The Great San Francisco Earthquake & Fires of 1906

Chinatown & the 1906 Earthquake

Residents listen to news about Boxer Rebellion

In 1900, San Francisco’s intense love–hate relationship with Chinatown was as passionate as ever. The Chinese quarter, Tangrenbu, was a segregated section of San Francisco not far from the docks and near the business center of the city that evoked for non-Chinese mystery, exoticism, as well as danger. It had shops, stores, restaurants, drug stores, gambling dens, opium cellars, brothels, temples, and more than 20,000 Chinese speaking their own language and living their own life untouched by American ideas.

The intolerance of people who were different stemmed from resentment and fear. The reluctance of the Chinese to assimilate into American society was annoying to westerners who regarded themselves as superior to the Chinese. However these differences and inequities had existed since the mid–1800s, as had persecution of the Chinese and constant hostilities between westerners and Chinese. It was not the myth of Chinatown inequities as the incomparable growth of the "city within a city" that created and perpetuated the hostilities — exacerbated by Chinatown’s growing economic threat which prompted persecution and discrimination.

Chinatown Razed

Before midnight on April 18, 1906, more than 15,000 Chinese would be forced from their homes. What men had failed to accomplish during the previous four decades, nature did in three days.– unknown San Francisco resident. Men carried boxes in their arms and on their heads. Women with bound feet perched on embroidered three–inch platform shoes found themselves in public for the first time since their youth, teetering along in a frantic movement of people. Together with thousands of homeless San Francisco refugees, the displaced Chinese started their exodus.

The permanent relocation of Chinatown had been broached previously, however, it was so controversial and racist that it never advanced. The earthquake and subsequent fires leveled Chinatown resident standing 
   on Chinatown ruins and abruptly put an end to its isolated and self-contained way of life, but not to the divisive issue. Ironically, because the immigration records and vital statistics at City Hall were destroyed, many Chinese were able to claim citizenship, and then send for their children and families in China.

After the earthquake and fires, the real estate interests of the city saw an opportunity to take full advantage of this prime land. The total value of the real estate in Chinatown was estimated at $6 million; it was believed that if the occupants were relocated and modern improvements were made, the property would be worth $25 million. The city fathers had no intention of allowing Chinatown to be rebuilt in its own neighborhood, on valuable land next to the Financial District. Chinese leaders organized and effectively protested this effort to "remove Chinatown."

One plan, backed by former Mayor Phelan, did not allow San Franciscans to rebuild quickly, demanded some property owners to abandon their previous sites, and was prohibitively expensive. These contentious issues worked in favor of the Chinese. Ultimately, Chinese leaders convinced municipal leaders and the neighborhood's landlords that the "New" Chinatown should be rebuilt in a distinctive Oriental style that would attract more tourism and business, boosting San Francisco's economy. And most importantly, it was rebuilt at its original site.