Facing the absence of their historical artifact, many silent film historians turn to “new film history,” trading textual analysis for thick contextualization to underscore the complex economic, social, and cultural processes that constituted early cinema and film culture in everyday life. Such is the case with Kim K. Fahlstedt’s theoretically engaging and richly sourced “micro” history of film exhibition, Chinatown Film Culture: The Appearance of Cinema in San Francisco’s Chinese Neighborhood. Focusing on post-quake San Francisco (1906–1915), Fahlstedt shows how “local film exhibition was influenced by and appropriated for Chinese American patrons, while also functioning as fertile soil for a strong brand of Orientalism” that came to centrally define Asian otherness during the Classical Hollywood era (3, emphasis mine). Theater owners’ routine use of a “Chinesque aesthetic” in marketing to middle-class Chinatown tourism was but one case in the systematic marginalization experienced by Chinese residents. At the same time, film theaters functioned much like transcultural contact zones, or what Fahlstedt refers to as “thirdspaces”—that is, sites of liminality where marginalized audiences could productively navigate experiences of moviegoing, constructions of cultural identity, and the contradictions of modernity. Chinatown Film Culture shows how such spaces and exhibition practices connected Chinese San Franciscans to an alternative public sphere wherein cultural difference and anti-Chinese racism could be negotiated or resisted during filmmaking’s transition era.

The book is organized into three interconnected parts. Part I provides context, showing how San Francisco’s geography and post-quake environment were instrumental in shaping the city’s modern reenvisioning of itself, and of film exhibition in particular. Part II offers a rich portrait of “diasporic living” that documents systemic oppression of Chinese Americans in the nineteenth century and persistent anti-Chinese perceptions and policies prevalent at the start of the twentieth. In response, the community turned to its institutions (e.g., Chinese Six Companies, Chamber of Commerce, Christian Union), consulate, and Chinese-language newspapers to constitute an alternative public sphere that would facilitate cross-cultural social intermingling against the white supremacy that comprised “the dominant ideological overtone of San Francisco’s power elite” (81). Mapping the streetscape of motion picture theaters’ locations and operations as they were popularized in tourism “slumming guides,” Fahlstedt presents a dynamic “street level” view, including nickelodeons and picture palaces, exhibitor openings and closings, film exchange practices, battles with authorities, and Orientalist architectural and promotional tropes. In Part III, Fahlstedt turns to audiences to consider how the Chinatown community experienced motion pictures and the social space of theaters, and how Chinese Americans negotiated, appropriated, and resisted meanings inscribed by exhibitors’ promotional strategies onto their community, their neighborhood, and Chinatown film culture more generally.

The rebuilding of San Francisco in the earthquake’s aftermath profoundly impacted the motion picture industry’s early development, shifting entertainment away from stage and toward film, which had only enjoyed “sideshow” status before 1906. With the proliferation of motion picture houses came progressive crusaders’ familiar and widespread cry against vice. Fahlstedt details San Franciscan exhibitors’ efforts to evade local censors and police crackdowns, and to abate regulatory measures. These tensions were crystallized in San Francisco mayor James Rolph Jr.’s plan to clean up the city in anticipation of the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition (PPIE). Rolph supported strict motion picture censorship and other regulatory measures aimed at stifling vice and illegal activities, but he also foresaw the economic benefits the film industry could bestow on San Francisco. When the California Exhibitors League held their first statewide convention in the city in 1912, its leaders sought to mediate the battle between local censors and exhibitors by inviting Rolph to speak. He obliged, acknowledging the popularity of film while also underscoring the “moral responsibility” of film exhibitors to self-regulate by showing “wholesome motion pictures” (54). To this end, Rolph invited the league to hold their 1915 convention in San Francisco, thus linking motion picture reform to the “uplift” schedule for rebuilding the city in advance of the world’s fair. “This tangible goal,” Fahlstedt observes, “would also become formative for the local film culture, as regulatory measures—local and external—successively tightened the grip on film exhibition, in anticipation of the exposition” (57).

Some exhibitors fought against what, they complained, were the arbitrary decrees of the local censorship board. Others, such as Sid Grauman and Benjamin Michaels, relied on the “strategic Orientalization of the theaters,” which, Fahlstedt argues, “proved an effective way to align visitors’ expectations with popular fantasies about Chinatown” (128). In describing such manifestations, Fahlstedt refers to the Chinesque aesthetic for the productive intersections it illuminates involving non-Chinese tourists, Orientalist spaces, mythical representation of old Chinatown, and the cultural hybridity of new post-quake Chinatown. In exploiting people’s fascination with the “weird and exotic,” Grauman and Michaels, among other exhibitors, employed the Chinesque aesthetic in marketing, advertising, and architectural design, which represented, in a sense, “a material culture through which the perceived ‘weirdness’ of Chinatown was domesticated and commodified” (128–129).

