Chinatown as you've never seen it before

Chinatown as you’ve never seen it before: Colorized photos from the 1890s are the last known images of San Francisco’s world-famous district before it was destroyed by the earthquake of 1906

  • The photographs were taken by German-American photographer Arnold Genthe while on a visit to Chinatown
  • Arnold became fascinated with this area of the city after moving to San Francisco to become a tutor
  • In 1906, San Francisco was struck by one of the worst earthquakes in  US’ history, levelling the district
  • Genthe’s photographs are the only known images of the area before the catastrophe that killed over 3,000
  • Showcasing the USA’s rich Asian-American history, the photographs have been colorized as the threat of hate crimes against the community is still prevalent in 2021 after a shooting left six Asian American women dead

Rare photographs of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late 1800s have been brought to life in colour, showcasing the USA’s rich Asian-American history as the threat of hate crimes against the community is prevalent in 2021.

The photographs were taken by German-American photographer Arnold Genthe whilst on a visit to Chinatown. Arnold became fascinated with this area of the city after moving to San Francisco to become a tutor.

But in 1906, San Francisco was struck by one of the worst earthquakes in the US’ history. Measuring eight-point-three on the Richter scale, the earthquake destroyed 80 per cent of the city including Chinatown. 

Arnold’s photographs are the only known images of the area before the catastrophe that killed over 3,000 people. 

Pictured: A group of men walk down the street in San Francisco’s Chinatown in a rare colorised photograph from the 1890s. The men are shown wearing dark-coloured traditional Chinese male changshans – a form of dress robe. The photographs showcase the USA’s rich Asian-American history as the threat of hate crimes against the community is prevalent in 2021


The photographs were taken by German-American photographer Arnold Genthe whilst on a visit to Chinatown in the city. Arnold became fascinated with this area of the city after moving to San Francisco to become a tutor. Picture left: A man stands outside a shop in Chinatown. Chinese lettering hangs above him, while a busy street is seen behind him. Right: A Chinese shoemaker, wearing traditional clothing, leans on a railing as he takes a break in Chinatown

Pictured: A group of male customers queue at a lily street vendor’s stall to purchase flowers in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The vendor stands at the front of the queue holding a bunch of flowers, while a woman dressed in pink with a flower hat is seen pushing a pram behind the group while looking at the flowers

In one image, a group of men walked along the city streets in 1896 wearing dark-coloured traditional Chinese male changshans – a form of dress robe.

In another, two young girls held on to their mother’s hand as they navigated the region’s streets amidst buildings adorned with Chinese lanterns.

Others showed a group of men lining up to buy flowers from the local lily vendor, and a shoe maker smoking through a Chinese tobacco pipe outside of his store.

San Francisco’s Chinatown, established in 1848, is the oldest in the United States.

It has the largest Chinese cultural identity outside of Asia, and today it is a major tourist attraction that brings in more visitors than the Golden Gate Bridge.

But it also gained a reputation for vice, with gangs, who ran ‘Tongs’, and prostitution rings operating in the area during the late period of the California gold rush.

Pictured: One of Chinatown’s bustling streets. A woman is seen walking across the road at an intersection hold a young child’s hand, with shops displaying Chinese lettering in the background. One man, who has spotted the photographer, smiles for the camera as he crosses the road


Pictured: Children on the streets of Chinatown have their photographs taken by photographer Arnold Genthe in the 1890s. His pictures often show children walking through the area’s streets, often with their parents, but in some cases without adults. Left: A young child has their photograph taken on the street in Chinatown. Right: Two young children have their first ever photograph taken by Arnold Genthe in the 1890s as they walk up the road holding hands

Pictured: A group of children play outside the doors to a building in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The three girls all have long plaited hair running down their backs that is almost touching the floor, as they talk to another boy wearing a traditional hat. To the left, another younger boy wearing what appears to be a suit and a flat cap, is seen watching the group

Around the time the photographs were taken, Chinatown’s exotic and infamous reputation began to attract tourists, with local guides emphasising the vice-ridden elements found in the area and encouraging visitors to take a professional guide with them or a police escort as they ventured through the streets.

However, the tours often included staged reenactments, exacerbating the area’s reputation as problematic, meaning deeper issues of poverty, racial discrimination and problems with overcrowding were ignored.

