San Francisco’s Chinatown may have turned to ashes in the deadly earthquake of 1906, but a precious few photographs still survive, thanks to the foresight of their photographer who cleverly stuffed them inside a bank vault.
The photographer is Arnold Genthe, a German immigrant who lived in San Francisco during his earlier years in America. Fascinated by San Francisco’s Chinatown, Genthe roamed through the streets with a small camera, furtively capturing hundreds of photographs of the hustle and bustle of the area.
Genthe had described Chinatown poetically :
The smell of the place—it was a mixture of the scent of sandalwood and exotic herbs from the drugstores, the sickly sweetness of opium smoke, the fumes of incense and roast pork … And in the air there was always the sound of temple gongs, the clashing of cymbals and the shrill notes of an orchestra. It was something for me to write home about.
Due to numerous disasters and wars at home between 1839 and 1860, many Chinese people flocked to the West, hoping for a better fate with the California Gold Rush and work opportunities on the Transcontinental Railroad. By congregating in distinct communities, they were able to adapt to a new country.
Genthe named these photos “Canton of the West” in his published photobook Pictures of Old Chinatown. The Library of Congress now holds the collection of all his works. Enjoy the selection below:
San Francisco has since rebuilt its Chinatown. According to a certain tour guide, it has lost much of its old flavor.
Previously on Shanghaiist:
Early 20th century China lives on in these NY Public Library colorized postcards
Incredible images of life in Republican-Era Shanghai taken by a French journalist
Amazing travel photos from century ago give glimpse of Chinese landmarks before selfies
By Eugenia Xiao
[Images via Library of Congress]