Historical Exhibit Focuses on Chinatown
Quake exhibit explores Chinatown's reconstruction
April 21, 2006 9:16 PM
A new exhibit created by two SF State faculty members at the Chinese Historical Society of America is the first of its kind to examine the affects the 1906 earthquake had on Chinatown and its residents.
"Earthquake: The Chinatown Story" uncovers the history behind the neighborhood’s tumultuous reconstruction by sharing the experiences of several earthquake survivors.
Irene Poon-Andersen, slide curator for the SF State art department, and Jeannie Woo, Asian American studies lecturer, developed the concept after assisting with an earthquake exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California in 2004.
“When you see photographs of the earthquake or other accounts (of the disaster), you very rarely see Chinatown even mentioned or pictured,” Poon-Andersen said.
“We really wanted to share the personal memories, the personal narratives,” Woo said. “Things that were salvaged from families that talked about the devastation, survival, and reconstruction.”
Located in CHSA’s Philip P. Choy gallery at 965 Clay St., the exhibit blends text, photographs, and artifacts with audio and video footage of survivors’ interviews.
“We actually don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the devastation,” said Marisa Louie, exhibitions coordinator for CHSA. “We jump right into talking about the Chinese American experience, and we focus on the lives and stories of the survivors.”
At 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, just two days after her seventh birthday, Lily Sung was awakened by a terrible tremor. Forced out of her Washington Street house by the approaching fire, Sung and her siblings wandered the crowded streets.
“We could feel the fire on our faces, even several blocks away,” Sung’s recorded voice says from an overhead speaker in the exhibit.
After evacuating his family, Lee Yoke Suey returned to his store in Chinatown to retrieve his birth certificate. By the time he got there, the area had been closed under Marshall Law and he had to sneak in. He found his papers, but before he could get away a guardsman charged into the store and bayoneted him in the side.
“He survived,” Louie said, “and we have on display the birth certificate that he went back for.”
Businessman Lew Hing took it upon himself to convert his Pacific Coast Cannery in Oakland into a shelter for the hordes of weary Chinese coming over by ferry.
But this was only a temporary solution. At least a year prior to the quake, city officials and private interest groups had been eyeing Chinatown’s valuable real estate as a possible business district. Now, with the neighborhood in ruins, new proposals suggested pushing the Chinese into Hunter’s Point or the western part of the Presidio.
“After the earthquake, with the Chinese out of Chinatown, the mayor and various city officials began to talk about whether it was possible to relocate Chinatown,” Louie said. “Before the earthquake, there had been several attempts to purchase the property ... and evict the Chinese, and then to redevelop the land.”
A committee on the matter was formed, though Louie said it was devoid of Chinese input.
“In some sense, the Chinese American experience during the earthquake is very unique,” Louie said. “The fact that Chinatown was essentially destroyed posed this moment for Chinese Americans to
Asian style architecture was incorporated during Chinatown’s rebuilding as a way of bringing tourism and business to the neighborhood, as well as making a clear symbolic statement.
The exhibit is open Tuesday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. through Sept. 18.
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