The Pagoda in Flux
A Critical Visual History of San Francisco Chinatown
In San Francisco – A Cultural and Literary History, author Mick Sinclair (2004) claimed that San Francisco is “a rare part of the U.S. where eccentricity is more prized than conformity" (Sinclair, 2004, X). The pagodas, a late arrival to this culture of non-conformity, conform surprisingly well to the city as a dynamic whole. The American pagodas started in Chinatown, and the American Chinatown began in San Francisco. The flying eaves of a phone booth, the green restaurant tiles, the bell tower over an AT&T store, and the red overpaint of a new-year theme—all the disparate details extend beyond the pagoda as a format and point back to it as a form. Ubiquitous, volatile, and commercially available, the pagoda has acted as a constituent of an international city constantly shaped by Sino-Western contacts. The pagoda became the media of the city for community building for the Chinese diaspora.