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The surprising reason behind Chinatown’s aesthetic

The iconic “Chinatown” look started as a survival strategy.

From London to Manila to Melbourne, Chinatowns in cities around the world have similar design elements. That’s on purpose. And their distinctive “Chinatown” style can be traced back to a single event: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The earthquake came on the heels of decades of violence and racist laws targeting Chinese communities in the US. It devastated Chinatown. But in the destruction, San Francisco’s Chinese business leaders had an idea for a fresh start: a way to keep their culture alive, by inventing a completely new one.

Watch the video above to see how a unique architectural strategy helped Chinatown carve out a place for itself under the threat of hate and violence. Today, that legacy is staring us in the face.

See more of Vox’s coverage of Asian American identity here. And if you want to learn more about the history of Chinatown, check out the Chinese Historical Society of America, Bonnie Tsui’s American Chinatown, or Philip Choy’s San Francisco Chinatown, or listen to 99 Percent Invisible’s episode on the history of Chinatown.

This is the first installment in Missing Chapter’s season two, where we revisit underreported and often overlooked moments of the past to give context to the present. Our first season covers stories of racial injustice, identity, and erasure. If you have an idea for a topic we should investigate in the series, send it via this form!

You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube.

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