Pagodas and Dragon Gates

RM: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

In 1968, George Tsui stepped off a plane from Hong Kong and into the San Francisco International Airport. It was his first time on American soil. At 22 years old he had left his homeland of China and traveled across the ocean to build a new life for himself and his young wife in this land of opportunity.

BS: When immigrants first come to the US and this is such an old trope, and old story. Is that you expect, you know the streets are paved with gold.

RM: This is Bonnie Tsui, George’s daughter. She’s also the author of a book about American Chinatowns.

BS: Even today, like, Chinese people still call San Francisco ‘Gam Saan.’

RM: Meaning ‘Gold Mountain’.

BS: This is where you find your fortune; in San Francisco.

RM: George Tsui’s very first stop in San Francisco, his very first stop in America, Like generation upon generation of Chinese immigrants before him was San Francisco’s Chinatown.

BS: And he was not impressed. (laughs)

RM: To George, San Francisco’s Chinatown felt out of date.

BS: All these things he saw in Chinatown, these pagoda roofs, these dragon gates, these flourishes that to us you know, signal ‘China” and Chineseness they were things that he actually hadn’t seen back in China for years and years and years and they were not used in that architectural vernacular back there. And so he wondered how Chinatown in this really supposedly modern America, why did it feel older than the oldest parts of Hong Kong where he had grown up?

CD: Because it was designed that way.

RM: That’s producer Chelsea Davis.

CD: For George Tsui and many other Chinese immigrants, San Francisco’s Chinatown and the Chinatowns in a lot of American cities, they don’t look much like the China they know.

FL: It looks like a bit of a movie set actually. It’s so out of context to anything else next to it on either side.

CD: That’s filmmaker Felicia Low. She made a documentary about San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Walking around Chinatown together, we pass Bank of America ATMs guarded by gold dragons, shops with neon lit names like ‘Heart of Shanghai’ selling paper fans and plastic Buddhas; and towering four story bazaars crowned with little pagodas.

RM: But Chinatown hasn’t always looked this way. In fact, before the massive earthquake that leveled San
Francisco in 1906, Chinatown looked like most of the other neighborhoods in San Francisco. Rows of brick homes done up with Victorian Italianate facades.

PC: The only thing you recognize as Chinatown are the people in it, and the Chinese signs instead of American signs.

CD: That’s Phil Choi, a retired architect and historian of Chinese American culture. He grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown and still lives there today. He says, It’s not like Chinese immigrants in SF had
strong opinions either way about their neighborhood’s victorian flourishes, the columns, the porches.

RM: They just didn’t have much choice when it came to where they lived. After arriving in America, they moved into the old homes that white people had abandoned for greener pastures. And after that…

PC: Basically the Chinese didn’t have time to really pay attention to the architecture or creating Chinese architecture. The basic desire was to make a living.

CD: And making a living was easier said than done if you were Chinese in early twentieth century San Francisco. Since the 1860’s, Chinese immigrants had been a convenient scapegoat for nationwide job shortages. The result was federal legislation like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which barred the vast majority of Chinese people from entering the states, and made it impossible for Chinese already in the U.S. to become new American citizens.

RM: In San Francisco, racist housing policies made it almost impossible for people of Chinese heritage
to live outside of Chinatown. And when they did set foot outside the fifteen square blocks of the Chinese enclave, it was at the risk of physical violence.

CD: So the self-contained world of Chinatown served as a desperately needed refuge for Chinese San Franciscans.

RM: But in 1906, that refuge would be eviscerated by a double whammy of a disaster.

RM: Early in the morning of April 18th of that year, San Franciscans woke up to a 7.8 magnitude earthquake. It was the biggest quake in the city’s recorded history. Still is, but those violent tremors were just the beginning.

CD: Because the earthquake shattered the city’s gas mains, and the gas that leaked out? Somewhere, it connected with a spark.

RM: The massive fires that resulted lasted for 3 days and destroyed about 500 city blocks. Chinatown was one of the first neighborhoods to go up in smoke.

AD: The safe space for Chinese really is that fifteen block radius of the neighborhood, and without it it becomes a very dangerous situation.

CD: Andrea Davies is a historian at the Stanford Humanities Center. But before her career in academia, she was in a slightly different line of work.

