CitySleuth is often asked how he finds his locations, especially those that have completely changed or vanished since they were originally filmed. This next location is a good example and he will use it to describe the process that identified it. Although his conclusion is not absolutely 100% verified, he is quite persuaded. You decide.
Then ... Frisco Pete is in big trouble. He has just committed a murder and he's being chased through Chinatown by an angry horde. Here, he pauses next to the New Chow Chong Cigar Factory, one of dozens if not hundreds in Chinatown back then. There are quite a few clues in this brief clip: the street number (15), business name and an adjoining passage behind the fugitive leading through to the next street or alley.
... and Now, CitySleuth has concluded that this was 15 Jason Court, formerly named West Court and before that Sullivan's Alley, a very narrow alley off Jackson Street (map). Here it is today.
So what led CitySleuth here? A search of city directories from the year of filming, 1920, contained no reference to the New Chow Chong Cigar Factory No. 101. This however was no surprise - many of Chinatown's small businesses avoided contact and cooperation with city official's attempts at documenting them. There were some Chinese language directories but few have survived, not to mention the translation problem. The number 101 assigned to the Cigar Factory suggests it was part of an organized trade listing but all efforts to find this have been fruitless. Public library records and the Chinese Historical Society on Clay Street were consulted but were no help; those who would have known are long departed.
The first break came from an internet search revealing this entry in a 1905 Chinatown residential directory:
1905 preceded by one year the earthquake and fire which razed Chinatown. Could the 'New' Chow Chong Cigar Factory have been a rebuild of this business after the fire? And where was 23 Sullivan Alley exactly? CitySleuth then came across a remarkably detailed 1905 David Rumsey fire insurance map book which survived fire damage and yielded the answer. The arrow points to # 23, part of a building of multiple small stores, a gambling club and 'female boarding' (the quaint euphemism back then for a whorehouse). Note that the alley in 1905 was called West Court, but marked as 'formerly Sullivan's Alley'. It traversed the entire block from Jackson to Pacific. Grant Avenue, then called Dupont Street, crosses at the bottom (click on the image to enlarge it).
After the fire Chinatown was totally rebuilt including, by 1913, about 3/4 of this block, shown below on a Sanborn fire insurance map (note that the orientation is rotated 180 degrees compared to the above 1905 map). Sullivan's Alley has been renamed Jason Court, becoming a dead end alley only half as long as it used to be. No doubt as a reaction to the fire, several ground-level passages (highlighted in yellow) were constructed as an evacuation route. Click or tap the image to toggle to an aligned overlay of the 1905 pre-fire block. The original cigar factory location is indicated by the blue arrow - it shows that it was not located in the surviving Jason Court.
Here's a closer look. The blue lines indicate where the alley extension used to run (in 1913 this area was an open lot; today it's part of the Ping Yuen Public Housing project); again the blue arrow points to where the Chow Chong factory was in 1905. Note that in 1913 #15 Jason Court (black arrow) is alongside one of the passages, like in the movie. What's more, if you look carefully at the movie image (at the start of this blog post) you can see from the brick walls on either side that the camera had been set up across from the cigar factory in yet another passage - CitySleuth surmises it was at the spot marked by the red cross. The passages offer strong evidence supporting 15 Jason Court as the new site for the burned-down original.
But here's the clincher - Note that the foundation level of the shop was slightly higher than that of the adjoining passage. 96 years later, 15 Jason Court is exactly the same. Quod Erat Demonstrandum. Anal is as anal does.
Jason Court today, viewed from Jackson Street, has hardly changed since the post earthquake rebuild. #15 is on the left near the end of the alley. The connecting passages have long since been converted to shops and businesses; every square inch is precious in San Francisco's precious Chinatown.