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China Quake Jars Memories in U.S. Chinatown: NPR Interview

The largest Chinese community in the United States has been reaching out to help victims of last week’s massive earthquake in Sichuan province. The effects of a major disaster are familiar to some residents of San Francisco’s Chinatown, which suffered an earthquake of similar magnitude just over a century ago.

The San Francisco area’s buildings still bear evidence of the great earthquake and fire of 1906. A close look at the outer walls of the First Chinese Baptist Church reveals heavy red bricks from the original church, which burned down in 1906. The bricks were used to rebuild the walls two years later.

“These Klinker bricks, these burnt bricks show the heat of the earthquake fire,” said the Rev. Donald Ng, “and then now its almost like the phoenix rising from the ashes.”

Ng says responding to disasters is part of his congregation’s mentality. A special donation for the quake victims was collected on Sunday. Coincidentally, just days before the China earthquake Ng was meeting with other religious leaders in Chinatown to make a contingency plan in case another major quake hits San Francisco.

“We survived the ’89 earthquake, and we have something to give back to the community,” Ng said, referring to the 1989 earthquake, which struck during baseball’s World Series.Article continues after sponsor message

If another quake comes, Ng’s initial plan is to pool resources with the nearby YMCA and Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, a Spanish Gothic church on the southern edge of Chinatown.

St. Mary’s was intact after the 1906 quake, but the fire that followed left it with a bell tower and three walls.

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The church’s leader, the Rev. Charles Kullmann, says the earthquake in China is a reminder that it’s not a question of if the same thing will happen in San Francisco, but when.

“After Katrina, the American Red Cross discovered that the people who were first on the ground, the immediate responders, were the local faith congregations,” Kullmann said.

“And the people who were displaced from their homes, the places they normally went were the churches and faith congregations.”

Other people in the neighborhood are also thinking about possible disaster scenarios.

Businessman Pius Lee says he worries about the district’s buildings — he’s one of the largest landlords in Chinatown. Lee says most of the structures in the neighborhood have been retrofitted.

But even so, he says, an earthquake of the magnitude that struck in China will destroy Chinatown.

“So I hope it won’t happen,” Lee said. “That’s what they say, that the big one, 7 to 7.8, you know. That happens, you don’t see any Chinatown anymore.”

Of course, if that happens, Chinatown won’t be the only neighborhood lying in ruins. Lee has a photocopy of a San Francisco Chronicle headline published just a month ago. It reads, “Sure Bet: Big Quake in Next 30 Years.”

Originally heard on the Morning Edition. Story by Richard Gonzales

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