Mae Ngai: San Francisco's Survivors

Roundup: Talking About History

[Ms. Ngai is an assoc. prof. of history at the U. of Chicago.]

ONE hundred years ago today, at 5:12 a.m., the quaking earth jolted Wong Bok Yue out of his bed in San Francisco's Chinese quarter. As the walls shook, Wong and his family fled their one-room apartment on Clay Street with nothing but the clothes on their backs. A neighbor carried Wong's two-year-old daughter, Bessie, while he carried his wife, who had bound feet. They hurried to Van Ness Avenue, where they huddled as buildings collapsed and fires spread. By nightfall flames had consumed Chinatown, home to the city's 25,000 Chinese.

The Chinese were just one group among the 200,000 San Franciscans left homeless by the great earthquake and fire of 1906. But their experience was singular, for only they faced the threat of permanent displacement — a threat, fueled by racism, they somehow managed to defeat.

Anti-Chinese prejudice, a staple of California politics since the 1870's, was still in full force at the time of the earthquake. In the days after the disaster both San Francisco and Oakland (where thousands of people sought refuge) barred Chinese from white relief camps. San Francisco officials put Chinese in tents at the foot of Van Ness, but worries that they might stay in the neighborhood led to their relocation to the golf links on the Presidio. After white neighbors protested that "the summer zephyrs will blow the odors of Chinatown into their front doors," the city moved the refugees again, to a more remote location on the Presidio near Fort Point.

Meanwhile, looters (mostly members of the National Guard) ransacked Chinatown. A crowd stoned to death a young Chinese man who tried to retrieve items from his home.

Taking advantage of the situation to promote their anti-Chinese agenda, nativists mobilized to drive the Chinese out of the city for good. The Overland Monthly proclaimed: "Fire has reclaimed to civilization and cleanliness the Chinese ghetto, and no Chinatown will be permitted in the borders of the city. It seems as though a divine wisdom directed the range of the seismic horror and the range of the fire god. Wisely, the worst was cleared away with the best."...

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