SAN FRANCISCO'S OLD CHINATOWN
Photographs by Arnold Genthe
Wealthy Chinese merchants lived in the backwater Mexican village of Yerba Buena, well before the Gold Rush and railroads transformed it first into an American frontier town, and later the seaport metropolis of San Francisco. As West Coast development picked up in the mid-1800s, a sea of laborers from Taishan, Siyi, Xinhui, and Yanping also arrived, employed as miners and railroad workers. Chinatown was born as a home base for these Chinese dispersed throughout the area; but as racist hostility mounted, it emerged by the 1890s as an ethnic haven where Chinese huddled together for safety.
It is with this backdrop that the highly educated and sophisticated Arnold Genthe arrived in San Francisco in 1895. Having recently received his doctorate in philosophy in Germany, Genthe came to tutor a Baron’s son. Immediately enamored with the city, he was drawn to Chinatown-- a place known by outsiders as exotic, mysterious, and dangerous. Tantalized by the mysterious, Genthe visited this Chinese community at first chance, and fell into a culture in total contrast from his own. Without good post cards to convey the foreign images, or subjects willing to wait long enough for him to sketch, Genthe dove into the then-novel art of photography; and his 200 prints of Chinatown would be the starting point for a long and distinguished career as a photographic artist.
Genthe made a point of visiting Chinatown during the Lunar New Year and other holidays, covertly capturing pictures of the neighborhood when it was the most “Chinese.” Wanting to believe and propagate the image of “The Canton of the West,” he chose to emphasize the exotic qualities of Chinatown and its inhabitants, and downplay the Western influences evident in the district. As an artist, he would often manipulate pictures to portray his romanticized version of the Chinese community, instead of providing a faithful depiction. After the 1906 earthquake ravaged much of San Francisco, Genthe’s pictures remained as a visual archive of what had been, and he published his prints in two popular works, Pictures of Old Chinatown (1908) and Old Chinatown: A Book of Pictures (1913).
Capturing the richness of Chinese culture at its best, Arnold Genthe’s prints were last displayed a year ago at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park. Now on loan from the Achenbach Foundation for the Graphic Arts of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 26 of these photographs will return to the place they were taken a hundred years ago. As Chinatown has metamorphosed through disaster, renewal, and modernization, his pictures are now an indelible record of the Chinatown of old. It is with great pleasure that the CCC now holds this exhibition, in honor of Chinese New Year, Year of the Dragon.
San Francisco’s Old Chinatown has been organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Special thanks to Harry Parker, Director of the Fine Arts Museums for making this exhibition possible; Karin Breuer, Curator of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, and Kathe Hodgson, Director of Exhibition Planning at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for their assistance throughout the project. Funding for this exhibition has been provided by Grants for the Arts of the San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund and the California Arts Council.
Updated: January 20, 2000