Chinese New Year is a very important tradition in San Francisco and, in honor of the holiday, we’d like to draw attention to some of the rare materials in our collection related to the history of Chinese and Chinese Americans in California – two collections using photography for very different purposes. One is Arnold Genthe’s photographs 0f San Francisco’s Chinatown, discussed here. The other includes a photograph album of Chinese men and women in Sierra County.
In The Balloon Man, one of many photographs by Arnold Genthe (1869–1942) in the California Historical Society’s collection, we find ourselves transported to San Francisco’s Chinatown at the dawn of the twentieth century on a holiday. Children dressed in finery and group of men gather on a street corner around a balloon seller. Floating near their heads are three shiny orbs, rendered with a metallic luster on the gelatin silver photographic paper. The image is strangely dark and moody despite the festive subject matter and this piques my interest. The children should be delighted, but we cannot see their faces. The somber tone continues throughout the composition with the children surrounded by a mass of men in dark clothing. The balloon vendor is so darkly printed in his black coat and hat that he is practically indistinguishable from the background. All we see of his bouquet of balloons are the two attached to his stick; the rest hover above, beyond the frame of the photograph. We are not permitted to see the spectacle nor the reaction of those watching it. Instead Genthe wants us to focus on the children, in their bright clothing, like lights shining amid an indistinct darkness.
German-born Genthe did his best known work in Chinatown in the years after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned new immigration and prevented Chinese people from becoming citizens. With the Chinese no longer perceived as a threat to the white working-class and Chinatown increasingly segregated, a new view emerged among whites that envisioned the district in sentimental, even nostalgic terms. Chinatown made a fascinating subject for artists like Genthe who frequently ventured into the district to make candid photographs of the inhabitants. He was particularly interested in Chinese children, especially those he perceived to be of high social status. Children signaled the rise of a merchant class that, unlike the much-derided Chinese laborer, could afford to have families.
Genthe’s project might be viewed as laudable—he sought to define the Chinese as a people worthy of respect and he brought what was then a sophisticated aesthetic sensibility to subject matter previously viewed in abject terms—but it was also fraught. Genthe’s work perpetuated the dominant social structure of his day, dividing the Chinese along class lines that conformed to his value system. As an outsider who sometimes concealed his camera so as to photograph people unaware, he was essentially surveilling the Chinese and he retained the power to define them. They became “young aristocrats” or a “slave girl” because that is what he called them.
Written by Erin Garcia, Director of Exhibitions, California Historical Society