San Francisco Tours Offer a Glimpse at the Asian Pacific American Experience

Posted on: July 7th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by Priya Chhaya

A letter speaking about the events of April 18, 1906 in San Francisco, California

For me to describe the scenes and events of the past few days would be an impossibility at present, and no doubt you would have had more news regarding the awful fate of this city than I myself know. All that I can say at this writing is, that about 5:15 a.m., Wednesday morning, I was thrown out of bed and in a twinkling of an eye the side of our house [at 151—24th Ave.] was dashed to the ground. How we go into the street I will never be able to tell, as I fell and crawled down the stairs amid flying glass and timber and plaster. When the dust cleared away I saw nothing but a ruin of a house and home that it had taken twenty years to build…

The Peace Pagoda in Japantown.

The Peace Pagoda in Japantown.

On my first day in San Francisco I attended a reception for the National Asian Pacific Islander American Historic Preservation Forum (more on this in a blog post next week) at the Chinese Historical Society of America. Amidst the exhibitions, I found myself standing before a pair of slippers belonging to a Mrs. Lee Yoke Suey, a woman who came to America and found herself detained at Angel Island for over 15 months. These slippers were unfathomably tiny, a witness to the Chinese custom of foot binding, but also a part of Mrs. Suey’s American story, for as I talked about the practice with another conference attendee I learned that during the great earthquake of 1906 many of the fatalities included Chinese women whose bound feet rendered them unable to walk, and consequently unable to escape from the resulting fire.

Now, before coming to California I knew that my visit would include three typical tourist experiences. A view of Alcatraz Island? Check. A visit to Fisherman’s Wharf? Check, Check. Taking a lot of pictures of fog as it rolled over the Golden Gate Bridge? Triple check.

But during the last weekend in June I found myself experiencing a different view of San Francisco, one that looked at the history of the city through the lens of APA America.

While in San Francisco I stayed in an area known as Japantown, a small community that includes community-run stores, the headquarters for the National Japanese American Historical Society(NJAHS) and places for the Japanese-American community to gather and live. My first introduction to the history of San Francisco came from my tour of Japantown by youth tour guides from NJAHS. As with most things in the city the history of Japantown begins with the 1906 earthquake.

Even though APA communities lived in San Francisco before the earthquake, this area—known as the Western Addition—is where the Japanese community re-established themselves following the destruction of their former homes. By 1940 the neighborhood had grown into a vibrant community center with Japanese-American run businesses and places for the community to gather; something that changed following the 1942 bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent internment of Japanese-Americans.

This is where most of my tour of the current Japantown began. At NJAHS headquarters I saw Sa sa E, or Camp Objects of Memories—material objects made by residents of internment camps. These artifacts are made of whatever materials the artists could find reflecting the scarcity and solitude of those years. The guides walked us to the place where citizens stood in line to register for the camps, and on a faded staircase we can see remnants of graffiti that proclaims “Japs Keep Out.” It is an interesting glimpse for me, a life-long East Coaster, to actually stand and view facets of American history that I had only seen in textbooks.

Eventually, we walked across the street to the Peace Pagoda, which opened in 1968 as a gift from the people of Osaka, Japan. The structure is centered on a plaza that exhibits four basic elements: fire, earth, water and stone, but also represents the late-20th century story of Japantown, a place stuck in a cycle of redevelopment threats that began with urban renewal and continue on to the present day. This serves as an excellent backdrop to the conversations going on in the Forum, where community members across the Pacific Rim have gathered to identify how best to preserve what’s left of their American-legacy before it is too late.

Orig. Chinese (Cantonese) of the "Wooden House" poem by a detainee.

Orig. Chinese (Cantonese) of the "Wooden House" poem by a detainee.

The second major site I visited while I was in San Francisco was the Angel Island Immigration Station, which is where immigrants from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, Russians and Asians were detained. While many call this site the “Ellis Island of the West,” my guide emphasized that this was more like the “Guardian of the West.” Not all immigrants coming to San Francisco went through Angel Island, but rather this is where those (during the years of 1910-1940) who needed “further scrutiny” were held. This is particularly true for the Chinese immigrants who were escaping economic woes (amongst other reasons) in China who found them being held due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. There is a lengthy history of the act and its role in American immigration policy but I want to emphasize that for many the stay at Angel Island was brief, while for others it lasted as long as two years.

Many of the structures at the station are closed to visitors due to decay, but what I found most amazing about the building that we were allowed to tour (where the male detainees were kept) was that many of the detainees took their emotion and reactions to being held and transcribed them onto the walls in the forms of poetry. These poems represent heartache, loneliness, and uncertainty, and what I love about Angel Island is that despite the poems and writings being covered over after the military took over the station to house POWs they can still be seen—revealing the human emotion and a fragment of one life in the APA immigrant story.

Over the course of the weekend I did see some other sites—the Presidio, Golden Gate Park, and Haight-Ashbury—but I think that I left with a broader understanding regarding the many different stories that we, as Americans, have to offer. Stories of sadness, but also of courage and determination—and how we can preserve those stories as time goes by.

Below is the slideshow of my trip to San Francisco.

Priya Chhaya is a program assistant in the Center for Preservation Leadership at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She can be found on Twitter @PC_PresNation or on her personal blog, … and this is what comes next.

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