Culture  /  Museum Review

The Photos Left Behind From the Chinese Exclusion Era

The California Historical Society contrasts how Chinese people were portrayed in the press with the dignified studio portraits taken in Chinatown.

SAN FRANCISCO — In one room of the exhibition Chinese Pioneers: Power and Politics in Exclusion Era Photographs at the California Historical Society, studio portraits of Chinese people in late-1800s San Francisco share space with candid photos by Arthur Genthe. San Francisco’s Chinatown fascinated Genthe, who would go there, hiding his camera under his coat. Genthe wrote about his subjects as “unsuspecting victims,” and in one of his photos, the subject holds up his hands to shield his face.

Curator Erin Garcia observes how Genthe defined how the subjects were seen, and sometimes went so far as to title them, as in “A Slave Girl in Holiday Attire” on the photo of one woman, and “Young Aristocrats” on a photo of children. In contrast, in the posed studio portraits, the subjects decided how to present themselves.

Garcia wanted to show these sorts of disparities in this visual history of the years around the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, a law that banned immigration and prevented people from becoming citizens. In the first gallery of the exhibition, we see editions of the San Francisco Illustrated Wasp, which show racist and grotesque cartoons caricaturizing Chinese people; an issue of the national Harper’s Weekly with a cartoon showing the San Francisco Customs House with a long line of Chinese people; and a lithograph from the Workingmen’s Party of California, with their slogan “The Chinese Must Go!” The party, Garcia says, successfully ran state candidates and spurred anti-Chinese state legislation, which paved the way for the Exclusion Act.

This room also contains another type of studio portrait — cartes de visite, or visiting cards, which were business card-sized and printed on cardstock to be traded with friends and associates.

“I really contrast here these very derogatory images of Chinese people as they were portrayed in the illustrated press especially in the 1870s and in the years leading up to the Exclusion Act,” Garcia said. “I’m contrasting those with these very dignified portraits.”

In the late 1800s, San Francisco’s photo studios were clustered in the downtown area, just blocks from Chinatown, including 16 that were Chinese owned. The small portraits show people with flowers and vases, sitting in chairs, and often wearing fancy dress.

“They’re very conventional in the way they’re seated, and often shown with furniture or a column,” Garcia said. “As time went on, the studios created particular sets for Chinese people with Chinese objects.”