This study investigates film culture in San Francisco's Chinatown between the years 1906 and 1915. While Chinatowns have figured in several studies of representation in classical Hollywood cinema, it has rarely been approached as a place where film culture actually happened. Drawing on a wide range of archival materials and interdisciplinary revisionist historical perspectives, this study deepens inquiries into the subject of Chinese-American history by contributing an account that localizes Chinese Americans as featured participants, rather than bit-players, in U.S. film history.
Following previous studies of immigrant audiences' role in the proliferation of cinema as public entertainment in the U.S., the study investigates film exhibition in Chinatown which functions as an "alternative public sphere." Instead of primarily focusing on the screen-spectator relationship, the study suggests that this process saturated the whole moviegoing experience, from outside on the street into the movie theater. The link between the various spaces of post-quake Chinatown, its movie theaters, and emerging U.S. film culture, is approached through an adaptation of the notion of “thirdspace.”
The first chapter contextualizes Chinatown in San Francisco through an historiographic and geospatial orientation. Chapter 2 outlines a tentative history of the emergence of film culture in San Francisco and its relation to Chinatown and investigates how the 1906 earthquake and fire, local policies of public reform, social improvement, and notions of cultural uplift became an important determining factor for shaping local film exhibition. Chapter 3 investigates film culture in Chinatown after the 1906 earthquake and fire. By charting the location and operation of each theater individually, as well as the internal dynamic and interactive relations of the theaters as part of the Chinatown and North Beach entertainment output, the study finds that Chinatown's post-quake film culture was a compound of commercialism, outside pressures and inside developments, all relating to a place-specific cultural hybridity. Chapter 4 explores the complexities of this cultural hybridity, and ties them to the Chinese San Franciscan community's interactions with modernity, as well as to regional and national film culture. The study finds that post-quake Chinatown film culture encompassed a locally specific brand of Orientalism, whilst also offering a rare site of active resistance of Orientalist stereotypes in particular and social marginalization in general. The chapter includes a case study of the various displays of “Chineseness” at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, where exhibited Orientalist fantasies of the Chinatown underworld were openly contested by an organized Chinese-American resistance.
The study concludes that San Francisco Chinatown's film culture between 1906 and 1915 can be defined as a space of cultural hybridity, which offered Chinese San Franciscan moviegoers a place to experience film culture appropriated to their community, while at the same time fostering exhibition practices that cast Chinese-Americans as Orientalist stereotypes.