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Majestic Chinatown Buildings Fading

April 15, 1998

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ When Chinese-American merchants faced banishment to the city’s outskirts after the devastating 1906 earthquake, they came up with a proposition: Let us stay, and we’ll build you an ``Oriental City.″

Within months, brightly colored buildings with curled eaves and gold ornaments lined Grant Avenue, the shelves stocked with trinkets and antiques.

Chinatown was reborn _ and like chop suey and fortune cookies, it was distinctly Chinese-American. Nearly a century later, tourists still flock to Grant Avenue for a glimpse of an imagined China.

But many of the graceful, carved wooden doors of storefronts past have made way for glass. Stone arches are being torn down in favor of plastic awnings. The old once-majestic buildings are fading, and few remember their glory.

The evolution of Chinatown is the basis for a simmering battle between developers and those who want to preserve the look and feel of the past.

``What’s been very disheartening is for me to see a lot of the old fabric being modernized,″ said Enid Lim, a daughter of Chinatown and one of the old-timers who want to see the neighborhood’s history preserved.

``All the old stores that had such beautiful windows and the second-floor mezzanines _ they’re gone,″ she said. ``And then all this schlocking of Chinatown. It’s changing it into what Fisherman’s Wharf is.″

But an equally vocal group, many belonging to a new generation of Asian immigrants with small businesses, are clamoring for change.

``All these buildings are unsafe. They should be retrofitted,″ said Pius Lee, a developer who has turned one school into a mini-mall. ``Give us the choice. We can still maintain the outside look, the `Oriental’ structure, so it looks like a Chinese building.″

Lee, who was born in China, advocates tearing down the buildings for high-rises _ the very thing some say could destroy Chinatown and turn it into a commercial district like the Chinatown in Los Angeles.

Philip Choy, an architect and Chinatown native, led a movement to have the community declared a San Francisco historical district. It lost, in part because of opposition from property owners who chafed at the many restrictions on landmark renovation.

``There needs to be a compromise. I’m not for arresting the whole area for the sake of history _ things progress,″ said Choy, who says current architecture is illusionary, like Disneyland. ``But the history never changes.″

Lured by rumors of gold and jobs, early Chinese immigrants had joined settlers at Portsmouth Square by 1848. Soon, laundries, restaurants, gambling houses and opium dens filled a 12-block area dubbed ``Little Canton.″

But as jobs became scarce, hatred for the Chinese grew. In 1882, Congress banned Chinese laborers from U.S. shores and by the early 1900s, San Francisco officials were contemplating moving the Chinese miles south to Hunters Point.

But when the 1906 quake struck, a quick-thinking American-born merchant named Look Tin Eli came up with a plan. He hired two top architects, both white Americans, to design his bazaar, the gold-bricked Sing Chong Building.

The architects gave traditional Western motifs, like Ionian columns and brackets, an ``Oriental″ flair. They crimped sheet metal to simulate the roof tiles used in Asia.

The same designers built the Sing Fat building across the street, adorning the rooftop with a towering pagoda that still dominates Chinatown’s lit skyscape.

Today, the Sing Chong sits on prime real estate. Cable cars rumble past. McDonald’s has framed photos of the old Sing Chong, and Cathay House diners peer from picture windows that once displayed Look Tin Eli’s wares.

And for the first time, 10 alleyways _ the narrow corridors where Chinese-Americans got their hair cut, bought incense and gambled _ will get makeovers.

The roots of transformation can be traced in part to a day 10 years ago when Bob Coluccio was wandering through Chinatown grumbling about the crowds jamming Grant Avenue.

``It hit me in the head one day,″ he said. ``These are all tourists _ these are not the Chinese.″

He bought a shop from an elderly couple and stocked it with cameras and electronics. He sold out in a week. Many others followed, most of them non-Chinese.

``There aren’t many of the old mom-and-pop stores around,″ Coluccio said.

Ms. Lim remembers what it was like in the old days on Ross Alley, where her father was a professional gambler. The mah-jongg parlor, and the alleys of Chinatown, were her playground.

Back then, Chinese-Americans rarely ventured out of Chinatown. They had their own churches, schools, markets, even their own telephone exchange. Ms. Lim has appealed to merchants to preserve Chinatown.

``I said, `You people are always talking about your home village. But you know, we were born here in the United States. This is our home village.‴

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