Plugged In: The Fascinating History Of The Chinese Telephone Exchange

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    Plugged In: The Fascinating History Of The Chinese Telephone Exchange

    It’s hard for many people today to imagine a life without cell phones, but in the early days of telephone technology, callers couldn’t even directly dial numbers—they called up an exchange staffed with operators, who would manually patch them through to the other party with wires they plugged into a switchboard.

    One of the most famous telephone exchanges was in the heart of Chinatown, at 743 Washington St. (These days, it’s an East West Bank.) According to an article in the April 10th, 1936, edition of the weekly Chinese Digest, the Chinatown Exchange—also called the Chinese Telephone Exchange in some sources—began in 1894. It had three male operators and 37 telephone subscribers, all within Chinatown.

    Although some accounts say the exchange started in 1887 or 1901, the 1894 date is corroborated in the book Bridging the Pacific by Thomas Chinn, one of the founders of the Chinese Historical Society of America. Chinn says a man named Loo Kum Shu—editor of one of Chinatown’s first Chinese newspapers, the Oriental Daily News—established the first exchange.

    According to Chinn’s book, the first switchboard in Chinatown was in a building at Washington and Dupont streets (the latter of which is now Grant Avenue). In 1896, the Chinese Digest article says, the exchange moved into a permanent home at 743 Washington, the former site of Sam Brannan’s California Star, the first newspaper in San Francisco. (In January 1847, the Star published the city’s official name change from Yerba Buena to San Francisco.)

    The Chinese Digest writes that the original exchange at 743 Washington was unrivaled in its beauty by any other local business at the time:

    Its exterior was remodeled and furnished in such a sumptuous Oriental manner as to suggest a guest room in the house of a mandarin of the first rank. There were chairs of carved teakwood, inlaid with mother-of-pearl; bright-black, glistening teakwood tables; gilded and lacquered carvings abounded on every side; the windows were of imitation Chinese oyster-shell panes. And near the entrance was a beautiful shrine, giving the place a touch of religious splendor. The switchboard, too, was elaborately designed, made of ebony and ornamented with woodcarvings of yellow-gold hue. A carved dragon seemed to wind its sinuous way in and out of the plug-holes.

    Alas, this exquisite exchange was destroyed by the great earthquake and fire that occurred 110 years ago today: April 18th, 1906. The three-tiered, pagoda-style building that remains on the site to this day went up in 1909, serving 800 phones. “Patterned after a temple in North Lake, China, the corners of the building turn up, to give it ‘lofty character’, while the sturdy pillars in front ‘denote the strength’ of the building,” according to the Chinese Digest.

    After the earthquake, the staff of the Chinese Telephone Exchange became all-female. To work on the exchange, operators were required to be able to recall, completely from memory, thousands of phone numbers—at its height, the exchange had more than 3,000 of them. Callers would ask an operator to be connected to an auntie, or the local herb shop, or their eye doctor. The women knew names, addresses and workplaces for all the subscribers, and could speak in two or three different dialects.

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