Book Review Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown
This essay aims to analyze, evaluate, and summarize the book Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown written by well-known German-American historian John Kuo Wei Tchen, illustrated by the photographer Arnold Genthe, and first published in 1984. The paper will also examine the most significant peculiarities of the text portrait and discussion of Asian Americans’ experience in terms of cross-cultural issues within ethnic, racial, individual, and family aspects as well as larger communities involving the issues of age, religion, and gender. The book and Genthe’s photos dispel numerous myths about the residents of Chinatown capturing the texture of everyday life and delicate flavor of the district before 1906.
Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown is a detailed thought-provoking historical and photographic source that presents the life of Tangrenbu (Chinatown) at the turn of the century (1895-1906) serving as a useful documentary record and showing amazing life of the district before the fire of 1906 and the earthquake. The positive side of the book is the fact that it does not only offer the photographs, which are rich in atmosphere and details, but also provides the comprehensive and informative commentaries that outline the turbulent and complicated history of the Chinese Americans, which a professional historian, educator, and director of Asian-Pacific-American Studies at New York University John Tchen realizes. Such an approach gives the possibilities to achieve balance in the presentation of the information and look beyond Genthe’s lens to discover the hidden meanings of the photos.
The book clearly shows the social, ethnical, and cultural aspects of Chinatown dwellers. The first chapter “Street Life” depicts Chinese and non-Chinese citizens as well as tourists of Chinatown. One may easily understand that male “bachelor” workers dominated the streets while women were seen very rarely. The photos show the social values of the Chinese society, according to which women stay at home for almost whole day being busy with household chores while men earn living for their families.
The chapter “Merchants and Families” demonstrates that in the United States, the Chinese merchants were the epitome of the “good Chinamen”, unlike low-class workers with bad reputation. The reader may see that the Chinese merchants were considered good and successful businessmen. Laundry, truck farms, and fish stands were among the most popular Chinese businesses of that time.
The chapter “Workers and Bachelor Society” describes hard and devastating times for the Chinese workers in America who, unlike merchants, had nothing to sell except their labour. The majority of them were low-class poor people whom the natives disliked due to their race and low social status, and the state discriminated through the range of exclusion acts that prohibited access to basic rights. In those difficult conditions, the Chinese “bachelor” workers had to unite their forces in order to survive. They lived in a close-knit society, in which each person cared about others, combining cooperative eating and living arrangements for the mutual benefit.
The chapter “The Rising Spirit” touches the range of religious and other important social issues related to the life of the Chinese people in Tangrenbu. In particular, the author states that the majority of Chinese who came to the United States were Buddhists or Taoists. In their turn, the native Americans who were mainly Christians regarded these religions as paganism and did everything possible to discriminate them.
The chapter “Women and Children” focuses on complicated life of women and children in Tangrenbu. The author states that at that time, only wealthy merchants could afford having their families (wives and children) in the country legally. Therefore, the great majority of workers left them in China and sent them money whenever it was possible. The women in Chinatown had to live under strict social and cultural norms. For example, the daughters were brought up to serve their future spouses and married in their mid-teens. It is worth mentioning that as soon as a girl approached puberty, she was kept indoors the majority of time.
Finally, the chapter “Earthquake, Fire and the New Chinatown” describes the events that took place on April 18, 1906. There was a horrible earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 and a series of fires. They caused serious damage to Chinatown bringing nearly 375 official deaths and hundreds more of unofficial fatalities; the total amount of deaths is still unknown, however, it is estimated to be nearly 3,000. In fact, despite its horrific destructive force, the earthquake of 1906 served as a helping hand for many Chinese who came to the United States illegally since that natural disaster destroyed all the immigration records with the data concerning the legality of staying of people on the US territory. In these conditions, America transformed for these people from “prison” to home.
The studio of Genthe did not survive these natural disasters. However, his bank vault did making his photos one of the few unique representations of that place before the calamities. The book contains numerous photos of Tangrenbu that serve as rare and worthy documentation of social and cultural background of people of that time today. However, through the masterful art of photography, the author managed to show and support the idea that in the period between 1895 and 1906, the life of Chinese people was truly complicated with this vivid evidence. If one walked with these pictures in mind through the alleys and streets of the same place in San Francisco, he or she would receive the access to the vanished way of life of that amazing historical period.
Even though Tangrenbu was characterized as dangerously wicked, melodramatic, and romantic place full of disease, evil, and decadence simultaneously, Genthe truly loved it and enjoyed spending his time there finding poetic beauty on its streets. Gold-red-black signs, huge flowered lanterns, itinerant peddlers, curio-shop bazaars radiating aromatic and pungent smells, fish and poultry markets, and many other things – all these objects served as the interface between the Chinese’ world whose home they represented and the white world that he has just discovered. Such a unique mix of components could not leave the photographer indifferent. During that time, Genthe managed to capture enduring and serene images of bustling shops, cobbled streets, merchants and street vendors, vegetable and fish markets, Portsmouth Square, Street of the Gamblers, and Devil’s Kitchen. However, the photographer focused mainly on making the portraits of people from old Chinatown: a fortune teller, aged opium smoker, paper gatherer, sword dancer, pipe bowl member, children and women in ornate holiday finery, boys playing shuttlecock, toy merchants, itinerant peddlers, and many other truly colorful and emotional personalities. Genthe spent hours in order to catch good shots. He could sit in a wretched courtyard for a long time or secretly stand at a corner alert and eager waiting for beautiful and picturesque sunlight or interesting group of characters to appear – a group of children in holiday attire or smoker with a pipe.
Among the most famous photos of the book, there are: the individual portraits “The Fish Dealer's Daughter”, “The Shoe Maker”, “The Pekin Two Knife Man”, and the dramatic compositions including “The Opium Fiend”, “The Street of the Gamblers”, and “Doorways in Dim Shadows.” Children were the special inspirational topic for Genthe since he truly adored their positive and raw energy. He tried to capture these characteristics in “The Pigtail Parade”, “The Cellar Door”, and “Boys Playing Shuttlecock.” Genthe as well as elder residents of Tangrenbu shared the point of view that “the future was bright as long as these children were around”.
Nevertheless, Genthe and Tchen’s book is not about the art of photography; it is a history of place and people that lived in that place. The authors state, “Today, with 80 years of hindsight, we can use these dazzling aesthetic documents to illuminate a neglected area of American history”. One may see that despite the roles of Chinese people that were usually attributed to them, they managed to assimilate into the American society maintaining their distinctly Chinese characteristics. Beyond doubt, a picture can never totally represent the reality focusing only on the certain moment of time; however, it seems that Genthe’s photographs can. Tchen says, “The honesty and directness of his best images take us beyond even Genthe’s own limited knowledge of Tangrenbu to gain glimpses into the radiant soul of its residents”. Thus, his photos indeed illustrate intriguing life of Chinese people in American community.
In conclusion, the book Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown represents significant contribution to the historical, ethical, cultural, social research and art on both local and global scales. It provides the readers with a wonderful opportunity to trace the history and vision of Tangrenbu region of the past and stresses the importance of the Chinese people to the nowadays eminence of the western states of America in general and of California in particular. If Americans considered them something more than simple nostalgia, maybe they would be able to comprehend their own lives in the historical present better.