Bank of Canton/Old Telephone Exchange

The East West Bank is housed in one of Chinatown’s most historic buildings. Located at 743 Washington Street between Grant Avenue and Kearny Street, the red and green pagoda style edifice once housed the Chinese Telephone Exchange. Chinatown received telephone service in 1887. The telephone exchange began serving customers in 1901. One of the system’s charming pagoda style phone booths is located near Jackson and Stockton Streets.

Originally employing only men, the exchange eventually became an all-female workforce in 1906 following the earthquake. It was common for callers to ask for people by name instead of their phone numbers. In the Chinese culture, it was considered impolite to use a number when referring to a person. As a result, the operators memorized the names, addresses, place of employment and telephone numbers of the more than 1,500 residents who had phone service. This enabled the operators to distinguish between people with the same name. The women spoke English as well as the major Chinese dialects that were prevalent in Chinatown at that time. The exchange served as an employment office as well. Businesses that were hiring called the exchange, and the operators connected them with people that they knew were looking for work. When rotary dial phones eliminated the requirement for operator-based switchboard system, the exchange closed in 1949.

In the 1840s, the building was also the home of the California Star, San Francisco’s first newspaper. The founder was Sam Brannan, the entrepreneur who started the California Gold Rush with his historic Portsmouth Square announcement. His paper carried the official news that the city was changing its name from Yerba Buena to San Francisco in January 1847. The former Bank of Canton purchased and refurbished the building in 1960. Bus and cable car stops are conveniently located near the bank.

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