How the 1906 San Francisco earthquake created modern Chinatown

Chinese New Year in China Town, San Francisco, 2006. Image: Getty.

You pass through the Chinese gate and into the red wash of the main thoroughfare. Strings of lanterns hang above you, lighting your passage. To your left, a glaring neon sign blinks on and off, while on your right, pagoda roofing and latticed woodwork adorn an otherwise non-descript building.

It’s clear that you’re walking through Chinatown. But this small, highly-stylised slice of the Orient could be located in almost any Western city in the world – and perhaps surprisingly, almost nowhere in China.

There’s a reason that Chinatowns across the globe bear a strong resemblance to one another. They are a spectacle specifically built and replicated to attract tourists. And they were all spawned from a single event: the great earthquake of San Francisco, in 1906.

A bad reputation

Chinatown existed in San Francisco before the earthquake, too, but the area was despised by the rest of the city. Although the stories of underground tunnels, brothels and opium dens were mostly fabricated, they gave Chinatown an aura of notoriety which marked it out as different and debased.

Public health investigations found or invented faults fuelled by racist invective. Chinatown was declared a “cancer in the heart of the city”, crowded with the “filth” of an “infamous race”.

In 1882, the widely-supported Chinese Exclusion Act became the first (though sadly not the last) law to exclude a group from the United States on the basis of race or religion: a testament to the levels of antipathy harboured towards the Chinese, and Chinatown.

When the earthquake struck San Francisco, the inhabitants of Chinatown were not even included in the death toll.

Disaster zone: San Francisco’s Chinatown, after the 1906 earthquake. Image: Chicago Daily News/Wikimedia Commons.

Less than one minute’s worth of seismic activity was all it took to change the face of Chinatown forever. Space opened up in the heart of San Francisco. Where once had stood the buildings and streets of Chinatown, there now lay an opportunity to build – and to capitalise.

Influential figures such as mayor E E Schmitz saw a chance to claim the central space for their own, proposing that Chinatown be rebuilt in Hunter’s Point, on the very margins of the city.

A new vision

Nevertheless, the leaders of Chinatown managed to secure the previous location for their community, and began to refashion San Francisco’s Chinatown as an exotic wonderland for non-Chinese visitors. Look Tin Eli and other Chinatown leaders had a vision of an “Oriental city [of] veritable fairy palaces filled with the choicest treasures of the Orient”.

Unlike the brick, Italianate buildings of pre-earthquake Chinatown, which were common throughout the city at the time, Look commissioned buildings that would imitate Chinese design elements. The process was continued two decades later, with Chingwah Lee’s popular seven step plan to make Chinatown a “tourist magnet”.

Amateur hour. Image: mariosp/Flickr/creative commons.

Yet the architects initially responsible for designing this Oriental scene were, in fact, white men who had never visited the Orient; and their designs betray an inexperience with Chinese architecture.

Nevertheless, Look’s creation of an Oriental city was a success. The design of San Francisco’s new Chinatown reestablished a centre of business for the Chinese community, and enticed non-Chinese customers to explore the exotic-looking streets and shops within.

A real phoney?

Throughout the 20th century, most of the West’s Chinatowns went on to mimic San Francisco’s successful, tourism-based model. There are unique features to be found in each of these Chinatowns, yet many of the aesthetic and commercial genes of San Francisco’s post-quake enclave are expressed in its offspring.

New Chinatowns are still being designed and proposed today. For instance, the city of Liverpool in the UK is anticipating the construction of the New Chinatown project, which advertises itself as a “distinctively Chinese urban quarter” and “an utterly unique shopping experience”. The project is designed and managed by UK-based, non-Chinese community companies, but has sought investors from China and Hong Kong.

Chinatown has come to represent a clear, cohesive and supposedly “authentic” idea of the Orient. But it’s based on a version of “Chineseness” designed for consumption by tourists. The identity of Chinatown’s inhabitants is, in fact, far more diverse than its name implies.

What lies beneath? Image: Thomas Hawk/Flickr/creative commons.

In San Francisco, the area is inhabited by migrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China, their American-born offspring, people of other Asian backgrounds and increasingly, people of non-Asian descent. All bring their own political, cultural and social allegiances to the space.

Yet the skyline of modern Chinatown can also be viewed as a response to decades of discrimination; a protective surface defending a vital inner world. San Francisco’s new Chinatown was designed and marketed as a beautiful and fantastical vision, to encourage a new outlook on the space and to make it a more attractive area.


The ConversationUnder threat of relocation to the outskirts of the city, the reconstruction of Chinatown atop its old site was a declaration of fortitude, and its stylised Oriental design was a means of survival. Chinatown’s exotic aesthetic attracted custom and ensured a Chinese presence in the centre of San Francisco — and other cities across the world — for well over a century, and continues to do so today.

Joe Upton is a doctoral researcher in Chinese American Literature at University of Sussex.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.