Accessibility links

Breaking News

Chinese Immigrants Mark Earthquake Anniversary in San Francisco's Chinatown

A series of events are being held across San Francisco this month, as the city commemorates the centennial of the 1906 earthquake and fire. Siska Silitonga visited Chinatown where she spoke with new Chinese immigrants whose main concerns are to find jobs and to survive the high cost of living in the city. She reports for VOA that few know about the Great Quake and the significance of the event in Chinese-American history.

It's a typical weekend day in San Francisco's Chinatown; tourists wander the busy streets and alleys, as the local residents gather at a square playing Chinese chess or sitting down on benches chatting with friends and neighbors.

An Israeli tourist on his first day in San Francisco says Chinatown is high on his list of places to see in the city. "I saw it in a tourist guide [book] it is a nice place, I don't go to China but I come to the United States, and I think it is interesting," he said. "I saw Chinatown in New York but it is written that this is the biggest….so I came with my kids and family to see it."

The tourists say they do not know much about the 1906 earthquake. They also did not know that in those days, ethnic Chinese - who now make up about 20 percent of San Francisco's population - were not welcome here.

As part of the Great Quake commemoration in Chinatown, historical re-enactor Charlie Chin is performing as Hugh Liang, a survivor of the 1906 earthquake and fire. He told the story of how city officials were planning to relocate Chinatown after the quake.

"Everybody had to leave because Chinatown was burnt to the ground," said Chin. "They wanted to move Chinatown, because the problem is, just like today, Chinatown is in the middle of the city, in the middle of an important city, and there were a lot of important properties. They wanted to move Chinatown. They said "oh, Chinatown is just a bunch of peasants, disease, and rat eating Chinese people"."

But not only was the original location preserved - as a strange result of the disaster, Chinatown and the Chinese community in San Francisco grew stronger.

"Luckily there were business leaders that managed to save Chinatown, managed to pitch this idea of rebuilding Chinatown as a tourist destination," said Leonard Shek, who works for the Chinese Historical Society of America. "The earthquake and fire also destroyed birth certificates at the hall of records, so that allowed Chinese people to claim that they were born here, and allowed people to become citizens, and also to bring Chinese from China over, so it helps strengthen the whole community, if it didn't happen Chinatown would've died out."

San Francisco now has the largest Chinatown outside of Asia; many call it the gateway to the Pacific. And it continues to be the gateway for many Chinese immigrants coming to California seeking jobs and fortune.

The newer immigrants who live in overcrowded Chinatown do not care much about a 100-year-old disaster story. Right now, they say there are more immediate issues to worry about.

"No good here," said one immigrant named Mr. Ho. "The rental here is expensive, one bedroom is five hundred bucks, no good…no good …."

Ho says he can't find a job that pays enough for him to cover his rent, because his English isn't good enough. Many new immigrants can only expect to earn about ten thousand dollars a year, which doesn't go far in one of America's most expensive cities.

Ho is an immigrant from Hong Kong - he refused to talk about his job and status here in the United States. When asked about what he would do if another earthquake happens in Chinatown he says, "At that time I die already…I don't care man………"

Andrew Russo is the director of Joy Lok Family Resource Center and works with Chinatown families trying to become self-sufficient.

"That is easier said than done because San Francisco is such a high cost city, very hard for people to find employment, where as limited English speakers they have living wages which in fact is next to impossible of course because of their limited income they all live in substandard housing conditions, or housing not suitable for family to thrive in," said Russo.

And those old buildings and cramped high-rise apartments will also be dangerous when the next big earthquake strikes Chinatown.

"Chinatown is a very high risk area for us, because of the building' constructions and it is densely populated," said Erika Arteseros, who works with the Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams - helping to train communities to take care of themselves after disasters. "So my concern for residents who live in the area is to get as much training and preparedness as possible so that they can be self sufficient for some time. There is only one hospital in the area but in terms of response for the entire city there are only 300 firefighters on call per day…..and during peak hourS, there are 1.5 million people in San Francisco. So it is certainly a challenge to reach people in Chinatown, on top of that there is the language barrier."

San Francisco Fire Fighter Patty Yuen taught disaster preparedness classes in the Cantonese language earlier this year for the residents of Chinatown as part of the city's emergency training. Besides the language barrier, she found a cultural barrier too.

"I think a lot of people in the Chinese community are afraid, if they are trying to learn about what to do during an earthquake, they are giving themselves bad luck, because they don't ever want to talk about anything bad because they are superstitious," she said. "But as they are sitting down in the classes, they said "wow we didn't know that, we didn't know how to do direct pressure, we didn't know about curving". It was a surprise for these people; old and young how they could do these things by themselves."

A century has passed, and San Franciscans are proud that Chinatown is now a part of this diverse city. Organizations and individuals who are reaching out to the Chinese community here think that lessons are to be learned not only from the Great Quake, but also the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and hurricane Katrina. Right now, what the city needs to do is to ensure that 50,000 residents in Chinatown know how to work within their own community and with the rest of San Francisco when the next great earthquake strikes.