Grauman and Michaels’ Underground Chinatown concession during the PPIE provides a case in point. Fahlstedt describes the display, located in the fair’s Joy Zone, as a “slumming tour” that featured “some of the most common fantasies about San Francisco’s ‘oriental colony,’ complete with opium smokers, hatchet men, and sing-song girls,” but enacted by non-Chinese yellow-faced performers (129). Drawing from his early-career experience with Orientalist stage productions, Grauman constructed a simulacrum of Chinatown that “presented fairgoers with a smorgasbord of Yellow Peril stereotypes, quickly becoming popular and drawing more visitors than the official Chinese pavilion” (131). Within days, a well-coordinated protest emerged, starting with letters to the exposition offices. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce, for example, called the concession outrageous and despicable, and the most “‘libelous picture or portrayal of supposed Chinese conditions’” ever put on display in the history of the state (135). The Chinese press supported the protest, which helped force Grauman to temporarily shut down the exhibit in order to make changes (which turned out to be only superficial) to appease the Chinese community. Nonetheless, Underground Chinatown represented the stakes for Chinese Americans in the reenvisioning of a cosmopolitan San Francisco in which they imagined themselves sharing in the same modernity as their fellow denizens, but which also “clashed with a touristic gaze” and the alienating and insistent exploits of Orientalist stereotypes. The incident also links Grauman’s earliest Orientalist exploitations with his relocation to Los Angeles, where his Hollywood theaters “became synonymous with lavish [film] prologues and public spectacles” (138), and where Gauman would “inscribe the Chinesque aesthetic into American film history” (141).

Part III’s two chapters on spectators, audiences, and moviegoing situate post-quake Chinatown movie theaters as exceptional sites for the appropriation of film culture for and by Chinatown audiences. Unlike other major U.S. cities, where theater segregation was commonly practiced, fierce competition for audiences from the bordering neighborhoods of Market Street and North Beach resulted in theaters with mixed seating by race and gender. “The Broadway exhibitors approached the multiculturalism of the crowds on the strip with strategies of inclusion rather than segregating” (157), suggesting that Chinese Americans’ social status was not circumscribed by spatial hierarchies in these motion picture houses. Exhibitors used a variety of strategies to win diverse audiences, many catering to the Chinatown community with promotional handbills in Chinese, translation slides, and lecturing and interpretation performances. At the same time, Orientalist fantasies of Chinatown attracted tourists and non-Chinese San Franciscans to the area’s theaters. One interesting example of this dynamic of thirdspace is contemporary writer Adriana Spadoni’s metaspectatorship on the transcultural audiences in Chinatown theaters—which, Fahlstedt notes, inscribed an othering touristic gaze but in some ways also transcended cultural stereotypes. Spadoni’s focus on sing-song girls as a result of her encounter with a Chinese-theater ticket girl, for instance, called attention to the vulnerability of Chinese American women to trafficking and prostitution, while her descriptions of immigrants as “‘sensitive, hungry for education, hard-working, morally upright, and socially responsible’” served as “countertexts” to the all-too-frequent racist representations of immigrants (165).

As contested sites of modernity, Chinatown theater spaces and moviegoing represented, on the one hand, a perceived loss of cultural identity for older, traditional, first-generation Chinese, and, on the other, a progressive turn to Western modernity and social inclusion for Chinese American youth, exemplified by Rose Fong (teenage daughter of Chinatown’s first Chinese American movie-house manager, Get Fong) and her public embrace of American dating habits. But theaters played a more significant function in the “political awakening of Chinatown,” serving as venues for political rallies and fundraising, and disseminating news about the Xinhai Revolution and its modernizing call from the Chinese mainland (185). Here, Fahlstedt positions cinema as a powerful medium for navigating the diaspora’s reaction to the revolution against Benjamin Michaels’s Orientalist exploitation of “‘a war in Asia’ film spectacle,” The Chinese Revolution (190). Fahlstedt thus links Chinatown modernity to a locally specific case “where complex political and social developments were purposed to fit an American iconography dominated by fixed ideas of the Oriental” (194). In this way, Fahlstedt’s study of a marginalized film culture productively challenges the very concept of modernity as inherently Western.

Sue Collins