Revealing Chinatown’s Past

By Fredric Hamber

A mountain of rare ephemera inspired a new book from map dealer Jim Schein that dives deep into the neighborhood’s history.

Ken Cathcart’s photographs, including this shot taken at Marina Middle School, often served as a reference for his map drawings.
Ken Cathcart’s photographs, including this shot taken at Marina Middle School, often served as a reference for his map drawings.
During the Gold Rush, young Chinese men and boys would sift through the dirt of Portsmouth Square for wayward bits of gold dust that had slipped through the hands of the miners who transacted business there. In 2003, Jim Schein hit a different sort of pay dirt a few blocks away when an elderly neighbor walked into his vintage map store in North Beach and told him that she had a basement full of potentially interesting old papers, collected by a friend who had died.

Schein, author of the recently published Gold Mountain, Big City, recalls his first encounter with the long-forgotten ephemera that would serve as the impetus for the book and which he and his wife, Marti, had purchased in toto. It was “an amazing stash of stuff,” he recalls, “boxes and boxes and numerous tubes containing maps and documents.” The trove included the creative output of Ken Cathcart, a mapmaker, storyteller and photographer who settled in San Francisco in the 1930s. Schein’s elderly neighbor had met Cathcart in the 1960s and lived in the same building. Upon Cathcart’s death in 1985, the landlord had been ready to discard the hoard when the neighbor salvaged it.

As a mapmaker, Cathcart specialized in a style of jaunty “scrapbook” maps with cartoon images, some of which were sold at the Rand McNally shop on Market Street. Prominent among Schein’s purchased lot was a 1947 blockby- block map of Chinatown, a sepia-toned artist’s proof made from a photolithographic plate. Schein began working with an expert to hand color it with an eye toward resale, a common practice among map dealers. Filled with doodles and inscriptions, the document is rich with references to Chinese American immigrant history and culture, including the jade trade, mah-jongg and the tong wars at Waverly Place. There are also site-specific notations such as the first Chinese laundry, and Benny Bufano’s sculpture of statesman Sun Yat-sen, who lived in San Francisco during his exile.

Jim Schein’s words, coupled with Ken Cathcart’s maps and rare photos, provide a glimpse of WWII-era Chinatown. To view the Cathcart collection, go to scheinandschein.com.
Jim Schein’s words, coupled with Ken Cathcart’s maps and rare photos, provide a glimpse of WWII-era Chinatown. To view the Cathcart collection, go to scheinandschein.com.

A year later, Schein had another “eureka” moment. The neighbor returned with a wooden box of aluminum film vials and 40mm negatives of Cathcart’s photographs, shot on a Leica. When Schein asked what he owed her, she replied that it was part of the original sale; he’d already bought it. From 1936 to 1946, Cathcart had taken over a thousand photos of Chinatown, befriending its residents and gaining the patronage of B.S. Fong, president of the Chinese War Relief Association, and member families of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. He was later hired by them to promote Chinatown after World War II.

Delving further, Schein realized the original purpose of the photographs: research and inspiration. “He used them initially to create stories that he was writing about,” Schein says, “but he couldn’t get his books published. So he wound up being a mapmaker — really as a failed author.” When comparing the photos with the maps, Schein began to recognize views and characters in Cathcart’s photos that had found their way into the hand drawings. A stylized drawing of a moth, for example, with oval patterns on its wings and segments of its body delineated, turned out to be modeled from a photograph of a kite in the hands of a boy at Marina Middle School.

Schein, who has memories of exploring his North Beach neighborhood on a skateboard as a teenager, admits a feeling of kinship with Cathcart, who explored Chinatown not with a skateboard but a camera. “And having the original film vials is super cool,” Schein says. “I have photos of him taking photos of the film vials and I have that exact film vial with that exact writing on it, still, 75 years later! That’s just crazy.”

Portrait Of Jim Schein: Derek Yarra
Portrait Of Jim Schein: Derek Yarra

At first the significance of much of the Chinatown iconography was elusive. So Jim, Marti, and a few others who worked at the shop divvied up the research block by block, devoting time each workday to study a particular square. At this point, the story took on the twists of a Hardy Boys adventure. They reached out to members of the Chinatown and North Beach communities (part of the map extends to the Barbary Coast area) for insight, personal memories and introductions. Schein’s friend Peggy Lee, owner of the Enchanted House antiques shop, was among the locals who shed light on cultural nuances. An artist’s proof that Cathcart had hand colored was found in the collection of the California Historical Society.

Gold Mountain, Big City is the first volume (hopefully in a series) to come from the Cathcart archive. The book’s introduction was penned by Gordon Chin, founding executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center. Since the Scheins first opened their shop, Chin writes, he and the couple “often shared stories about San Francisco, stories about our city’s history, diversity, progressive politics, and creativity.” Additionally, Chin notes, Schein lent Cathcart photos for CCDC’s historical projects. And while the book is visually enchanting, Schein’s equally rich text doesn’t shy away from discussion of the historic prejudice and exclusion of the members of the Chinatown community at its focus, and what Schein calls “things that make us cringe today.”

Schein & Schein have closed their North Beach shop, but still have a City presence at a Coit Tower concession that carries first-edition used books and ephemera. The Cathcart photo archive has been digitized and catalogued on Schein’s website (prints are also available for purchase), which continuously provides history lovers with plenty of rich dust to sift through.

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