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Tragedy and Transformation: Looking at San Francisco’s Chinatown with Primary Sources

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This post is by Rebecca Newland, the 2013-2015 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

On Wednesday, April 18, 1906, an earthquake struck San Francisco. Much of the city, including its Chinese immigration enclave, Chinatown, was destroyed by tremors and fires. While this was a devastating tragedy, it was also an opportunity to rebuild and renew. Below is a series of photographs from the Library’s Prints and Photographs collections that offers a path for student engagement with San Francisco’s pre- and post-earthquake Chinatown.

San Francisco, Calif. – China Town, Sacramento St., 1866

The Heart of Chinatown, San Francisco, Cal., c. 1906

Without revealing the location, offer the photograph San Francisco, Calif. – China Town, Sacramento St., 1866. Support interaction with the picture with the Library’s primary source analysis tool and questions selected from the Analyzing Photographs and Prints Teacher’s Guide. Invite students to speculate on when and where this was created. After disclosing the title, revisit the photograph. Deepen student engagement by asking: What details in the photo help to identify the location and time period?

Move next to The Heart of Chinatown, San Francisco, Cal., c. 1906, taken after the earthquake. Ask again for students to identify details that indicate when and where this was taken. At this point, students may be eager to find out more about the earthquake and its effect on the inhabitants of San Francisco and Chinatown.

Provide this short article from the Library’s historic newspaper collection, Chronicling America, discussing the hardships suffered by residents of Chinatown after the earthquake. Prompt discussion by asking:

  • Who do you think was the audience for this article?
  • What can you tell about the point of view of the creators?
  • What questions do you have after reading the article?

Push the conversation a step further with this photograph of Chinatown from 1929.

In the heart of modern Chinatown, San Francisco, Calif., 1929



  • What details in the photo help to identify the location and time period?
  • What differences are there between this and the 1866 photograph?
  • What is the importance of the earthquake in the development of Chinatown?
  • What surprises you about the rebuilding of Chinatown?

Ask students to look at the three photos together to begin to construct the story about the evolution of Chinatown as a place of residence as well as commerce and tourism.

  • What additional information do we need to understand the evolution of Chinatown from 1866-1929 and beyond?
  • Where should we look for this information?

Are there areas in your own state or community that have changed radically over the years? What resources exist in the community to investigate these changes?

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