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The 1906 quake and fire: An untold story

April 4, 2006

Photo of the ruins at California and Grant streets after the 1906 quzkeThough the infamous earthquake and fire that devastated San Francisco happened 100 years ago, many stories about the disaster have yet to be told. Some of these tales are finally revealed in a new exhibit created by SFSU faculty, "Earthquake: The Chinatown Story." The exhibit, which runs from April 4 through September 18 at the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA), sheds new light on how the Chinatown district survived.

History tends to ignore the cultural aspects of events like the 1906 earthquake, said Asian American studies Lecturer Jeannie Woo, who created the exhibit with Art Deparment Visual Resource Specialist Irene Poon-Andersen. The team built the exhibit with photographs of Chinatown before and after the earthquake, personal accounts from residents passed down in family stories, interviews with survivors, and objects salvaged during the flight to safety. Artifacts in the exhibit include a Chinese family altar that was saved as the family fled their house.

"It's going to be a real eye-opener for a lot of people," Poon-Andersen said. Visitors to the exhibit may be surprised to learn that Chinatown was a very diverse district in 1906, populated by groups of other Asian cultures, African Americans, and people of Mexican and Irish descent.

Another detail revealed by the exhibit is that most Chinese women at the time had bound feet. "It was difficult for these women to make a run for it," Poon-Andersen said.

Documents about attempts to relocate Chinatown from its current location will also be on display. "The earthquake was used as the vehicle to move the Chinese as far away as possible from the highly prized location of Chinatown" reads the curators' statement, written by Poon-Andersen, Woo and Philip P. Choy, who helped found SFSU's College of Ethnic Studies.

Poon-Andersen and Woo were inspired to create the Chinatown exhibit in 2004 after they assisted the curator of the Oakland Museum of California's "Aftershock! -- Voices from the 1906 Earthquake and Fire" exhibit.

The exhibit catalog includes transcriptions of interviews with earthquake survivors, summaries of descendants' stories, and an historical narrative written by Robert Fung, lecturer of Asian American studies.

The Chinese Historical Society of America Museum and Learning Center is located at 965 Clay Street in San Francisco's Chinatown. For details, visit the CHSA Web site.

-- Student Writer Lisa Rau with Denize Springer


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Last modified April 4, 2006 by University Communications