AD: I was a San Francisco firefighter for about 5 years. And so, my first assignment was Chinatown.

CD: Fighting fires in that neighborhood later led Davies to write a social history of the 1906 catastrophe. She says that in the wake of the disaster, newspapers peddled this feel-goodie story that the SF quake and fire where ‘social equalizers’ that the shared experience of suffering united San Franciscans of all colors and creeds. Man helping man and so on.

RM: But while white man may have helped white man. No one was helping the Chinese. And in fact, the racism against them only intensified.

AD: I call it Heightened Post-Disaster Racism.

CD: You could see this heightened racism happening on at least 2 levels. First, with individual, white San Franciscans.

AD: The built environment keeps everyone in their place. And that’s what gets erased on April 18th, 1906. So if you’re an elite, white San Franciscan you don’t have to see the residents of Chinatown unless you go there. As the Chinese are leaving their homes in desperation, they’re being yelled at to get out; and don’t turn back.

CD: And according to Davies, It wasn’t just private citizens who were guilty of that heightened racism.
Because the second place that the fire spurred a flare up and racism, was in how the recovery efforts were managed.

AD: The fire department did very little to stop it in Chinatown; and in fact made it worse. And the water mains have broken, so there is not enough water to fight the fires. And if you look at Chinatown, which is nestled right against Nob Hill where all the elite mansions are. There, all the water goes, directed by the Mayor, to save Nob Hill. And all the dynamite goes into to Chinatown.

RM: At the time fire departments would dynamite buildings to keep fire from spreading. But the fire department used the wrong kind of dynamite and Chinatown burned all the faster.

CD: In the following days, as the embers of Chinatown cooled, the Chinese found themselves homeless; and newly vulnerable and hostile streets. But things were about to get worse.

AD: So many of the city’s political and business leaders were actually excited about this “social equalizing disaster”, because it eliminated Chinatown and they thought “we’ll never rebuild it.”

CD: Before the quake, many whites had seen the Chinese neighborhood as a gomorrah of opium dens, prostitution, and disease.

RM: In 1885, city hall had prepared a municipal report on Chinatown, and in that report…

PC: Pages and pages of documentation listing all the houses of prostitution, and the number of gambling houses and opium dens throughout Chinatown.

CD: This reputation for vice had actually created a minor industry of slum tourism in Chinatown. Thrill seeking white people could hire a guide to lead them through scenes of alleged depravity. They would be taken through dimly lit buildings, and shown opium smokers, prostitutes, and gambling.

RM: Evidence suggests that some of these scenes may have actually been staged by the guides themselves. And one thing that was definitely fake, was a widespread rumor that San Francisco’s Chinese residents lived in underground tunnels.

PC: This is what they really believed. That the Chinese lived underground and uh, even today, people want to see Chinatown’s underground.

CD: On top of all this, Chinatown was right in the middle of choice downtown real estate. Real estate that San Franciscan elites had long wanted for white businesses. In fact, 2 years before the fire, then Mayor James Phelan had hired an architect to draw up etches for a new downtown.

RM: The architect they hired, you may have heard of him, Daniel Burnham.

AD: And in his plan there is no Chinatown.

RM: Burnam was a proponent of the City Beautiful Movement, an urban planning philosophy popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

AD: And this idea of City Beautiful, it’s very racialized, this view. And the idea is a more beautiful, urban environment creates a more beautiful citizen. Like, we want a beautiful city of well educated citizens and everyone is white and productive.

CD: And with Chinatown burned to the ground, city leaders seized the chance to make that white dream a reality. Within a week of the fire, city Hall created a committee dedicated solely to relocating Chinatown. A group included former Mayor James Phelan. The one who had hired Burnham to draw up those revised drafts of San Francisco.

AD: And so the minute the city goes up in flames, I’m not kidding, I don’t think the city’s finished burning and James Phelan is telegraphing Daniel Burnham, “Send more reports immediately; get them in the hands of the city leaders and business leaders. Here’s our plan, we can rebuild. Here’s the perfect city.”

CD: The plan for that perfect city booted the Chinese all the way to Hunter’s Point, a region on the edge of town. It’s where the city’s slaughterhouses were; but it wasn’t long before the Chinese residents found out about the plan.

