Rebuilding Chinatown After the 1906 Quake As San Francisco prepares to mark the centennial of the 1906 earthquake and fire, historians recall how Chinatown, destroyed along with much of the city, almost wasn't rebuilt.
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Rebuilding Chinatown After the 1906 Quake

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Rebuilding Chinatown After the 1906 Quake

Rebuilding Chinatown After the 1906 Quake

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

This month on MORNING EDITION, we've been examining the destruction and recovery of an American city. When an earthquake and fire struck San Francisco in 1906, it killed more people than did the September 11 attacks. We can still learn from what happened then and afterwards. And today, we see the event through the experience of one San Francisco neighborhood.

MONTAGNE: Chinatown is one of San Francisco's biggest tourist attractions. This past February, hundreds of thousands of people lined city streets to watch the traditional Chinese New Year parade, with brightly colored floats, writhing dragons, and firecrackers.

(Soundbite of firecrackers)

MONTAGNE: A century ago, at the time of the earthquake, Chinatown was a congested, mostly immigrant community of around 14,000. It is not known how many Chinese died in the April 1906 disaster, but the neighborhood was destroyed, along with most of San Francisco. As the centennial approaches, historians recall how Chinatown almost wasn't rebuilt.

NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.


The history of Chinatown is housed in a sturdy stone building on a very steep climb up Clay Street, and today, one of the curators of the Chinese Historical Society of America is receiving some very special artifacts from a woman named Milly Lee.

Ms. MILLY LEE: Take the altar out.

Unidentified Woman: Oh, wow.

GONZALES: Milly Lee is a former librarian and grandmother who grew up here in Chinatown. She is holding an intricately carved wooden shrine about a foot and a half tall. Inside, there's a white porcelain statue of a female deity, Kwan Yin, one who hears the cries of the world. Lee says it was one of the few possessions her family saved as they fled Chinatown after the earthquake and fire of 1906.

Ms. LEE: They knew what they must take when they left. And the other thing were the ancestral portraits. We have one here.

Coming out of there now is my great grandmother. On that morning, they took the framed pictures down and rolled up the pictures of the ancestors. It was on the cart with them.

GONZALES: Milly Lee's mother was eight years old at the time of the earthquake.

Ms. LEE: You know, my mother never sat down and told us about the earthquake. We were on a camping trip, and my daughter came home very excited and told papa we stayed in a tent. My mother very casually said, I have slept in a tent before. I said, where? And she said, Golden Gate Park and said, we were there for the earthquake. I had never heard it until then.

GONZALES: That revelation inspired Milly Lee to write a children's book about her mother's experience called Earthquake.

Ms. LEE: (Reading) "Up the steep hills, across the city we pushed and pulled the heavy cart all around us. Frightened people struggled with loads too dear to leave behind. Terrified dogs..."

GONZALES: What was left behind by the Chinese was either incinerated by the firestorm, or vanished into the hands of looters who fell upon Chinatown.

Ms. LEE: There are photos in various collections of crowds of people looting Chinatown. And you cannot identify one Chinese person in those photographs.

GONZALES: Sue Lee is the executive director of the Historical Society. She says the mayor of San Francisco ordered all looters to be shot on site. But in Chinatown, the rule was enforced selectively, and many white looters were overlooked. She recalls the story of one young Chinese man who ran into trouble after trying to recover his birth certificate.

Ms. SUE LEE (Executive Director, Historical Society): There weren't that many American-born Chinese at the time, and he knew how important that document was. And so, he came back and retrieved the document. As he left, he was bayoneted, and he lived to tell the story.

GONZALES: It was an era when many Chinese had come over to work on the railroads. They were widely seen as a competitive threat to the working class, says California historian Kevin Starr.

Mr. KEVIN STARR (Historian): The most horrible moment of all I that regard was in the early 1870's in Los Angeles, when some 14 Chinese were lynched by a mob. Fortunately, that never happened in San Francisco, because even though there were anti-Chinese riots in the 1870's in San Francisco, the Chinese served notice that they would meet anybody who came into their part of the city with rifles.

GONZALES: What they were defending was largely a community without wives and children. Immigration laws of the day prevented Chinese men from bringing their families to America. Even before the quake, Chinatown was viewed as a crowded slum, writhe with disease, prostitution, and opium. But historian Kevin Starr says it had a great location that many city leaders envied.

Mr. STARR: By 1906, on the verge of the earthquake, it suddenly dawned on establishment San Francisco that the prime real estate of the city, at the absolute epicenter of the city, with its commanding views, was Chinatown.

GONZALES: After the quake left the community in ruins, city leaders were inspired to try to move Chinatown to the southern outskirts of the city. The plans were presented at a meeting between the city's relocation committee, the Chinatown family associations, and the Chinese Consulate.

Ms. JUDY YOUNG (Historian): And the Consul General said the Empress Dowager is not happy about Chinatown being relocated. We intend to rebuild the Chinese consulate in the heart of Chinatown, where it was.

GONZALES: Historian Judy Young says Chinese merchants threatened to leave San Francisco altogether, forcing city leaders to realize...

Ms. YOUNG: ...that they would lose a lot of tax revenue. And Seattle and Los Angeles and other port cities were more than happy to consider allowing the Chinese to move there, with the eye on China trade.

GONZALES: San Francisco relented, and a year later, construction began on the new Chinatown, exactly where it had been before the quake.

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible) and more.

Today, visitors stroll Chinatown with its many Dim Sum restaurants and street side markets that sell vegetables, herbs, and teas. But the buildings themselves are the most noticeable. Pagoda style roots, curled eaves, and dragon motifs in bright reds, greens, and yellows. This was a vision of white architects who were hired by Chinese merchants to build the new Chinatown.

Historian Judy Young.

Ms. YOUNG: And these white architects had no idea of what Chinese architecture should look like. And all they remember are the Pagoda buildings in China, and so you have the trademark of Chinatown today, where it's very much an oriental Disneyland.

GONZALES: But the earthquake of 1906 had a second, more far-reaching effect on Chinatown.

The fires destroyed virtually all the birth records in San Francisco, and now many Chinese could claim that they were born in the U.S., and had the right to brig their families to America. This led to what's known as the paper sons, because many children arrived with false, or at least questionable, documents.

Over time, Chinatown filled up again with families that dwelled in overcrowded, single-room dormitory-style hotels that one can still see today.

Mr. GORDON CHIN (Executive Director, Chinatown Community Development Center): Those are all the public housing projects up and down Pacific. My grandma lived in that one. My mother-in-law still lives in the next one.

GONZALES: Gordon Chin is the Executive Director of the Chinatown Community Development Center. He was born here in Chinatown, where today, he's devoted to trying to create better and more affordable housing.

Mr. CHIN: This is the most densely populated neighborhood - twenty-two square blocks - in the entire country, outside of Manhattan. There's not a single family dwelling here.

GONZALES: Yet it is still home to thousands of families, says Chin, even though many have moved on to more spacious quarters in and around San Francisco.

Mr. CHIN: This is a community where people are still engaged. There are many suburban kids who come back to volunteer, who never lived here at all, but their grandmother lived here. That's why keeping it a community where people live and not just a tourist attraction is very, very important, spiritually.

GONZALES: Historians say this is a legacy of the 1906 earthquake and fire here in Chinatown, and that is, the tragedy that destroyed San Francisco proved to be the marker between old China and the new Chinese America.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

INSKEEP: While we've been listening, I've also been looking at our Web site at amazing photographs here of Chinatown as it looked in 1906, and as it looks today. They're at

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