|San Francisco's Ross Alley, "Street of the Gamblers"by Arnold Genthe|
Chinatown, originally, was an area in many cities where its Chinese population lived. In undesirable sections of towns, Chinatown provided shops and housing for their daily needs as well as some safety in numbers against societal hostility toward them. Before the early 1900s, non-Chinese visitors and tourists were infrequent and the Chinese did not try to market curios and other Orientalia to them. Once Chinatown was reinvented to exploit commercial opportunities, it took on a different appearance aimed at attracting non-Chinese to visit, shop, and dine in an exotic space. Its streets soon teemed with non-Chinese visitors while Chinese residents receded into the background.
But what did Chinatown look like before there were busloads of gawking tourists, many who had never seen a Chinese before? The most influential photographer of San Francisco's Chinatown was a German immigrant, Arnold Genthe, who took numerous street photographs of the public activities of Chinese in San Francisco's Old Chinatown at the turn of the twentieth century prior to the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed much of the original Chinatown. His photographs are a valuable visual portrait of this 'exotic' community. When I first saw them many years ago, I was fascinated by his images and thought how fortunate it was that he made these photographs so that later generations could see what street life of the early Chinese was like.
A few years later, however, I had second thoughts after reading historian John Kuo Wei Tchen's critical analysis in his introduction to a 1984 book of a selection of Genthe's photographs. Tchen pointed out some of the selective editing, manipulating, and cropping that Genthe performed on many of his photographs. Genthe's Eurocentric vision of the Oriental soul guided his photographic evidence. In his photographs, he 'saw' what he imagined. His work, more artistic than ethnographic in its goals, emphasized the notion that the Chinese were exotic, and different, from Anglos. Genthe's photographs portrayed Chinese in isolation from the larger community, and strengthened the view that Chinese were unassimilable or forever foreign. Art historian Anthony Lee in his book, Picturing Chinatown, also examined the social and political context of Genthe's photographs and their lasting impact that to this day blocks acceptance of revised views of Chinatown and its residents.
The noted novelist, Maxine Hong Kingston, also raised questions earlier in 1978 about the subjective biases of Genthe's portrait of Chinatown. She noted, "What is missing from Genthe’s Chinatown photographs are white people, whose presence would have broken the spell of a self-contained, mythical Cathay." She pointed out that this absence of white people was not because they did not frequent Chinatown in those days because, "Chinatown depends on a vigorous, aggressive relationship with white America to survive. Surely, white businessmen, tourists, gamblers, customers could be seen dealing with the Chinese inhabitants."
Genthe believed that Chinese did not like having their pictures taken because of primitive superstitions so he always hid his camera, which on the positive side, enabled him to capture more unposed photographs. However, Kingston suggested that his conclusion about the reticence of Chinese to being photographed was naive. A more plausible reason was, "They refused to let Genthe take their pictures, not because of exotic beliefs but because they were afraid of incurring trouble from the white authorities with their Exclusion Acts and deportation laws."
Kingston also noted and questioned the reality suggested by the many pictures that contained children, which "gives the impression that Chinatown was a healthy community of flourishing families when exactly the opposite was the actual, lonely situation… It was not until the second half of this century that the American immigration laws allowed Chinese women to enter the U.S. on the same basis as men—whose own immigration was restricted by the Chinese Exclusion Acts.”
Genthe's photographs are of value, but have to be examined critically. Cameras may never lie or distort, but photographers can.