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.

AArnold Genthe, “Untitled” (ca. 1898), gelatin silver print

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.

Arnold Genthe, “A Slave Girl in Holiday Attire” (ca. 1898), gelatin silver print

“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.”

White people, Garcia argues, would go into Chinatown and photograph or paint the residents while exerting a level of power and a kind of surveillance. The exhibition also shows government surveillance, and how it became more systemic with the passage of the Geary Act in 1892, which required Chinese people to have certificates of residence with a photo.

A Sierra County justice of the peace did some extrajudicial tracking, starting in 1894 and continuing for decades. He put together an album of 176 mug shot-style photos of Chinese people in the county. A page from his ledger is on display, with his handwritten notes recording people’s height, age, and occupation, as well as identifying “marks.” One woman, 55-year-old housekeeper Ung Gook, known as “China Susie,” has “Gone to China for good 1900,” noted at the end of her entry. This ledger and the notations show the hostile attention Chinse people faced during the Exclusion era as officials collected information about them.

John T. Mason, album of Chinese men and women in Sierra County (1890–1930), albumen prints

Garcia concludes the exhibition in 1910, when Angel Island, the main West Coast immigration facility, opened. A photo shows a group of women, some with children on their laps, sitting on benches in the immigration station.

“This photo is so orderly, and you have this well-meaning, Progressive-era woman who looks so pleased,” Garcia said. “But it’s women and children in a cage.”

Photographer unknown, Chinese women and children at the immigration station, Angel Island, San Francisco (ca. 1910), gelatin silver print

The last item in the exhibit, “Woo Dunn and Two Other Men,” a 1910 postcard of three men posing in a car, has a holiday message addressed to Mary Edwards, the superintendent of the Christian Chinese Mission — presumably a white woman with whom the correspondent had a friendly relationship. “On the one hand you have this,” Garcia said gesturing to the photo at Angel Island, “but on the other hand, life goes on.”

Chinese Pioneers: Power and Politics in Exclusion Era Photographs continues at the California Historical Society (678 Mission Street, San Francisco) through June 25.

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Emily Wilson

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California...