An Insider’s Look at the Rich History of San Francisco Chinatown

Judy Yung July 8, 2013 0
An Insider’s Look at the Rich History of San Francisco Chinatown

Photo caption: (left) “San Francisco Chinatown: A Guide to Its History & Architecture” by Philip P. Choy. Architectural photographs by Brian W. Choy. City Lights, 2012. Paperback: $15.95  (right) Philip Choy walking past Waverly Place in San Francisco’s Chinatown after writing a guidebook on its history. Photo credit: Liz Hafalia.

As a young college student in San Francisco, I was lucky enough to go on a tour of Angel Island, the immigration station in which most Asian immigrants on the West Coast entered the United States. Of course, with Chinese Americans, Angel Island has a checkered past and leaves a stain on many a family’s history due to harsh Asian exclusion laws. Many relatives recall being held or detained for weeks, months or even years on that island awaiting entrance to America, or for the less fortunate, deportation. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was extremely fortunate to be in a group that had Chinese American historian and architect Philip Choy as our guide. Choy was erudite, knowledgeable and personal in his guided tour. Little did I know that he had produced the case report that placed Angel Island on the National Registry of Historic Places and saved it from the wrecking ball, keeping it  intact as a monument of our country’s legacy and historic past. The bookshelves are full of innumerable schlocky, touristy books on San Francisco’s exotic Chinatown, and that’s why it’s so important that City Lights Books published this informed and accurate account by Philip Choy. A noted Chinese-American historian herself, Judy Yung gives us a review below.                                   — Alan Lau, IE Arts Editor

Reading the guidebook “San Francisco Chinatown” reminds me of what a treasure trove we have in Philip P. Choy, native son, architect and renowned Chinese-American historian. Without question, he is the authority on San Francisco Chinatown’s history and unique architecture, and this book, which he began researching and writing in the 1970s, is long overdue.

The intent of the guidebook is to provide an insider’s look at the evolution of America’s oldest and most famous Chinese community and its significant sites and architecture, and to “reclaim our rightful place in the annuls of America,” as Choy succinctly puts it.  But “San Francisco Chinatown” is more than your typical guidebook giving you a building-by-building description of the most significant tourist sites. It also provides you with an explanation for the unique Oriental architecture that is “neither East nor West, but decidedly San Francisco,” and more importantly, a historical context for understanding the community’s transformation from a Gold Rush town, to an “Oriental” tourist attraction, to the thriving neighborhood it is today.

At the beginning of the book, Choy reminds us, “Beneath the Oriental façade is a history rooted in the political past of the City, the State, and the Nation.”  His first chapter traces that history from 1776 to present day, showing the interplay of China trade, foreign relations and religion that drove Chinese immigration to America in the mid-19th century, followed by a critical discussion of the development of Chinatown under the rule of Spain, Mexico and the United States. He does not mince words in describing the anti-Chinese movement, the rise of a new “Oriental City” after the 1906 earthquake and fire and the political activism of its residents in fighting racial discrimination and maintaining their neighborhood throughout its history.

Choy’s guidebook conscientiously offers us an anti-stereotyped portrayal of San Francisco Chinatown. It is authentic and credible because of what Philip Choy brings to the drawing board.  He is, first of all, a native son. Born in San Francisco 86 years ago, he lived in Chinatown until he was 22 years old. His father owned a meat market on Grant Avenue, and his mother worked in a sewing factory while raising a family of five children. That is how and why he knows that Grant Avenue was a two-way street with parking on both sides in the 1930s.

“The saying was, when you could drive through Chinatown without a scratch, you were ready to take your driving test,” he wrote.

That is also why he can say definitively: “I assure you, there are no secret underground tunnels — never were and never will be.” To the local residents, Clay Street was “Mo Mah Lie Ch’eh” or “No-horse-drawn car,” Kearny Street was “Ngah Moon Gai” or “Courthouse Street,” and Ross Alley was “Sun Leuih Sung Hohng” or “New Spanish Alley.” He fondly recalls for us the sidewalk stalls at about every intersection of Grant Avenue that used to sell an array of merchandise, including fresh sugar cane, preserved plums, cigarettes, toilet paper and chewing gum for one cent apiece.

After the war and on the GI Bill, Philip Choy studied architecture at the University of California, Berkeley and worked as an architect for more than 50 years designing homes, office buildings and restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area. His architectural background gave him the perspective and expertise to critically analyze the “Oriental” buildings and streetscape of San Francisco Chinatown that was conceived by community leaders to attract tourists and built by American architects using Western methods and materials of construction in conformance with local building codes. Building by building, Choy points out the characteristics of this deceptive imitation of Chinese architecture — the multi-tiered eaves tacked on to the building to stimulate the multi-storied pagoda, fire escapes turned into balconies decorated with Chinese design motifs and the prominent use of red, yellow, and green colors that were authentically Chinese. In contrast, Choy heaps high praise on two buildings — the Chinese YWCA on Clay Street and the Gum Moon Women’s Residence on Washington Street — that went against the prevailing movement to create an exotic place. Designed by Julia Morgan, the two buildings “reflected Morgan’s genius at blending the architectural characteristics of two divergent cultures,” Choy wrote.

For many years, Choy provided pro-bono architectural services to nonprofit organizations such as the Chinese YWCA, Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Chinatown Community Development Center. He also became a strong advocate for landmark preservation, serving on the State Historical Resources Commission, San Francisco Landmark Advisory Board and San Francisco Museum and Historical Society Advisory Committee. He played a key role in preserving and restoring the Oroville Temple in Central California, the Chinese YWCA and the immigration barracks on Angel Island.

Inspired by the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Philip Choy turned his attention to reclaiming his history and exerting his rights as an  American-born Chinese. He joined the Chinese Historical Society of America and served as president for five terms. During this time, he co-edited “The History of the Chinese in California: A Syllabus” with Thomas Chinn and Him Mark Lai, co-taught the first Chinese-American history course in the country at San Francisco State College with Lai and was the host of the first television series about Chinese American, “Gam Saan Haak: The Chinese in America.” In 1976, he led a major campaign to recognize the Chinese role in building the first transcontinental railroad with a historic plaque at Promontory Point, Utah. He also became an avid collector of books, photographs and artwork related to Chinese-American history and went on to write “The Coming Man: 19th Century American Perceptions of the Chinese” with Marlon Hom and Lorraine Dong and “Canton Footprints: Sacramento’s Chinese Legacy.”

The combination of his architectural background, knowledge of Chinese-American history and political drive to correct the historical record make Philip Choy the best person to write this book. “San Francisco Chinatown” is well researched, lucidly written and illustrated with historical photos from Choy’s private collection and architectural photos taken by Brian W. Choy. It also includes four self-guided tours at the back of the book, making it the most comprehensive, informative, authentic and practical guidebook on San Francisco Chinatown around.