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Relocation of Chinatown

by Gladys Hansen
Curator, Museum of the City of San Francisco

After the 1906 earthquake and fire, the General Relief Committee proposal to gather all Chinese in the temporary camp at the Presidio was quickly adopted on April 26, and a committee comprised of Abraham “Abe” Ruef; James D. Phelan; Jeremiah Deneen; Dr. James W. Ward, president of the Health Commission, and Methodist minister Dr. Thomas Filben, chairman, was appointed to take charge of the question of the permanent location of the Chinese quarter.

Chinatown then, as today, occupied some of the most valuable real estate in San Francisco, with its sixteen-square-blocks set between Nob Hill and the financial center of the West.

From a strictly political standpoint this was a remarkable committee because Abe Ruef and James D. Phelan were arch-enemies. Ex-Mayor Phelan had helped spark the graft investigation which would ultimately led to Ruef serving time at San Quentin State Prison. Ruef was the undisputed “boss” of California, and served as the Southern Pacific Railway’s political point man in San Francisco.

Their common ground was abiding racism and hatred for the Chinese. It is remarkable to think that within six days of the Great Fire, this committee was appointed and had adopted a plan to move Chinatown to Hunters Point. The idea was not new. Industrialist John Partridge proposed an “Oriental City” at Hunters Point before the earthquake, and it had the support of Mayor Schmitz. Telegrams sent by the War Department to General Funston, and the pending arrival of the Chinese consul-general from Washington, may have also been deciding factors in the quick establishment of a committee to “assist” the Chinese.

The Committee on the Location of Chinatown began, with the help of General Funston, to concentrate the few Chinese left in San Francisco in preparation of moving them to Hunters Point. But more politically astute members of the committee were concerned that San Francisco, ridding itself of the Chinese, would also lose its lucrative Oriental trade.

With virtually all of Chinatown destroyed, most of its inhabitants fled to Oakland, other cities in the East Bay, or huddled in the refugee camp at the west end of the Presidio. There were 500 refugees in that encampment as of April 26. Initial attempts by the committee to concentrate Chinese refugees at the Presidio Golf Links met with immediate resistance, and the army summarily moved them to Fort Point on April 27.

But the committee apparently did not anticipate stiff resistance from the government of China. Chow-Tszchi, first secretary of the Chinese Legation at Washington arrived in Oakland within a few days of the earthquake and met with Chung Pao Hsi, China’s consul-general in San Francisco. They, in turn, met with Governor Pardee in Oakland, and told him of the Empress-Dowager’s displeasure with the plan, and that the government of China would rebuild its San Francisco consulate in the heart of old Chinatown.

Stiff resistance from the government of China, and the fear of losing trade with the Orient, ended this relocation scheme, and rebuilding of Chinatown soon began.

Gladys Hansen
June 1, 1996

Editorial - Chinese Cared For
Fear Chinese May Abandon San Francisco
Chinese Colony at Foot of Van Ness
Chinese Housed at Presidio – Later they Will Go to Hunter’s Point
Chinese Crowding into Fashionable Districts
New Chinatown Near Fort Point
Chinese Protest over Moving Chinatown
Moving Chinatown to Telegraph Hill
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