Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

San Francisco, California



San Francisco's Old Chinatown: Photographs by Arnold Genthe

19 December 1998 - 28 March 1999


San Francisco's Old Chinatown of the pre-1906 earthquake and fire comes to life again in the evocative photographs of Arnold Genthe. The thirty images in the exhibition, photographed by the self-taught Genthe between 1896 and 1906, are shown as a group for the first time at the Fine Arts Museums. They allow the viewer to experience the exotic sights and rich street life of the colorful neighborhood that was once San Francisco's Chinatown.

The photographs were purchased by the California Palace of the Legion of Honor from Genthe's estate shortly after his death in 1942. Although Genthe did not record the exact dates that the prints were made, they probably date from between 1910 and 1920. Prints on display include street scenes, images of merchants and peddlers, families with children, and neighborhood buildings.


Arnold Genthe (1869-1942)

Genthe came to San Francisco from Germany in 1895 as tutor to the eldest son of Baron and Baroness von Schroeder, who belonged to one of San Francisco's wealthiest and most influential families. Genthe was a classical scholar who had recently earned a Ph.D. in philology from the University of Jena, and he quickly became a part of San Francisco's thriving artistic and literary scene.

Shortly after his arrival in San Francisco, the 26 year-old "Herr Doktor Genthe" began making photographs of Telegraph Hill and Chinatown. In 1897 and 1898 his photographs were published in the local magazine The Wave, and often accompanied articles by regular Wave contributor and novelist Frank Norris.

Genthe was a steadfast adherent to the rules of the pictorialist school of photography, which emphasized the photograph as an expression of the creative genius of the photographer rather than as an accurate document of the subject. While most of the prints of Genthe's Chinatown series were relatively unaltered, some were cropped, retouched, and otherwise modified to excise such Western elements as English-language signs and non-Asian pedestrians.

In 1898, after Genthe's tenure as tutor was completed, he opened a highly successful portrait studio on Sutter Street, where he made his living photographing the elite and wealthy citizens of Northern California. Sadly, Genthe's studio was destroyed in the 1906 fire and earthquake, along with his equipment and most of his negatives. Only the Chinatown negatives, which were stored in a friend's vault, have survived. After the earthquake and fire, Genthe's images of the now-lost Chinatown enjoyed an immense popularity. They were reproduced in two publications, Pictures of Old Chinatown (1908) and Old Chinatown: a Book of Pictures (1913).

In 1910, Genthe moved to New York City where he became an established and successful professional portrait photographer, employing such notables as Dorothea Lange as assistants. He died there in 1942.

Genthe photos from top to bottom: The Street of Gamblers (Ross Alley) from the Chinatown Series, 1898, gelatin silver print, 10 1/2 x 12 7/8 inches, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, purchase 1943; Pigtail Parade from the Chinatown Series, c. 1898, gelatin silver print, 9 x 12 7/8 inches, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, purchase 1943; Children of High Class from the Chinatown Series, c. 1896, gelatin silver print, 12 3/4 x 9 1/4 inches, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, purchase 1943


History of San Francisco's Old Chinatown

By the time Genthe began photographing Chinatown, it was a thriving neighborhood with a history of nearly fifty years. Originally, in the early 1850s, Chinatown comprised just a few blocks around Portsmouth Square, but by 1895 it had grown to cover a ten-block grid, stretching north to south from Broadway to Sacramento Street, and from Kearny to Stockton Streets from east to west.

In the 1890s nearly every major city in the United States had a neighborhood known as "Chinatown." San Francisco's Chinatown, however, was the Chinatown, a distinctive, semi-mythical urban district of national renown. To the Chinese, it was known as "Tangrenbu," or the "port of the people of Tang."

Chinatown, like most distinctive San Francisco neighborhoods at the turn of the century, was a mix of the Old World and the New, but at the same time was a thoroughly American entity. Genthe, however, chose not to focus on this aspect of Chinatown, but rather on his romanticized perception of the neighborhood's folk culture and its perceived exotic nature.

Chinatown was devastated in San Francisco's 1906 earthquake and fire. The majority of the conflagration's survivors fled to Oakland and other parts of the East Bay, but 500 former Chinatown residents were housed in refugee camps in Golden Gate Park and later Fort Point. Chinatown was eventually rebuilt and repopulated, despite attempts of a handful of racist political leaders to relocate Chinatown to the Hunter's Point area or to do away with it altogether.

The exhibition is co-curated by FAMSF curator Karin Breuer and Dr. Rodger Birt, Professor of Humanities and American Studies at San Francisco State University. Exhibition partners for San Francisco's Old Chinatown: Photographs by Arnold Genthe include the Chinese Culture Foundation and the Chinese Historical Society of America. In January 2000 the exhibition will travel to the San Francisco's Chinese Culture Center.

rev. 11/22/10

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