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Today the Bay Area is witness to an alarming rise in attacks on Asian Americans. There has been a continuous thread of beliefs incubated in American culture that have stood at-the-ready and have nourished the eruptions of violence against Asian Americans which we would do well to understand in more depth. Shining a light on these threads and the earlier Asian American history is, I believe, the most effective way to begin to lessen this illness in our one-and-three-quarter-century-old Bay Area American culture.
One period that illuminates this eruption of these held beliefs in the Bay Area is the time surrounding 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Berkeley, the current bastion of enlightened and progressive thought, was thriving in a period of growth and growing community at the turn of the 20th century, but opportunities for Asian Americans were limited.
An Asian man in Berkeley could find work, but most often as a “houseboy,” the derogatory term for a male adult who keeps another’s household in order — including the cooking and cleaning. (These men were often “well-loved” and considered “part of the family” by the white families that employed them.) Asian men could also could find employment as cooks or waiters from Asian specialty employment agencies, like Mitonta’s Japanese and Chinese Employment Office at 2028 Center St. On their own, they could open laundries or operate truck farms. They found jobs as laborers, often at highly dangerous professions.
One business that was happy to employ a majority of Asian men for the most dangerous jobs was the Judson Dynamite and Powder Works plant, located at the northern edge of Berkeley by the bay. When there was an explosion on Aug. 16, 1905, and many men were killed, the newspapers would proclaim something like this sentence from an article found in the book “Berkeley 1900: Daily Life at the Turn of the Century.”
There was no indication of danger when Dwyer and the squad of seven Chinamen went to work early this morning.
The Chinese men who were killed in the explosion were not even given names in the newspaper article about them. (Though that story is a more complicated due to the Asian exclusion laws and leagues that worked hard to prevent Asian peoples from entering the country.) This was their “outsider” status on display, a status that survives through today, though in a modified form to fit the current times.
During this same period, white women privileged to be receiving a college education at the lauded public institution of the University of California at Berkeley were parading on campus in a ceremony all dressed in Asian “costumes” and hand fans. This event was memorialized in a photo.
Chinese, Japanese and Korean communities formed to provide the residents their own sense of belonging. One was found in the area west of Shattuck Avenue between Dwight Way and Blake Street. In Oakland, the large Chinese community today occupies the same commercial streets it did at the turn of the century — around Eighth Street southeast of Broadway.
These vibrant, though culturally isolated, earlier communities were a place of refuge after the 1906 earthquake for San Franciscan Asian Americans fleeing the fires and destruction of the earthquake. Many found friends and relatives to stay with.
For those who didn’t have that lifeline and needed help from the cities at large, relief camps for Asians were set up, but they were segregated, just like the segregated relief camps in San Francisco. In Berkeley, a camp was set up at Sacramento Street and University Avenue with 400 beds, but due to the distrust and displeasure of the Asian American refugees, only about 40 people utilized it. No one mentioned or protested the segregation of the Asian camps, not even a delegation from China sent to inspect these camps. Newspapers noted the independent spirit and self-reliance of the people and their reluctance to accept help for anything, except the procurement of rice.
This history needs the light of the readers’ eyes on it to be given the recognition that helps begin the process of decommissioning the social realities that breed such suffering. I only learned of these realities while researching the book “Earthquake Exodus, 1906, Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees.” In it, I tried to record the conditions, treatment and experiences of many groups, including Asian Americans.
This article will reveal stories excerpted from “Earthquake Exodus, 1906” of individuals as they navigated the horror and succor in the aftermath of the gruesome circumstances of the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake. By examining the stories of real people, everyday people only known to us for the flash of time their lives were illuminated in the newspapers, I believe we open ourselves to their realities and incorporate them into our own. Through that process, we begin, grain by grain, to decompose the old realities of suffering and release their current hold on our culture and begin to turn them into the soil of a more just and cohesive future.
The following excerpts will detail how Asian American refugees in Berkeley were segregated into camps separate from the white refugees, and how individual Asian Americans dealt with separation anxiety and loss in the aftermath of disaster, sometimes having happy reunions with loved ones.
Disaster and Racism
A few minutes after the earthquake struck at 5:12 a.m. April 18, 1906, thousands of stunned San Francisco refugees of all stripes — many still in their nightclothes — crammed into ferries that traveled across the bay to Oakland and Berkeley and packed trains that headed south to San Jose and then north to Oakland and Berkeley.
Berkeley responded with remarkable speed to help the San Franciscans streaming into town. F. W. Foss, president of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, called for a town meeting to decide what could be done to assist the victims. The meeting, held the morning of April 18 at the chamber offices in the First National Bank at Shattuck Avenue and Center Street, was packed with concerned Berkeleyans. The attendees quickly set up a citizen relief committee, to be housed at the Mason McDuffie Real Estate office at Shattuck and Center, near the downtown train station. This convenient location would allow relief workers to meet the refugees as they stepped off the trains and to provide them with shelter, food and clothing, along with any medical attention they might need. The Reverend E. L. Parsons, rector at St. Mark’s Church, was made chairman of the relief committee.
