Chinese Telephone Excahgne, San Francisco, USA


Interior Chinese Telephone Excahgne, Chinatown, San Francisco, Calif.
On the back:
CHINATOWN’S TELEPHNE EXCHANGE BUILDING
San Franciscos’s quaint Chinatown Pacific Tel. & Tel. Co. building was erected in 1909 to conform with Chinese architectural traditions. It hours what is believe to be the only Chinese Telephone exchange outside of China itself.
1940s
Publisher: Stanley A. Plitz Company, San Francisco (1930s-1950s)

Google Street View.

In 1891, the first public telephone pay station was installed in Chinatown. In 1894, a small switchboard was set up to serve subscribers to the telephone system. Since people were often asked for by name rather than by number, telephone operators memorized and knew each subscriber by name. This made telephone numbers unnecessary. The Chinatown community felt it was rude to refer to people by numbers. Operators also knew the address and occupations of subscribers so they could distinguish between two people with the same name. In addition, they had to speak five Chinese dialects and English.

Although the offices of the exchange were destroyed by the 1906 earthquake, they were rebuilt afterwards, and remained in operation until 1949. The exchange was closed in 1949, when technology changed from switchboard-operator system to rotary-dial telephones. The Bank of Canton bought and restored the building in 1960.
Chinatown, San Franciso

One of the most Interesting features of the rebuilding of San Francisco’s famed Chinatown is the new telephone exchange building to handle’ tho largo -number of calls from that quarter. Tho building is designed on Oriental lines, and when completed will be ornamented with dragons and other symbolical Chinese characters. The Chinese are great users of the telephone. and their language is cumbersome, and they would rather talk over the phone than write letters. The. operators will be Chinese boys, Chinese girls being at a premium.
[Sydney] Sunday Times, 26 September 1909

The telephone exchange in Chinatown, San Francisco, is unique, being strikingly Oriental in both its exterior and interior details, and operated wholly by Chinese. The building has three pagodas, giving it the appearance of the hone of Chinaman of rank, and aside from the sign above the door and the telephone apparatus within, is entirely Chinese. The manager of the exchange is an American-born Chinaman and the switchboard operators are chine boys and girls. The exchanges now take care of 800 subscribers’ lines. The Chinese part of the San Francisco telephone directory is arranged by names of streets, instead of by numbers, and a caller gives the name of the firm or individual he wishes to reach.
[Sydney] Globe, 11 January 1913

Just around the corner from Grant at Washington was the venerable Chinese Telephone Exchange at 743 Washington (map). It opened in 1901 at which time, pre dialling, the operators had to know all of the Chinatown customers by name and address because it was considered rude to refer to a person by number. Each operator also had to speak the many dialects of Chinese spoken by the residents. It was no surprise perhaps that the original male operators were soon replaced by women, on account of their “good temper”.
Reel SF (has more pictures)

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