[TIMELINE] Out of the Great Quake Came a New Chinese America
- The Great Quake: 1906-2006
Out of chaos came new Chinese America
Vanessa Hua, Chronicle Staff Writer
Destroyed records meant more immigration.
The earth dragon has awakened, Chinatown residents are said to have
screamed as the 1906 earthquake and fire flattened their
neighborhood and killed untold numbers.
But San Francisco's Chinatown was already under siege. White leaders
considered the Chinese an economic threat, filthy and dangerous, and
were trying to push them out. The Chinese Exclusion Act, barring
most Chinese from entering the United States since 1882, had slowed
the flow of newcomers to a trickle of teachers, students and
Yet when government buildings were destroyed a century ago, so were
the birth and immigration records inside. Scores of Chinese
recognized the serendipity, claiming citizenship and bringing in
In many cases, for a fee, they also brought in people who weren't
their children. Hundreds of those friends and strangers, who came to
be known as "paper sons," arrived in the Bay Area in the following
decades, changing Chinese America forever.
"In a strange way, we as Chinese Americans are indebted to that
disaster," said Felicia Lowe, 60, a Bay Area documentary filmmaker
whose father and grandfather were paper sons. "It was a gateway, an
opening, a possibility to allow Chinese people to come here."
And it all started with a neighborhood.
At the turn of the century, Chinatown was a neighborhood of narrow
streets and dilapidated Victorians -- the oldest part of San
Francisco. Immigrants, most of them bachelors, had added balconies,
displaying silk-and-bamboo lanterns and other touches of their
homeland: potted flowers and plants, signs in Chinese, triangular
yellow flags with a dragon to signify the merchant's rank. After the
quake, the city's Reconstruction Committee wanted to move Chinatown
6 miles away to Hunters Point.
"You have to understand, from the time the Chinese arrived (until)
the earthquake, San Francisco City Hall was trying to get rid of
them. Not to move them somewhere -- but to move them back to China,"
said historian Phil Choy, 79, an American-born son of a paper son.
"People ask, 'Why didn't they count the Chinese?' " he said,
referring to the fact that few, if any, deaths from the earthquake
and fire were recorded in Chinatown, the city's densest area. " 'Why
didn't they care?' "
"This is why," he said, gesturing to a stack of musty leather-bound
books in his study: reports to the Board of Supervisors and the
California State Senate about the filthy conditions of the Chinese
quarter. The alleged horrors included Chinese prostitution, white
women living with Chinese men and white prostitution in Chinatown.
But the effort to move Chinatown stalled when the Chinese government
and white merchants warned that U.S.-China relations would suffer if
Chinatown were pushed aside.
Chinese merchants quickly staked their claim by rebuilding. They
devised a plan to make Chinatown a valued asset of San Francisco --
a tourist spot.
The architecture they chose was not authentic but a fanciful
interpretation designed by white architects. Pagodas in the Far East
are religious buildings, erected as memorials or shrines, for
example, while in Chinatown they house shops.
Today, tourists on Grant Avenue photograph the curved eaves and
colorful tiled roofs and wander through atmospheric alleys and into
temples heavy with incense and resounding with the cacophony of fake
crickets, classical Chinese zither and Muzak. "It was a ingenious
move, selling a fake China to those white folks who didn't know any
better; and the Chinese community since survived with a degree of
prosperity on its own despite intense racial prejudice and
discrimination," said Marlon Hom, chairman of Asian American Studies
at San Francisco State University.
To this day, the neighborhood remains chronically overcrowded and
houses poor immigrants who lack the English fluency to venture
beyond. About 60 percent of all housing units in Chinatown are still
single rooms without a bathroom or kitchen, and most of the other 40
percent are rental apartments.
Although the neighborhood's distinctive look protected it from
redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s -- a wave that transformed
Filipino neighborhoods and Japantown -- Chinatown has missed out on
the Bay Area's prosperity over the last half-century.
Down narrow, dank Cooper Alley off Jackson Street, which was set
aside a century ago for sick Chinese prostitutes, a small building
built in 1908 is home to people like Qiang-guo Wang, 69, who rents a
small room with his wife for $240 a month.