Many subcommittees, called departments, were formed to handle health, housing and other tasks. Berkeley residents from all walks of life — church leaders, university professors, veterans and leaders from the business community, as well as city officials — came forward to head the departments. Duncan McDuffie, of Mason McDuffie Real Estate, took charge of the Office Department, which organized a clearing center responsible for receiving the refugees and transporting them to their designated housing. He was also responsible for disseminating information, such as posting notices about the need for housing in Oakland newspapers. Frank Wilson, chairman of the Finance Department, began accepting contributions in cash and provisions. He proceeded to collect approximately $3,000 in the hours just after the earthquake.
The purpose of the Oriental Department was to care for segregated groups of Chinese and Japanese refugees. This was an era when anti-Asian sentiments ran high, fueled by fear that white citizens would lose their jobs or that Asians would spread contagious diseases. There was even an Anti-Asian League whose presence in Berkeley was condoned.
As word arrived that the San Francisco jails had been emptied of prisoners (as it turned out, they were being transferred as the fires devoured the city), a Protection Department was formed to deal with what was described as a “tendency toward lawlessness that follows such great confusion, excitement and disease.” Acting Mayor Francis Ferrier, in one of the few other official acts the Berkeley government took, appointed a “committee of safety” to do whatever necessary to maintain order, enforce sanitary regulations (posted in English, German, Spanish, Italian and other languages) and generally guard the public welfare.
Over the next 24 hours, earthquake refugees continued to stream into Berkeley until they numbered an estimated 7,000.
One of the trains that arrived on Thursday, April 19, just after noon, was packed with refugees of Chinese and Japanese descent, the two predominant Asian populations in Berkeley. Filing off the train, they congregated on Addison Street, filling an entire block near Shattuck Avenue. This group and many other Chinese and Japanese refugees were soon confined to the Dwight Way District, which already had a significant Asian population. Many found housing with friends or relatives around town, but those who didn’t would have to be provided with housing fast. To that end, attention focused on a known gambling house, Ge Thang’s, at the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Blake Street. A year earlier Berkeley police marshal August Vollmer had raided the place for its gambling and opium operation above the first-floor grocery store. Now, during a city emergency, Ge Thang’s was quickly set up as a nursery for about 40 children up to the age of 6.
Nearly all of the Asian refugees were from San Francisco’s dense Chinatown, which had burnt to the ground with little warning. Following the earthquake, Asian refugees fanned out over the East Bay and beyond. By April 22, more than 20,000 Chinese refugees were packed into Oakland’s Chinatown, around Eighth and Ninth streets, near Lake Merritt. Three-thousand reached Sacramento, a thousand to Fresno and another thousand stumbled into Stockton.
Estimates of the Chinese refugees in Berkeley constantly varied. Between April 22 and 26, 500 to 1,000 Chinese refugees were living in the segregated camps, which ranged in number from 10 to 35. Another 500-800 were staying in private houses. In the week after the earthquake, three UC professors attempted to address the needs of these refugees. A Chinese Office and a Chinese Employment Bureau was set up with the help of 24 Chinese students.
On April 30, a segregated outdoor camp with 20 tents and potential accommodations for up to 400 Chinese refugees was hurriedly established at University Avenue and Sacramento Street. A committee was formed with Thomas Hing as chairman and C. Y. Cheng as secretary of the camp. The committee’s members and the camp’s staff of five met daily at 7 p.m. at the Chinese Students’ Club at 2316 Fulton St. The camp also held the main food supply for the refugees. Rice was initially brought from San Francisco by the ship Mongolia. The Relief Committee then took over providing food until the end of the month, when the Chinese consulate began sending rice for the refugees. The University and Sacramento camp was not well liked by the Chinese refugees, and by May 3, only 30 people were utilizing the facility, and 30 sacks of rice remained in the club’s basement.
A local organization, the Chinese Empire Relief Association, specialized in the concerns of the Chinese refugees. A UC Berkeley sophomore, O. S. Lee, a Chinese American, acted as the association’s interpreter. “What we are lacking most is rice,” he said. “If we have plenty of that, we can do without much of anything else, but so far we have been unable to get it, most of our stores of it having been burned in San Francisco.” Lee went on to explain how the community had sent telegrams back east, but knew that help would be awhile in coming. American relief workers had promised assistance as soon as possible, but Lee politely accepted the reality of the white Americans’ view of the Chinese as outsiders. “Of course we know that they have their hands full, you might say, with their own people,” he said. “We see, however, that in times like this there is no race prejudice, and we want to tell you that we are very, very thankful for the kindly spirit that is shown by all towards us. We wish you would say that particularly for us.”
Although the Chinese were in segregated camps, the accommodations, meals and clothing given to them were the same as provided to refugees in other local camps. In May, after the U.S. Army took over relief operations, the same government officials inspected and approved all camps and, by all accounts, never received any formal complaints from Asian refugees about maltreatment. Even representatives of the Chinese government accepted the segregation of Asians without question. Reports later issued by the U.S. government stated that the refugees in the Asian camps were better at surviving on minimal provisions than the other refugees in the Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda camps. Being self-sufficient, the Asian refugees did not like the idea of charity and were among the first to procure new jobs or take advantage of opportunities to improve their situation.
