Spirits of the City

Spirits of the City: Chinatown: San Francisco’s Potemkin Village

By Gary Kamiya and Paul Madonna

What most people who wander through Chinatown don’t realize is that it’s an architectural never-never land. It is a stage set, a Potemkin village, whose resemblance to authentic Chinese architecture is literally only skin deep. (Paul Madonna)

For more than a century, the exotic architecture of San Francisco’s Chinatown has fascinated visitors. With their bright colors, pagoda roofs, curving eaves, ornamental ironwork and ornate details, Chinatown’s buildings conjure up an intoxicating Oriental never-never-land that locals and tourists alike find irresistible.

But what most people who wander through Chinatown don’t realize is that it actually is an architectural never-never land. It is a stage set, a Potemkin village, whose resemblance to authentic Chinese architecture is literally only skin deep.

Before the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed Chinatown, along with almost the entire downtown, the venerable neighborhood didn’t look anything like it does today. Its buildings were mostly drab and conventional, lacking anything that would identify them as Chinese.

The quarter’s physical transformation was partly a survival move in response to the anti-Chinatown campaign the City had been waging for decades, and partly a shrewd rebranding campaign.

Ever since Chinatown sprang up around Sacramento Street in the 1850s, officials had regarded it as a filthy, immoral slum that should be closed or removed. The 1906 disaster gave them what appeared to be a golden opportunity to get rid of what they considered a “blot upon the city.” A high-level Subcommittee on the Permanent Relocation of Chinatown recommended that the neighborhood be moved to Hunters Point. But Chinatown leaders, flexing hitherto-unused political and economic muscle, refused to leave, and the City backed down.

At the same time, Chinese notables recognized that Chinatown’s vice-based economy — prostitution involving sex slaves, gambling, and opium trafficking — and the vicious tong warfare that accompanied these rackets were harming its reputation and its legitimate businesses. Realizing there was more money to be made in tourism and restaurants than in vice, they finally broke free of the criminal tongs that had long dominated Chinatown. And to proclaim the quarter’s new, family-friendly image, they gave it a total makeover: They made it look “Chinese.”

To do this, Chinese merchants hired white architects to come up with a unique architectural vernacular — a Chinese style that had never existed. As Philip P. Choy notes in The Architecture of San Francisco’s Chinatown, the architects employed ancient, authentic Chinese design elements such as pagodas, temples and curled-up eaves, but used Western building techniques. The result is a kind of false-front village — in effect, an ethnic Disneyland. The makeover worked. Chinatown has been one of the City’s most popular and beloved attractions for decades. And as a final twist, its wondrously inauthentic “Chinese” buildings are now so old that they have become … authentic.

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