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The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake: How the Destruction of Chinatown was viewed as a Blessing

-What an interesting history. 

Cleaning up downtown San Francisco after the conflagration.
Chinese refugees
from 1906 Earthquake: Chinese Displacement

The Earth Dragon Awakes: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

Grade 3-7 Yep looks at the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 from two points of view. Chin is a young Chinese immigrant whose father is a houseboy for a prominent banker and his family. He has become friendly with young Henry Travis, the banker's son, through their interest in low-brow but exciting penny dreadfuls. The stories depict heroic people doing heroic things and, while both boys appreciate their fathers, they certainly do not regard them as heroes. Not, that is, until the Earth Dragon roars into consciousness one spring morning, tearing the city asunder and making heroes out of otherwise ordinary men. Yep's research is exhaustive. He covers all the most significant repercussions of the event, its aftershocks, and days of devastating fires, and peppers the story with interesting true-to-life anecdotes. The format is a little tedious one chapter visits Henry's affluent neighborhood, the next ventures to Chin's home in Chinatown, and back again and the ordinary heroes theme is presented a bit heavy-handedly. Throughout the text, the boys compare their fathers to Wyatt Earp. But the story as a whole should appeal to reluctant readers. Its natural disaster subject is both timely and topical, and Yep weaves snippets of information on plate tectonics and more very neatly around his prose. A solid supplemental choice. Catherine Threadgill, Charleston County Public Library, SC
The Earth Dragon Awakes: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

From the Chinese Historical Society of America Website

On April 18, 1906, San Francisco was devastated by a huge earthquake. As fires raged, Chinatown was leveled. It seemed that what the city and country wanted for fifty years, nature had accomplished in forty-five seconds. Ironically, because the immigration records and vital statistics at City Hall had been destroyed, many Chinese were able to claim citizenship, then send for their children and families in China. Legally, all children of U.S. citizens were automatically citizens, regardless of their place of birth. Thus began the influx of"paper sons and paper daughters" - instant citizens - which helped balance the demographics of Chinatown's "bachelor society." Finally, Chinatown had what it had been missing for so long - children.

The city fathers had no intention of allowing Chinatown to be rebuilt in its own neighborhood, on valuable land next to the Financial District. While they were deciding where to relocate the Chinese, a wealthy businessman named Look Tin Eli developed a plan to rebuild Chinatown to its original location. He obtained a loan from Hong Kong and designed the new Chinatown to be more emphatically "Oriental" to draw tourists. The old Italianate buildings were replaced by Edwardian architecture embellished with theatrical chinoiserie. Chinatown, like the phoenix, rose from the ashes with a new facade, dreamed up by an American-born Chinese man, built by white architects, looking like a stage-set China that does not exist.
Chinatown | The Story of Chinatown:

Gold Mountain - Story of Forbidden Love against the Backdrop of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

Forbidden Love

Against the background of San Francisco at the time of the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 comes a tale of love and loss. Ruth Greer is the spoiled daughter of a shipping magnate who finds a young boy that has run away from his home in Chinatown—an area of gambling parlors, opium dens, sing-song girls, as well as families trying to eke out a living. It is also home of a number of highbinder tongs, the infamous “hatchet men” of Chinese lore.

There, she meets the handsome, enigmatic leader of one such tong, the young boy’s father, and discovers he is neither as frightening, cruel, or wanton as reputation would have her believe. As Ruth’s fascination with the area grows, she finds herself pulled deeper into the intrigue of the lawless area, and Li Han-lin’s life. But the two are from completely different worlds, and when both worlds are shattered by the quake and fire that destroys San Francisco, they face their ultimate test.

Gold Mountain - Story of Forbidden Love against the Backdrop of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906
  For example, real estate investors and other land owners were against the idea due to the large amount of land the city would have to purchase to realize such proposals. City fathers likewise attempted at the time to eliminate the Chinese population and export Chinatown (and other poor populations) to the edge of the county where the Chinese could still contribute to the local taxbase.[33] The Chinese occupants had other ideas and prevailed instead. Chinatown was rebuilt in the newer, modern, Western form that exists today. In fact, the destruction of City Hall and the Hall of Records enabled thousands of Chinese immigrants to claim residency and citizenship, creating a backdoor to the Chinese Exclusion Act, and bring in their relatives from China.[40][41][42]
"In 1906, the destruction of Chinatown by fire was considered a great blessing of the Earthquake. Many felt it should have burned long before. Said the Overland Monthly, "Fire has reclaimed to civilization and cleanliness the Chinese ghetto, and no Chinatown will be permitted in the borders of the city.... it seems as though a divine wisdom directed the range of the seismic horror and the range of the fire god. Wisely, the worst was cleared away with the best."

"Almost three months after the Earthquake and six weeks after the Telegraph Hill rally, the Chinese relocation sub-committee admitted that there really wasn't anything more it could do except allow the Chinese to return to the property they owned or formerly rented. Said the chairman, "If they prove obnoxious to whites they can gradually be driven to a certain section by strict enforcement of anti-gambling and other City laws." The subcommittee was discharged. Not that it really mattered; the Chinese were already rebuilding -- with architecture more authentically Chinese than that of the former Yankee structures.

In the end, the Chinese came out of the affair by far the wiser strategists. They had simply said that Hunters Point or any other remote area was unacceptable and then posed the economic threat that they might leave the City altogether if such ideas persisted. Soon after it became known that the Chinese might be made welcome in Oakland, relocation plans were dropped. San Francisco never could stand the idea of giving anything of value to Oakland."

© San Francisco Magazine, Inc., 1970 By Ralph Henn

The Children of Chinatown: Growing Up Chinese American in San Francisco, 1850-1920

Revealing the untold stories of a pioneer generation of young Chinese Americans, this book places the children and families of early Chinatown in the middle of efforts to combat American policies of exclusion and segregation.

Wendy Jorae challenges long-held notions of early Chinatown as a bachelor community by showing that families--and particularly children--played important roles in its daily life. She explores the wide-ranging images of Chinatown's youth created by competing interests with their own agendas--from anti-immigrant depictions of Chinese children as filthy and culturally inferior to exotic and Orientalized images that catered to the tourist's ideal of Chinatown. All of these representations, Jorae notes, tended to further isolate Chinatown at a time when American-born Chinese children were attempting to define themselves as Chinese American. Facing barriers of immigration exclusion, cultural dislocation, child labor, segregated schooling, crime, and violence, Chinese American children attempted to build a world for themselves on the margins of two cultures. Their story is part of the larger American story of the struggle to overcome racism and realize the ideal of equality.

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