Friday, January 10, 2014
January 10, 2014: San Fran Sites: Remembering Chinatown
[As I was reminded during my book talk visit, the Bay Area is home to numerous, significant American sites. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight a handful of such evocative places. Add your thoughts, or your own sites, in the comments!]
On the past, the present, and a way to bridge the two.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is often referred to as the oldest Chinatown in North America; it is that, but its history is also more multi-part and more multi-national than that designation implies. The neighborhood includes, for example, the Clay Street spot where English sailor William Richardson set up his tent in 1835, considered the first site of Anglo settlement in California. Even further back, the neighborhood’s Portsmouth Square was the site of the area’s first Spanish township, known as Yerba Buena until it was renamed San Francisco in 1847—and was also where Captain John Montgomery raised the area’s first American flag a year before that renaming. If we combine that century of multi-national history with the subsequent century and a half of Chinese American life, the neighborhood becomes one of the most culturally and historically rich in all of the US.
That rich and evolving history of Chinese American life continues into the 21st century, as my visit to and talk at the Him Mark Lai (Chinatown) branch of the San Francisco Public Library helped me understand. The neighborhood has also become one of the city’s—as well as the state’s, and perhaps even the nation’s—premier tourist attractions, however, and it’s fair to ask whether that tourist industry has any interest in (or even any ability to engage with) the neighborhood’s complex present identity and community, much less the multiple stages and sides to its history. Much like the French Quarter in New Orleans or the North End in Boston (among other such heavily touristed historical and cultural neighborhoods), that is, there are ways in which San Francisco’s Chinatown has become a cultural performance, a simulacrum (to get all theoretical for a moment) of realities that of course also continue to exist alongside the images.
So how to bring those 21st century visitors into conversation with the neighborhood’s, community’s, and city’s histories? One very easy and productive way would be to have them visit the Chinese Historical Society of America, about which I blogged in the post linked at “my book talk visit” above. The CHSA is a wonderful combination of museum, cultural site, and community center, connected to both the histories and the present identities of Chinatown, the Chinese American community, and the immigrant experience more broadly. A visitor to the CHSA—and I speak from personal experience here—comes away with both a far richer understanding of the contemporary neighborhood into which they’re emerging and a much better sense of all that has come before in this space, as well as all the other places and histories to which it connects. Like San Fran itself, that is, the CHSA has much to teach us about who we’ve been and who we are.
Special guest post this weekend,
BenPS. What do you think?