How An Earthquake In 1906 San Francisco Sparked The Invention Of Modern-Day Chinatown
Joe Upton, 4 Nov 17
       

louisraphael/FlickrCC BY-NC-SA

You pass through the Chinese gate and into the red wash of the main thoroughfare. Strings of lanterns hang above you, lighting your passage. To your left, a glaring neon sign blinks on and off, while on your right, pagoda roofing and latticed woodwork adorn an otherwise non-descript building.

It’s clear that you’re walking through Chinatown. But this small, highly-stylised slice of the Orient could be located in almost any Western city in the world – and perhaps surprisingly, almost nowhere in China.

There’s a reason that Chinatowns across the globe bear a strong resemblance to one another. They are a spectacle specifically built and replicated to attract tourists. And they were all spawned from a single event: the great earthquake of San Francisco, in 1906.

A bad reputation

Chinatown existed in San Francisco before the earthquake, too, but the area was despised by the rest of the city. Although the stories of underground tunnels, brothels and opium dens were mostly fabricated, they gave Chinatown an aura of notoriety which marked it out as different and debased.

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