Destruction and Rebirth 1906-1950
On April 18, 1906, at 5:12 a.m., San Francisco’s largest earthquake lasted 48 seconds, and succeeding conflagrations and explosions reduced the city to a heap of smoldering ashes. Most of Chinatown was destroyed by fire. Disintegrated were all the birth and immigration records from the city’s Hall of Records. This proved to be a boon for Chinese who now claimed they were rightful American citizens. A whole world opened up for new immigrants who purchased fake documentation papers to identify themselves as children of Chinese American citizens. This practice became known as “paper sons.” An estimated 150,000 Chinese claimed paper names after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was invoked and during the post-earthquake era.
After the 1906 disaster leveled much of San Francisco and most of Chinatown, the situation made it easy for San Francisco officials to pressure the Chinese to move to Hunters Point on the outskirts of town, something the city leaders had already been plotting. In their estimation, Chinatown’s prime real estate would be put to better use by others.
However, merchant Look Tin Eli and other Chinatown businessmen heavily countered with the idea of rebuilding the district as a tourist destination. Chinatown would become an exotic attraction that would lure visitors from all over the globe and put money in city coffers. This stroke of genius saved Chinatown and cemented its location in history. A new type of China-esque architectural style gave this neighborhood dragon flourishes, pagoda rooftops, and flower motifs in exacting detail. Red, green, and yellow hues, considered lucky colors in Chinese culture, accented newly-built association buildings, restaurants, temples, and storefronts.
At the same time, services and programs were introduced to help Chinese youth understand their new culture. The Chinese YMCA in 1911 and the YWCA in 1916 introduced boys and girls to American sports, music, and club activities. The Y institutions would be critical in creating community for the youth and teens who had few outlets for physical activity and socialization outside of school. More organizations came on board providing English lessons, typing classes, and other skills to help foreigners assimilate.
In spite of the good intentions of churches and service organizations which cared for the Chinese, the racial firestorm intensified from 1910 to 1940 when Angel Island, a former military bunker, was repurposed as an immigration station. While this sounded innocent enough, it was actually used to hold and segregate Chinese while other races were processed quickly. Chinese elderly, pregnant women, and children, in particular, suffered from barely edible food and insufficient healthcare. Average wait time ranged from weeks to as long as two years.
“Every day was so miserable, miserable. I hated that place, just like a jail,” said the late Walt Disney animator Tyrus Wong in an Angel Island video interview. In 1920, Tyrus came as a nine-year-old and was separated from his father immediately upon landing. “I was wondering most of the time about my father. I didn’t speak English, so I just suffered.” (They were eventually reunited before leaving Angel Island) In total, approximately 175,000 Chinese were detained on Angel Island. Many were so upset by their harsh treatment at the muk uk or wooden house that they refused to speak of their dark past after their release.
Once Angel Island authorities gave Chinese individuals permission to stay in the United States, the immigrants were either received by relatives or members of their Chinatown family associations which offered temporary housing and job connections. Newcomers, who carried the same last name or came from the same village, found kindred spirits in these ancestral halls. The brotherhoods were a life raft, and the facilities offered respite from the cruel world waiting outside.
By the 1930s and 1940s, Chinatown was well established as a legitimate tourist attraction and a great place for wealthier Chinese to enjoy a grand evening on the town even though these were the Depression years. By 1943, with Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed, the foreign-born were now eligible for U.S. citizenship through naturalization.