The current home of the East West Bank originally housed the Chinese Telephone Exchange, a telecommunications switchboard service that has exclusively served the Chinese community in San Francisco for 72 years.
San Francisco’s Chinatown was the first of the large-scale Chinatown
districts to evolve in a Western City. Unfortunately, the Chinese community
faced severe discrimination in ways large and small from the municipal leaders
almost from the very beginning. One of the most effective tactics involved the
stonewalling and delay of plumbing, electrical, and telecommunications infrastructure
for the district. Things were made worse by the California Chinese Exclusion
Act passed in 1882, which governed Chinese immigration and citizenship until
The community was very keen to have a telephone exchange in large part
because they wanted to remain connected to their friends and family who had
been legally barred from entering California. For more than 60 years, this
switchboard was the only point of contact between family members and business
partners in San Francisco and China. The Chinese community began operating its own telephone exchange in
1887, several years before most of America had a phone service. In 1901, they had
enough subscribers to open the Chinese Telephone Exchange, which was housed in
the former home of the Sam Brannan’s California Star, the first newspaper in
San Francisco. In the early years, the Exchange employed only male operators. Mr.
Loo Kum Shu, the manager, preferred female operators, who tended to be more “good-tempered”
than their male counterparts. However, the costs of doing so were very high, as
the women had to be guarded by a contingent of men plus an official chaperone,
who watched over the property and the proceedings day and night. By 1906, the
Exchange became willing to absorb the additional costs and thus an all-female
workforce was hired to run the switchboard.
The Chinese Telephone Exchange was an extension of the community’s
social network. The operators were fluent in English and the five regional
Chinese dialects found among San Francisco’s Chinese population. The
switchboard served party line phones in rooming houses, tea rooms, and clubs in
San Francisco and China, which meant that there could be dozens of people
associated with each phone on the line. There were also individual
pagoda-shaped payphone booths in Chinatown that were connected to the exchange.
At its peak, the switchboard served 1500 subscribers, each of whom was known to
the operators by name, residence, and phone location. Switchboard operators did
not connect the calls via phone numbers, because the Chinese felt that it was
very rude to label a person with a number instead of using their name. The
phone operators knew the 4,000-5,000 residents of Chinatown as well as all of the
extensions for the neighborhood’s businesses and residences, and handled an
average of 13,000 calls per day.
The system was also a method for contracting labor. Employers would
call with job offers, and the operators put them through to folks in the area
who were looking for work. In 1943, the Exchange workers joined the Telephone Traffic
Employees organization (TTEO) Local 120. They filed complaints with the labor
board and successfully fought their seven-days-per-week work schedule, winning back
pay of over $5,000. The Exchange didn’t close until 1949, when rotary-dial
phones became the new telephone standard and put the switchboard operators out
of work for good.
Like almost everything else in the city, the exchange was destroyed in the great
earthquake of 1906. In 1909, the community rebuilt the exchange in the style of
an ornate 3-tier pagoda with retail shopping on the first floor, the Exchange
on the second floor, and living space for the operators and manager on the
third. While most of Chinatown was rebuilt after the quake to resemble ornate
Chinese architecture, most of the changes were purely cosmetic décor slapped
onto standard boxy American architecture. The Exchange is the only example of a
Chinese-based architectural design built from the floor up.
The building was vacant for 11 years
after the switchboard shut down, but was purchased and restored by the Bank of
Canton in 1960. In certain corners of Chinatown, the pagoda-style phone booths
can still be found, although all are in desperate need of restoration.