob them of that one safe haven. It would prove a low point for the Chinese, a symbol, in case they weren’t aware, of the contempt in which they were held. But it also would prove to be in ways a turning point, in which the immigrants stood up for themselves, their patch of land and for the contributions they made to the city.

The white majority of San Francisco for several years had wanted to quadruple the value of the choice downtown land occupied by Chinatown by annexing it to the Financial district. A year before the earthquake, there was a failed attempt to grab it by declaring a bubonic plague. At public meetings, the well-heeled white residents of Nob Hill had testified angrily about the proximity of Asians to their doorsteps.

The defining moments came as the Chinese immigrants were still living in the tent city to which they had been herded and confined after the quake.

City fathers used the destruction of the area by the earthquake and fires as an excuse to make another move toward forcing Chinese Americans out of the neighborhood. They would have to move to the southernmost borders of the county.

It was a long time before civil rights. There were few political weapons with which the Chinese could defend themselves. But there were economic ones.

The Chinese were the source of what was, even then, considerable Asian trade. They had set up crucial businesses, provided a pool of cheap labor on which the city depended. They pointed out to city officials that if they were forced to move, they might just keep moving--to Seattle, say, or Los Angeles--and take these vital economic advantages with them.

A couple of pragmatic public officials heard their message. The city backed down.

Chinatown residents emerged from the tent city to which they had been herded and confined. They rebuilt more quickly than the city could stop them.

The Chinese Baptist Church at the corner of Waverly and Sacramento streets, for example, was up and running in less than two years. The bricks are sooty and blackened still. The city’s real estate board not only approved the redevelopment of Chinese-style architecture, city planners even recommended that Caucasian building owners similarly style their new structures with pagoda roofs and red doors.

As a result, Chinatown remains one of San Francisco’s enduring ethnic neighborhoods and tourist draws. Chinese Americans are now a formidable social, political and economic force in the city, and racism is, at least politically, incorrect.

The Chinatown shops now sell Alcatraz T-shirts and cheesy jade figures to tourists.

And yet, Chinatown is still filled with immigrants who cannot or will not speak English and who rarely venture beyond their neighborhood. Then there’s Mildred Fong, 81. For the millennium, she wants a state-of-the-art hard hat or bicycle helmet to grab if she chances to see cows running toward the San Francisco Bay.