Photos: from San Francisco Chinatown by Philip P. Choy

Why does Chinatown look the way it does today? The new book published by City Lights, San Francisco Chinatown, traces the development of the neighborhood from the city’s earliest days to its post-quake transformation into an “oriental” tourist attraction as a pragmatic means of survival. Take a look at some of the historical photographs from the book below.

The first book of its kind—San Francisco Chinatown is an “insider’s guide” to one of America’s most celebrated ethnic enclaves by an author born and raised there. Join author, architect and renowned historian of Chinese America Philip Choy tomorrow at City Lights to discuss the history and architecture of Chinatown, in the context of both the past and present. Wednesday, July 25th at 7:00pm at City Lights Bookstore.

The Great Earthquake and Fire, San Francisco 1906. Looking down California Street from Nob Hill.

On Wednesday, April 18, 1906, at 5:12 a.m., a massive temblor, 8.3 by today’s Richter scale, shocked San Francisco, sending thousands of panic-stricken people stumbling into the streets half-dazed and half-dressed. The 48 seconds that shook the earth seemed an eternity, but the worst was yet to come. . .

Chinese in segregated relief camp

Thousands of residents assisting policeman and fireman rescued the trapped and injured and searched for the missing, while hundreds of criminals and greedy civilians looted stores and buildings. Mayor Eugene Schmitz summoned citizens and organized the “Committee of Fifty” to govern the chaotic city; the committee included two subcommitees, one to designate a location for a segregated relief camp, the other to designate a site for the relocation of Chinatown. . . . After four days of firefighting and dynamiting, an area east of Van Ness to the waterfront and south of Market to north of the Bay was a ruin of smoldering ashes. Within the burnt area, old Chinatown was gone forever. . . .

Drayage wagons on Grant Avenue

Whereas after the ’06 quake, southern Gran developed into a section of Oriental bazaars for tourists, central Grant remained the heart of Chinatown, where businesses were owned and operated by Chinese and for Chinese. . . . By the beginning of the 1930s, the days of peddling goods with horse-drawn carts clip-clopping over the cobblestone brick streets of Chinatown had come to an end. . . .


Los Angeles Times summer reading pick, San Francisco Chinatown is an “insider’s guide” to one of America’s most celebrated ethnic enclaves by an author born and raised there. Written by renowned architect and Chinese American studies pioneer Philip Choy, the book details the triumphs and tragedies of the Chinese American experience in the United States.

Featuring a building-by-building breakdown of the most significant sites in Chinatown, the guide is lavishly illustrated with historical and contemporary photographs and offers walking tours for tourists and locals alike.

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