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November 16, 2021

Intriguing Pictures of Street Life in San Francisco’s Chinatown At the End of the 19th Century

On August 28, 1850, at Portsmouth Square, John Geary, the very first mayor of San Francisco, officially welcomed 300 “China Boys” to the city. From the 1850s to the 1900s, San Francisco's Chinatown was the port of entry for early Chinese immigrants from the west side of the Pearl River Delta. By 1854, the Alta California, a local newspaper which had previously taken a supportive stance on Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, began attacking them, writing after a recent influx that “if the city continues to fill up with these people, it will be ere long become necessary to make them subject of special legislation”.

These photographs were taken by German-American photographer Arnold Genthe. Genthe taught himself photography after emigrating to San Francisco in 1895 to work as a tutor for the son of Baron and Baroness J. Henrich von Schroeder. Intrigued by the Chinese section of the city and also having his own photographic studio in Chinatown, Genthe wandered around the area photographing its inhabitants, from children to drug addicts. 

Due to his subjects' possible fear of his camera or their reluctance to have pictures taken, he sometimes hid his camera. He also sometimes removed evidence of Western culture from these pictures, cropping or erasing as needed. About 200 of his Chinatown pictures survive, and these comprise the only known photographic depictions of the area before the 1906 earthquake.

Take a look at these pictures of street life in San Francisco’s Chinatown at the end of the 19th century:


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