The Complicated Origins of SF's Beloved Japanese Tea Garden

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A tranquil pond sits in the foreground with lush greenery rising into a hill beyond. On top of the hill is an orange pagoda.
A pond in San Francisco's Japanese Tea Garden reflects an orange pagoda. (Nathan Rupert/Flickr)

This story is part of the Bay Curious series "A Very Curious Walking Tour of Golden Gate Park."

The Japanese Tea Garden is one of the most magical corners of Golden Gate Park. Pass through its elaborate front gate, and the serene landscape welcomes you to take a deep breath and let life’s stresses melt away.

Stepping-stone paths weave through beds of well-tended plants, koi fish swim beneath an arched drum bridge and benches invite visitors to sit and admire the blooming cherry blossom trees.

It’s an oasis from the hustle and bustle of daily life, which makes it a hard pill to swallow that the history of this garden is full of racism toward Asian Americans.

A fair comes to Golden Gate Park

If you were living in the United States at the end of the 19th century, it was a tough time. The country was trying to rebound from an economic depression that shuttered about 15,000 businesses and sent unemployment soaring to nearly 25 percent. Congress was looking for anything to spur a little economic growth. In 1893, they decided to hold a World's Fair in Chicago, called the World's Columbian Exposition. It drew millions of visitors — and their dollars — and was, by all accounts, a huge success.

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Michael H. de Young, publisher of The San Francisco Chronicle, was a national commissioner for the Chicago fair and was inspired by what he saw. Before long, he was lobbying to hold a fair in San Francisco.

"He really wanted to point out that San Francisco was as good as every other city on the East Coast," said Nicole Meldahl, executive director of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a nonprofit focused on the history of the west side of San Francisco.

But de Young's interests weren't only for the city.

"[De Young] also owned a bunch of land in the Sunset District, which was totally undeveloped at the time. So he thought, 'Why don't we put a midwinter exposition in Golden Gate Park? It'll show how good the weather is here in California. And also it would be bringing tons of people out here,'" said Meldahl.

The city would need to build transportation and make other infrastructure improvements around the park — all things that would make the property de Young was hoping to sell more attractive to buyers.

Ultimately, de Young was successful in his bid to bring a fair to San Francisco. With Congress and local leaders on board, the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894 came to be. Over the course of eight months, organizers transformed a portion of quiet, tree-studded Golden Gate Park into a boisterous fair.

The Midwinter fair

Most of the fair's attractions surrounded the Grand Court, which you can still see today in Golden Gate Park. It's the plaza between the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences, also known as the Music Concourse.

A night time shot of a tall tower lit up and beaming a light across the night. A little ways off is a round pavilion also brilliantly lit up.
A night view of the Midwinter International Exhibition of 1894 in Golden Gate Park. The Electric Tower stood at the center of the Grand Court, now known as the Music Concourse, and offered visitors views across the park. (San Francisco History Center/San Francisco Library)

Situated in the middle of the Grand Court was the Electric Tower, where visitors could climb up and get a view out over the fairgrounds. Food was the main attraction at the Agricultural and Horticultural buildings. There was also an ostrich farm, a scenic railway and a mining camp where guests could pretend to be gold miners. Oh, and a 100-foot-tall Firth wheel.

" … which is a Ferris wheel, but 'Ferris Wheel' was copyrighted. So some guy named Firth built this one," said Meldahl.

There were also a lot of cultural exhibitions about faraway places like Egypt, Hungary, China and Japan. These attractions were supposed to showcase art, food and culture from other countries — places San Franciscans were unlikely to visit themselves during the 1890s. But it was often done in a way that was problematic.

"It was advertised to white people as a visit to authentic countries and cultures, and it was just kinda a sketch," said Sango Tajima, a performer and writer who has been researching the history of the Japanese Tea Garden for an upcoming performance there.

Fairgoers were invited to view the lifestyles of Native Americans on display at the Eskimo Village — where Inuit people were made to live in plaster igloos.

"There was an Indian Village with wooden lean-tos and straw huts. And there was an African Village where you could meet members of the Dahomey tribe — who were actually just actors from Oakland," said Tajima.

And then there was the Japanese Village.

A black and white photo shows a small rounded bridge built of lashed together logs and a small thach roofed building in the distance.
The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, circa 1894, when it made its debut as part of the California Midwinter International Exhibition. People loved the tea garden so much that organizers left it when they demolished the rest of the fair. Later, a Japanese landscape architect named Makoto Hagiwara took over care of the garden, building it out and importing plants and animals to make it more authentic. (San Francisco History Center/San Francisco Library)

Organizers had plans for fairgoers to ride around in a fleet of rickshaws, pulled by Japanese men. This plan did not sit well with Japanese Americans in San Francisco. They wrote a letter to the fair committee that said: "The custom of requiring the jinrikisha to be drawn by men instead of animals is degrading. ... We, consequently, respectfully and earnestly protest against its use in this manner in the Park or upon public streets during the Fair."

Organizers responded by having white men, who wore yellowface and were dressed in Japanese garb, do the job instead.

There were also aspects of these exhibitions that showcased culture in less problematic ways. The Japanese Village had a theater where Japanese dancers and acrobats performed, a studio with an artist creating live paintings, and a house where tea was served.

"It was just kind of a taste of Japan, and what it would be like to ride a jinrikisha passenger car and visit a tea garden and enjoy some Japanese treats," Tajima said.

Of the many exhibits at the fair, the Japanese Village was a crowd favorite. It was so beloved that when the rest of the fair was disassembled in July 1894, it remained.

The Tea Garden's many lives

After the fair closed, the design and operation of the garden was taken over by Makoto Hagiwara, a landscape architect who immigrated from Japan in 1878. He nurtured its grounds, importing plants, birds and fish from Japan, reportedly at his own expense. He also tripled the size of the garden.

Black and white photo of an older Asian man in a suit looking at a card. A younger Asian woman reads over his shoulder. They are dressed in clothes typical of the early 20th century.
Makoto Hagiwara, manager of the Japanese Tea Garden, and his daughter look at a card after returning from a vacation to Japan. (San Francisco History Center/San Francisco Library)

"He hired a bunch of Japanese craftsmen to build the garden," said Tajima. "And [they] kind of made it a little bit more authentic to what a Japanese garden in Japan might look like."

Eventually, Hagiwara built a house on the grounds and moved in with his family. They joined him in caring for the garden, dedicating their lives and talents to its upkeep. When Hagiwara died in 1925, his daughter, Takano Hagiwara, and her children continued to care for the grounds.

But in 1942, at the start of World War II, they were evicted from their home and sent to the Japanese concentration camp at Tanforan (near where the Tanforan Mall is today).

The garden was scrubbed of its Japanese affiliations: Structures were demolished, a Shinto shrine was removed, and the garden itself was renamed "The Oriental Tea Garden." Chinese women replaced the Japanese workers. In a matter of months, the work of the Hagiwara family was almost completely erased.

The Hagiwaras were held in concentration camps until the end of the war. When they were finally released, San Francisco leaders did not allow the family to return to their home in the garden.

It took years, but slowly, Japanese elements were returned to the garden and the name was changed back to the "Japanese Tea Garden." The city also is recognizing the work and passion of Hagiwara and his family more. San Francisco Recreation and Parks put up a plaque honoring the Hagiwara family, designed by revered sculptor Ruth Asawa. And the road in front of the garden is now named Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive.

If you make the trip to the Japanese Tea Garden today, enjoy the beautiful plants, peaceful places to sit, and delightful treats served in the teahouse. They are all a reminder that even in the face of hatred, beauty can endure.

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