Liang Cheng, China’s minister in Washington, D.C., said, “We are grateful for the attention our people are receiving.” In May, a couple of weeks after making this statement, he visited Oakland on behalf of the emperor to observe how his people were being cared for and to take measures ensuring that they found permanent housing.
Approximately a thousand Japanese refugees were counted in Berkeley on April 29. Half of them were housed in private homes, and 200 were being helped at the Friends Church, at Haste near Shattuck. The Japanese initially organized their own relief efforts, but during the first week in May, the chairman of the Japanese Relief Association declared that 50 Japanese were in distress and sought outside help. His plea was answered by Berkeley’s relief organization.
In addition to the efforts of Berkeley’s citizen-run relief committee, UC Berkeley instructors and students with expertise in modern medical and sanitation practices set up “sanitary camps” on the university campus, providing medical care, bathing facilities, drinking water and hot meals to the earthquakes refugees.
Mental trauma was more difficult to diagnose and treat than physical injuries and illnesses. On the night of April 23, a day before UC’s baseball field camp closed, E. T. Andre of C Company, tent number six at the camp, was on patrol when he attempted to kill himself by slashing his throat. He was rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, treated and diagnosed as suffering from temporary insanity. He was not the only one who attempted suicide that day — a number of disturbed people were carried off to the hospital, most of them protesting greatly. As the weeks wore on, the effects of the recent events took their toll on the refugee population. Noting the situation, the Oakland Enquirer of May 18 published an interview with Dr. Adam Shirk, a well-known physician experienced in working with patients who had mental problems. “Now, in the short period of one month, since the great catastrophe,” he said, “very many minds have been dethroned. Delusions of every kind have mounted the citadel of reason, illusions and hallucinations have possessed the throne of those who had not always trained themselves to the faith, that it might have been worse.”
Not all treatment of Asians was negative. There are stories where help was needed and kindly and quickly offered.
One person whose mind had been dethroned was 28-year-old Mrs. Louis Fong. She was staying at the Chinese Mission at 2504 Regent St. with her husband, the owner of a large general store in San Francisco. With their two children at their side, the couple had fought their way through the panicked crowds escaping the fire. At one moment during the pandemonium, they looked around to find their children were gone. By April 28, Mrs. Fong could no longer bear the stress of not knowing what happened to them. She grabbed a knife from the mission’s kitchen table and began to chase her husband. Everyone fled the building and left her alone inside until the police arrived. Upon entering, they found Mrs. Fong calm and offering no resistance. She was gently escorted to the jail and then to a hospital in Oakland by carriage.
A Happy Reunion
The earthquake also destroyed lines of communication, causing telegraph poles and wires to collapse and severing new telephone cables.
People outside San Francisco were desperate to make contact with loved ones. It was hard for them not to imagine the worse. Some traveled across the country so they could look for loved ones. Even after they arrived, there was no easy way to locate or communicate with them. Placing newspaper ads was one of few methods of making contact. The Oakland Tribune ran a large section, “ABOUT YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS,” listing hundreds of displaced San Franciscans and where they were staying. The Berkeley Daily Gazette of April 25 ran five pages listing the latest refugees arriving in Berkeley as well as the names of people sought by frantic family and friends.
And in spite of it all, some Asian Americans had wonderful experiences as well in the midst of the multilevel disaster.
San Franciscans frantically tried to find friends and family in the East Bay. One man was desperate to find his sweetheart. Jew Sing, a DuPont Street merchant, had hoped to marry Ng Quei Sem on April 18. On that day, instead of getting married, he was intent on getting Ng to safety in the East Bay. He fought the San Francisco crowds to help Ng reach the San Francisco Ferry Building. The two were separated as the ferry pulled out of the dock, and Jew could not even see Ng among the passengers crowded onto the ship’s deck. As the ferry pulled away, Jew grew despondent. He could not bear the separation.
Jew lost everything in the destruction of Chinatown save his most valuable possessions, which he had stuffed into a bag. Within a day or two, he was able to reach Oakland, but did not know how to find Ng in the unfamiliar territory of the East Bay, now occupied by tens of thousands of refugees. Jew sought out a friend who worked in an Oakland laundry and was admired for his detective skills. Amazingly, his friend located Ng in a Berkeley refugee camp. When told of her whereabouts, Jew rushed to the camp, where he finally spotted her crying convulsively, her face buried in her hands. He ran up to her and wrapped her in his arms. Her muffled sobs slowly turned to sighs of relief. That evening, Berkeley Justice of the Peace J. P. Edgar married them. As soon as they could book passage, they left on a train for New York and a new life.
* Richard Schwartz, a Bay Area historian and the author of “Earthquake Exodus, 1906: Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees,” is also the author of award-winning and bestselling books, such as “The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty: The Extraordinary Rise and Fall of Actor M. B. Curtis,” “Berkeley 1900: Daily Life at the Turn of the Century,” “Eccentrics, Heroes and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley” and “The Circle of Stones: An Investigation of the Circle of Stones in Stampede Valley, Sierra County, California.” Find his work at https://richardschwartz.info/.