The very racist 1894 fair that almost destroyed Golden Gate Park

One of the many strange episodes and racist exhibits at the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition, perhaps the most emblematic was the problem of the Japanese Village.

Today the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, it started life as Marsh’s Japanese Village, an exhibit put on by an Australian furniture collector. For authenticity, Marsh decided to add rickshaws pulled by real Japanese men. Even by 1890s standards, this was not well-received. Japanese-Americans demanded Marsh drop the idea.

Instead, Marsh proudly announced his solution: He’d have German men pull the rickshaws. German men with darkened faces, dressed in “Oriental” clothes.

And so the show went on.

The Midwinter Fair was the city’s grandest stage, a massive expo that opened 125 years ago today and was intended to showcase San Francisco the way Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition had the year before. The expo featured thousands of exhibitors spread across Golden Gate Park. Among them were:

  • An Aleut mother and infant, put “on display” in a papier-mâché igloo.
  • A lion who mauled his trainer to death at the fair; the funeral was attended by fair-goers and expo performers — in costume.
  • A belly dancer named “Little Egypt” who performed in a swirl of stereotypes meant to approximate a Middle Eastern city. The area, however, also included Greek and Algerian references.
  • A ride called “the haunted swing” that so perturbed riders The Chronicle reported people prayed while on it.
  • Perhaps the first-ever amusement park in California, called “Mining Camp,” that let visitors pretend they were in the 1849 Gold Rush … minus all the unpleasantness, of course.
  • The Dahomeyan Village, where 67 people of African descent dwelled as living exhibits.

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The fair was a rousing success, turning a profit and hosting over 1 million visitors by the time of its closure in July. It was also park superintendent John McLaren’s nightmare. McLaren believed in parks that provided a refuge from city life for stressed residents. Adding roads, buildings and lights to Golden Gate Park destroyed its serenity. McLaren begged fair organizers to move the exposition on the grounds it would do irreparable damage to the trees. He was ignored.

Once the fair ended, McLaren went to work reclaiming his park. He had almost every building demolished, including Bonet’s Tower, an Eiffel Tower-like structure with a spotlight so strong it was said it could illuminate a newspaper on Third and Market. Foundations were dug up, plants reintroduced. And, luckily, Golden Gate Park largely went back to being the natural space it is today.

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A few remnants of the fair are still in use now. Along with the aforementioned Japanese Tea Garden, the de Young Museum – since rebuilt – is a fair holdover. It was originally built as an exhibition hall and immediately became a museum upon the fair’s end. There are also a handful of sculptures scattered through the park that were placed there for the fair.

You can see the park as it appeared during the fair in the slideshow above.

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