AD: And they fought back. And I think they fought back very intelligently.

RM: They got China’s Empress Dowager Cixi involved. She sent her consul general from Washington to meet with San Francisco officials.

CD: But the coup de gras was financial. For decades, San Francisco had been a key hub for trade with China. So, a group of the city’s top Chinese business owners wrote to the current mayor in a language San Francisco officials could easily understand.

AD: And so on the business level of the negotiation was Okay” you don’t want us to come back? We’re not going to Hunters Point, we can go to Tacoma, we can go to Portland.” So there’s a panic of a loss of revenue for the city.

CD: And that was a loss that city leaders couldn’t take. Less than a month after the quake, the mayor dissolved his committee to relocate Chinatown.

RM: For Chinese Americans at this time, this was an unprecedented political victory; but they didn’t stop there.

CD: The fire had left Chinatown a blank slate, and for the first time, the Chinese were holding the chalk.

RM: They were sick of Chinatown getting this bad rap for vice, sick of City Hall harassing them, sick of visitors asking them if they lived in tunnels.

CD: The Chinese wanted a makeover for their neighborhood, and an American born Chinese businessman named Look Tin Eli knew just how to go about it.

FL: The word was ‘build me a pagoda.’

CD: That’s Felicia Low again. She says that Look Tin Eli figured “Hey, if tourists are always going to come to Chinatown seeking a taste of some imaginary East, let’s give them what they want.”

FL: And so he was able to hire white architects to create a Chinatown that looked the way white people imagined Chinatown to look. Even though he knew in his own mind that the buildings in China didn’t all look like this.

RM: Now Look’s plan might seem a bit counterintuitive at first. For decades, the Chinese of San Francisco had been harassed precisely because they looked and dressed differently from mainstream white America. And here was a guy saying, “Let’s rebuild our neighborhood in a way that emphasizes our Foreign-ness, that carves our difference from the rest of the city into the very face of our buildings.”

CD: But Bonnie Tsui, whose father had been flummoxed by the look of Chinatown when he arrived in San Francisco, she says that the Chinese community of 1907 saw a positive side to that foreignness.

BS: And they also were pretty savvy with the fact that people were interested in them, and they were interested in this exotic element. And if they could build that in a way that was attractive instead of repellant, that that would be protective for them.

CD: Look hired an architect named T.Patterson Ross and an engineer named A.W. Bergren. These two men had never been to China.

PC: At the time, the architect’s were not trained in tradition or anything about Oriental architecture. Because also at the time, The Orient was considered way behind the West. So culturally, everything was looked down upon let’s say, as nothing to study about.

CD: Ross & Bergren’s knowledge of China was limited to a few images they’d seen of ancient palaces from the Song Dynasty; an architectural style that was already hundreds of years old by the early 20th century.

RM: But that didn’t stop Ross and Bergren from using their imaginations. And oh, how they used their imaginations!

PC: They created this sort of Disneyland effect.

RM: For instance, the Sing Chong building was topped with a small structure that sort of looked like pagoda.

CD: But Choi says that in China, you typically wouldn’t see a pagoda on top of another building. Pagodas there are free-standing structures. Not a decorative flourish, and secondly….

PC: In China, these were monuments for religious purposes, the religion of Buddhism.

CD: Here in it’s San Franciscan form, the pagoda instead houses a monument to consumerism. Sing Chong became a bustling department store, hawking Asian art; which it still is to this day.

RM: But nonetheless the designers that Look Tin Eli hired created a striking building; and other merchants rebuilding in Chinatown couldn’t help but notice.

CD: Soon Sing Chong’s bombastic, chinoiserie look had become the style for most new structures going up in Chinatown.

RM: The architects who were trying to reproduce Beijing in San Francisco may have gotten a lot of the details wrong.

CD: But for the tourists, they were wrong in all the right ways. Tourists loved the New Chinatown. This was exactly the Westerner friendly version of China they wanted; vaguely exotic, but safe enough for middle class white America. The visitors began to flow into Chinatown; and so did their cash.