Chinatown suffered a string of disasters. The first was when a Chinese-born man was found dead of the bubonic plague in March 1900, leading to the whole of the area to be quarantined and the police force preventing people from Asian heritage from either entering or leaving the area. 

But in 1906, San Francisco was struck by one of the worst earthquakes in the US’ history. Measuring eight-point-three on the Richter scale, the earthquake destroyed 80 per cent of the city including Chinatown. Pictured: Children and their parent cross the road in Chinatown. Opposite the street, a row of shops with Chinese lettering can be seen lining the road on a hill


The images give insight into the clothes worm by the people living in Chinatown during the late 1890s. Many of the men in the photographs are shown wearing dark-coloured traditional Chinese male changshans – a form of dress robe. Left: A street merchant walks down the road in Chinatown. Left: A young Chinese boy holds his parent’s hand as they walk down the street

Pictured: Young children and their families queue at the side of the street. San Francisco’s Chinatown has the largest Chinese cultural identity outside of Asia, and today it is a major tourist attraction that brings in more visitors than the Golden Gate Bridge, which can be seen from the area

Eventually, the lockdown was lifted, and a federal court ruled that public health officials could not close Chinatown without any proof that Chinese Americans were any more susceptible to the plague than others.

But then in 1906, the whole neighbourhood was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire that levelled most of the city. Despite opposition and a push to relocate, Chinatown was rebuilt where it is today.

By 1947 – after the Second World War that for people of Chinese origin was preceded by Japan attacking the Manchurian city of Mukden, Chinatown had again established itself as a central tourist destination and a rapidly developing community. 

The town has been an important and influential part of the history and culture of Chinese immigrants to North America, and to this day continues to retain its customs, languages, places of worship, social venues and identity.

The release of the photographs comes at a time when the issue of hate crimes against the community is at the forefront of national debate after a shooting spree left six Asian American women dead.

Pictured: San Francisco police officer William Ma walks down the middle of the street while on a foot patrol in Chinatown on March 18, 2021. The release of the photographs comes at a time when the issue of hate crimes against the community is at the forefront of national debate after a shooting spree left six Asian American women dead

San Francisco Police patrol their beat in Chinatown in San Francisco, California, USA, 18 March 2021. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have said they will meet with Asian-American leaders on Friday when they visit Atlanta, Georgia, as the trip shifted from politics to personal after the shooting

Pictured: Signs against violence against Asians is posted in front of a store in Chinatown on March 18, 2021 in San Francisco, California

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have said they will meet with Asian-American leaders on Friday when they visit Atlanta, Georgia, as the trip shifted from politics to personal after the shooting. 

The president and vice president were already scheduled to be in the city for their ‘Help is Here’ tour – a way the administration is promoting its $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. 

But the trip shifted tone after Tuesday’s trio of shootings at Atlanta spas left eight dead.

Instead, a meeting was set up with Asian-American state legislators and community advocates. They will meet with Asian-American leaders at Emory University and Biden will give remarks, where he is expected to address the surge in hate crimes. 

There were nearly 3,800 incidents against Asian Americans in the last year, the group Stop AAPI Hate reported, and 68 per cent of those were against women. 

In January 2021, In New York, Seattle and San Francisco, where businesses and restaurants have suffered for months as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Chinatown marked a year since it first started feeling the effects of the global outbreak, that continues to this day.

In the early days on the pandemic, as fear grew that the virus first reported in China would spread to the United States, growing anti-Chinese sentiment caused people to avoid the district, causing harm to the communities’ economies even before the first American case of COVID-19 was confirmed.

The impact worsened as former President Trump continuously branded COVID-19 the ‘China virus’ or ‘plague’.


President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will meet with Asian-American leaders Friday when they visit Atlanta, Georgia

The oldest Chinatown in the United States, has been fighting against closures due to the Covid-19

Asian American small businesses have been among the hardest hit by the economic downturn during the pandemic. 

While there was a 22 percent decline in all small business-owner activity nationwide from February to April, Asian American business-owner activity dropped by 26 percent, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research. 

Despite the younger generations coming to the communities’ aid, the promise of a faster vaccine rollout, and the aid of donations and loans, Chinatown businesses are still daunted by the uphill battling facing them in surviving 2021.

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