-Robert De Niro. Meet The Parents. 2010
Almost every big city in the world has a Chinese neighborhood known as Chinatown. When I was little I came to New York and I remember that my mother took us to a restaurant in Chinatown. I didn’t understand why my mother was taking us to one of the most dangerous places in the world. Years later I found out that the real Chinatown, which I always associated with violence, was actually in San Francisco.
Today, I find myself researching about Arnold Genthe’s photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown, and I can’t help to be fascinated by this place. Genthe started photographing this Chinatown, or the Tangrenbu (which is it’s traditional name there), when he moved to San Francisco in 1895. He went to the city to be a tutor for a wealthy German family, but he found something much more interesting in his journey. Having a background in painting and watercolor, he continued his search for an artistic way to express himself. He knew his paintings weren’t as good as his friends told him, and so he decided to experiment with photography. He decided to make Tangrenbu his subject matter.
In Genthe’s photographs we can see how Chinese culture tried its best to hold onto their traditions, but we can also see how they, little by little, crumbled apart. Two main social classes formed inside the Tangrenbu: the merchants, and the workers. In 1877, America welcomed Chinese merchants, who started to be known as Good Chinamen. Chinese men could work and own business and where allowed to bring their wives and families to the country. After the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese men were no longer accepted in America and their entry to the country was prohibited. Years later, the act further established itself by not allowing women to come into the country anymore. Many Chinese lost their jobs to European immigrants, due to the opening of the transcontinental railroad.
The reinforcement of anti-Chinese forces made for a new kind of Chinaman to rise in the middle of the Tangrenbu. Without the option of going back to their country (they wouldn’t be allowed back into America if they left the country), or bringing their wives and families to America, young chinamen fell into a vicious circle of working, consuming opium, gambling, and visiting prostitutes. From this group of young men was that gangs like the Tons, the Sanyi and the Siyi began. They controlled prostitution and opium distribution.
Please, come back to this blog and check out my entries on March 11, when I hope to have much more information about the gangs in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
NOTE: All of the information used to write this entry, comes from the book Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown by John Kuo Wei Tchen.