"There isn't space to move around, but there isn't sufficient
affordable housing," said Wang, a retired restaurant busboy. In
1992, the couple left behind a three-bedroom apartment in Guangzhou,
China, to join their five children in California. Because they
cannot drive or speak English, they moved to Chinatown.
"Life is hard," Wang said. "I have to struggle for this."
Suitcases and boxes teetered on the top bunk of his bed, and the
moist, sweet smell of steamed rice hung in the air. Potted plants
and flowers on the windowsill brightened the dilapidated room, much
as they might have in 1906.
Even after the quake, the Chinese population in San Francisco
continued shrinking, partly because many Chinese residents moved to
San Mateo, San Jose and the East Bay.
But eventually, the effects of the earthquake and fire -- and the
ingenuity of immigrants in Chinatown -- would begin to take hold. By
1930, the city's Chinese population climbed to 10,668, from 7,774 in
1920, as paper sons and daughters grew old enough to immigrate and
be put to work.
At Angel Island Immigration Station, where 175,000 Chinese
immigrants were detained between 1910 and 1940, authorities
interrogated immigrants and their purported American relatives
separately, trying to catch them in a lie. How many windows are in
the house? What direction did they face? How many houses are in your
village? Has your alleged uncle ever been in the United States? What
is the name of the burial place?
Some real families were torn apart when immigrants could not answer
all the questions, despite memorizing minute details about their
false family and villages during their crossing. Those who survived
the interrogation sank roots that today nourish tangled family
Mothers came in as grandmothers, sisters as aunts, brothers as
uncles of their siblings. And real brothers would take separate fake
names. For decades, many Chinese American families had two surnames:
their real one, used in the Chinese community, and the name used in
the official, white world.
Filmmaker Lowe, who grew up in Oakland's Chinatown, realized after
the birth of her first child that she knew little family history to
"I tried to fill in the puzzle, the missing pieces. For so many
years, I only got hints," Lowe said. "Sometimes I'd get a story that
made sense, and sometimes, it was, 'Oh, never mind.' ''
Inside the chilly barracks at Angel Island Immigration Station, Ying-
Ying Guan stood still and silent, pondering poems that immigrants
carved into the walls decades ago.
"I can feel how lonely they are. They want to go, but they can't get
out," said Guan, 19. A sliver of the bay glimmered through the
window, with Richmond and Marin beyond on either side.
A great-great grandfather on her mother's side worked on U.S.
railroads in the late 1800s and sent money back to his village in
southern China until he died here. His son, Guan's great-
grandfather, attempted to immigrate in the 1930s but he was
Guan immigrated from southern China with her parents in 1997. Now a
freshman at UC Davis, she is learning about the laws targeting
Chinese and their way of life, and how Chinese Americans appealed to
the U.S. Supreme Court for their rights, easing the way for other
The paper-son practice ended, for the most part, after Congress
repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, when China was allied
with the United States in World War II.
In 1956, however, following a report that Communist spies could use
fraudulent papers to enter the United States, Chinese who were here
illegally were encouraged to confess in return for legal status. One
man spilling his secret could implicate his whole family.
Him Mark Lai, a San Francisco historian and retired mechanical
engineer, had to sponsor his wife, Laura, after her uncle confessed.
But gaining citizenship took a decade, during which time she could
not leave the country.
"We visited all the national parks," Lai said with a laugh. Born in
1925 in Chinatown, the eldest son of a paper son, he is the
gregarious, unofficial dean of Chinese American history.
Roughly 30,000 people participated in the confession program before
it ended in 1965 with the passage of the Immigration Act, which
allowed the large-scale migration of Chinese families for the first
time, historians say. The legacy off these immigrants is in new
satellite Chinatowns in the Richmond, Sunset and Visitacion Valley
neighborhoods of San Francisco. One in five city residents is
Among the Chinese Americans who moved to San Francisco and to
suburbs across the East Bay and South Bay are political leaders and
tech entrepreneurs, garment workers and home health aides, tenants
and landlords. They are poor, middle-income and wealthy. They are
the Bay Area.
The Chinese Historical Society of America's "Earthquake: the
Chinatown Story," which is being held at the Philip P. Choy Gallery
at 965 Clay St., runs through Sept. 18.