RM: And Chinatowns pleasant new appearance was beginning to change popular sentiment towards the Chinese people. American newspapers made it explicit that the neighborhood makeover was causing them to rethink their contempt for the Chinese. As one newspaper, The Bulletin, put it in 1909, “Chinatown is one of the most noted places on the American continent. We have held up to the public gaze for too long the racial grief that separates the yellow and white people of the Earth.”

CD: Look Tin Eli’s plan had worked; and Chinese communities elsewhere in the US were taking note.

BS: All of the success of Chinatowns that have come in America take a cue from, take a page from this playbook. New York, San Francisco, L.A, Honolulu. They all sort of have their roots in San Francisco.

CD: That’s Bonnie Tsui again. She says the visual style and tourist friendly attitude that San Francisco’s Chinatown had perfected, soon began to spread.

RM: In fact, the New Chinatown brand was so successful that it’s still influencing Chinatowns being built in our own time. For instance, take the Chinatown in Las Vegas which was created in the 90’s.

BS: It also had the pagoda rooflines and dragon gates. Like, the same language dark actual language. Same architectural or an echo was being used to create the newest Chinatown that was used to create the oldest Chinatown,

FL: You know, you outsmarted the devil. You know, basically there is a phrase you know, that they call white people ‘Bac Guai’ which is the ‘White Devil.’ I think that it was a victory, absolutely.

CD: Of course this architectural revenge didn’t instantly fix everything for the Chinese in San Francisco. They still faced plenty of legal and popular discrimination. For example, they were still required by real estate laws to live in Chinatown, and on a federal level, The Chinese Exclusion Act itself wouldn’t even be repealed until 1943; more than 30 years later.

RM: And even if the rebranding of Chinatown helped ease negative sentiment towards the Chinese, Philip Choi believes it may also have helped promote certain stereotypes.

PC: It continues to promote foreignness. And my, I remember my daughter coming home one day very annoyed and upset, “These people. Look, look, look, like they never seen a Chinese person before.”

CD: By contrast, look at the other traditionally ethnic neighborhoods in San Francisco. Japantown, or the Italian neighborhood of North Beach. Choi says those neighborhoods didn’t self exoticsize in the 1900’s to nearly the same extent that Chinatown did.

PC: They deliberately did not embellish and embrace their ethnicity.

CD: Other immigrant groups at that time didn’t face the same antagonism that the Chinese did. So only the Chinese were forced to cater to white people’s fantasies, as a survival mechanism.

PC: Well, that’s the irony. At that time we had to promote our foreignness to be accepted.

RM: But even if Chinatown’s architecture is a somewhat inauthentic representation of the real thing, what a lot of tourists don’t realize is…

BT: The fact that real people live there. And that it is a place actually that is for poor people. You know I
mean, it is at its essence, a place where people come to live when they first get here because they can’t afford to live anywhere else. Because they need the services that are provided there.

CD: Bonnie Tsui says this is true of all the Chinatown’s she has studied.

BT: They’re all portals of entry for new immigrants of a particular class. You know, working class immigrants who don’t speak English…

CD: In fact, thanks to factors like rent control, zoning restrictions, and really active tennant’s rights groups in the community, San Francisco’s Chinatown has managed to remain a relatively affordable neighborhood for low income immigrants.

RM: And Bonnie says yes, Chinatown has been Disney-fied & rebranded to cater to American tastes, but there’s still an authentic and important history there.

BT: There’s something about it, Um,that if you can read the skyline you can read the story of how this place came to be and also in that is Chinese-American history and in that there’s like, this power in that; for sure.

RM: 99% invisible was produced this week by Chelsea Davis and Katie Mingle. With Sam Greenspan, Avery Trufelman, Kurt Kohlstedt, and me, Roman Mars. A version of this story was originally broadcast on the public radio history program, Backstory. We are a project of 91.7 KALW San Francisco and produced out of the offices of Arcsine, the beautiful architecture & interiors firm in beautiful downtown, Oakland, California.



Producer Chelsea Davis spoke with filmmaker Felicia Lowe; Andrea Davies, historian at the Stanford Humanities Center; Bonnie Tsui, author of American Chinatown; and Phil Choy, a retired architect and historian of Chinese-American culture who lives in Chinatown.

Comments (3)


  1. A Fan

    If you haven’t, you need to pick up the book Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown

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