Review: Historic Photos of the Chinese in California

Historic Photos of the Chinese in California
Text and Captions by Hannah Clayborn
Publisher: Turner Publishing Company
Pub. Date: April 2009
ISBN-13: 9781596525191
Series: Historic Photos Series

The blurb from the publisher:

The Chinese were a visible current in the tidal wave of humanity that rushed through San Francisco’s Golden Gate in the mid-nineteenth century. Known to their countrymen as Gam Saan Haak (guests of Gold Mountain), Chinese immigrants sought great fortune. Most found only hostility and hard work, often braving the most dangerous and loathsome jobs. They endured violence and injustice, yet clung to this land with tenacity and patience and made it their own.

With nearly 200 historic photographs gathered from notable collections, this book explores a century of Chinese progress in California. Retracing the immigrants’ steps-from the gold fields to the high Sierra railroad camps, to lettuce fields and olive groves, and to the Monterey coast-we visit Chinese enclaves throughout the state. We linger in San Francisco’s old Chinatown, home to cherished children and notorious tong gangs, where new arrivals first found refuge and familiar goods, and tourists later found exotic merchandise spilling from aging storefronts. These historic images recall a time when the Chinese community in California was still a world apart.

The Short of It:

A well researched photographic journey of the Chinese in California beginning with the Gold Rush through the creation of the Chinatown that we’ve come to know today.

My Thoughts:

When I was younger, I was not much of a history buff. Textbooks back then left a lot to be desired and what was included never seemed to stick with me. I paid more attention to the pictures and the captions underneath them and if the photograph was particularly telling, then that is what stuck with me.

So when I was asked to review this book, I jumped at the chance. It’s filled with black white photos, some of which have been very well preserved and the captions for each, along with the chapter introductions really give the reader a feel for what the Chinese went through when they came to California.

One piece of information that I found especially interesting, is that after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the fire that resulted afterward, most of the vital statistics at City Hall were destroyed. That meant that the Chinese could claim U.S Citizenship and no one could prove any different. Many returned to China to bring back other members of their family.

Some of the photos that I found most appealing had to do with the quest for gold. My son mentioned that his history book from last year covered the Chinese in California. I was happy to hear that, because they weren’t included in any of the books from my childhood. The other photos that really caught my eye were the ones from the 1906 earthquake. The people seemed so calm yet it was a devastating event and one of the worst natural disasters ever. I also enjoyed the the western influence upon the subjects within the photos. The Levis, the very formal suits and ties. Going through the book was like sneaking a peek at the shoebox of photographs that your parents always kept hidden for safekeeping.

The book itself is pretty nice to look at. It’s the perfect size for your coffee table and contains nothing but black and white photos (which I love). I placed it on my coffee table after I read it, but it didn’t take long for the kids and Hub to start flipping through it. I figure that it’s a nice way for them to learn about history. I think it would also make a pretty nice gift for anyone that is into California history, the history of the Chinese or even photography for that matter.

Thanks to Laura Morris over at Turner Publishing for sending this book to me.

10 thoughts on “Review: Historic Photos of the Chinese in California”

  1. I love books like this! I find it interesting that they went to get family members so they could claim citizenship too.

  2. One of the Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell books I read dealt with the 1906 SF earthquake and featured several Chinese-American characters. I would have loved these pictures to go along with that story!

  3. This really should be essential reading for people. I think the history of the Chinese and the vigilante massacres by people in western states has just sort of been wiped out of history books. It's great to have pictures as an introduction to the idea that there were many others besides "wild west" types who helped develop the west. Thanks for the great review!

  4. I love history and it's always nice to find that someone has added something new to what we know.

  5. Thanks for posting all about this wonderful resource. As a media specialist, visual literacy is so important to me. Awesome!!!


  6. This looks like a neat photo book! I love photography books, and being able to learn something about history at the same time is also nice.

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