San Francisco’s Old Chinatown: Reborn Through Photos

San Francisco’s original China Town was shattered by a devastating earthquake in 1906, but its sights have risen from the ashes through the photographs of Arnold Genthe.

This German immigrant traveled to San Francisco during the 1800s and immediately fell in love with China Town. He decided to capture the essence of the cultural hub by snapping away with his small camera. Luckily, he kept his photos in a bank vault sparing them the chaos of the quake.

The photos resurfaced in his photo book “Pictures of Old China Town.”

Besides photography skills, Genthe also had a knack for poetically describing his surroundings taking readers on a trip through time.

“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,” he explains in his book.

San Francisco’s China Town materialized after Chinese citizens turned to the West during the mid-1800s.

Many fled the country’s turbulent conflicts at the time. Others sought to test their luck during the California Gold Rush. Still, others decided to chase the American dream as job opportunities opened up on the Transcontinental Railroad.

San Francisco has since rebuilt its China Town. But, many say it’s simply not the same anymore..

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