by Katie Calvert
& Lee Nelson
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in North America and the largest Chinese community outside of Asia.
Chinatown is the most densely populated neighborhood in the most densely populated city in California.
The area is home to wonderful restaurants, shops that sell both expensive treasures and cheap trinkets, and sights, sounds, and smells that help to define this unique San Francisco neighborhood.
Culinary Walking Tours are a great introduction to San Francisco neighborhoods, including Chinatown. Most San Francisco City Tours will include Chinatown on their itinerary.
Chinatown’s history—filled with discrimination and assimilation—is the story of Asian-American life since the Gold Rush.
Chinatown borders the Financial District (Kearny Street) on the east, Nob Hill (Powell Street) on the west, the shopping district around Union Square (roughly Bush Street) on the south, and the traditionally Italian section of North Beach (Green and Columbus Streets).
These borders are quite porous, so don’t be surprised if you see side-by-side restaurants with one offering dim sum and the other selling pizza.
Chinese New Year is a two-week celebration of the Lunar New Year. It is the most famous and largest event and Chinese New Year Parade outside of Asia.
Autumn Moon Festival takes place in September near the autumn equinox.
Such cultural mixings were not allowed when Chinese immigrants started arriving in San Francisco in the mid-1800s. Many came to escape China’s uncertain economic conditions, attracted by the Gold Rush and later by the opportunity to work on the Transcontinental Railroad.
By 1882, xenophobia prevailed and the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which greatly restricted immigration from China. Other anti-Chinese legislation would follow; some of these laws would not be repealed until the second half of the 20th Century.
Portsmouth Square is the ‘Heart of Chinatown’, San Francisco’s birthplace, Mexican era plaza and site of many historic events. Jean Jacques Vioget, an engineer and Swiss ship captain, was given the task of laying out a town here in 1839. The assignment came from alcalde Francisco de Haro by authority of Mexican governor Jose Figueroa. The area plotted by Voiget was what is now bounded by Pacific Avenue, Sacramento Street, Montgomery Street and Grant Avenue—know then as la Calle de la fundacion.
The square was renamed for the sloop-of-war U.S.S. Portsmouth who’s commander, Captain John B. Montgomery, raised the American Flag near the Mexican adobe custom house taking possession of the port on July 9, 1846.
A plaque at the base of the Bank of Italy Building commemorates the event and marks the location of the U.S.S. Portsmouth's landing when the water came all the way up to what is now Montgomery Street.
This California Historic Landmark (no. 81), at the edge of the Financial District and one block from Portsmouth Square, is now more than seven blocks from the waters of San Francisco Bay.
Sam Brannan announced the discovery of gold in the Sierras on May 12, 1848 in Portsmouth Square. The announcement touched off the largest peacetime migration in the United States. San Francisco's population increased from 1000 in 1848 to 25,000 by December of 1849.
Markers and statues dot this one-block park including a Goddess of Democracy, landmark for the Eastern Terminus of the Clay Street Hill Railroad Company, marker for raising of the American Flag and landmark for the first Public School in California.
With a great many people living in a small area, many in one or two room apartments, Portsmouth Square serves as a communal living room. Men gather to smoke and gamble while children climb and swing on the playground equipment.
A pedestrian bridge on the Kearny Street side of Portsmouth Square leads to the Chinese Culture Center, which promotes appreciation and understanding of Chinese art, history, and culture in the United States through its many programs and exhibitions. An underground parking garage below Portsmouth Square provides some relief for this densely populated and frequently visited neighborhood. St. Mary's Square Garage on California is another parking option.
Chinatown Dragon Gate
Grant Avenue is Chinatown’s “Main Street,” and the intersection of Grant and Bush, with its ornate, dragon-guarded gateway, marks the southern entrance to Chinatown.
Although the Dragon Gate looks like it could be as old as Chinatown it was actually installed in 1969, a gift of the government of the Republic of China.
An inscription on the gate by Dr. Sun Yat-sen reads "All under heaven is for the food of the people."
St. Mary’s Square across from Old Saint Mary's Cathedral features a 12 foot tall statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen the first provisional president of the Republic of China in 1912. Los Angeles’ New Chinatown also has a statue honoring the “founder of modern China.”
The 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco completely destroyed Chinatown. The Chinatown that grew from the ashes was built with an eye toward attracting tourists, and Grant Avenue, with its many shops and restaurants, draws many an out-of-town visitor.
A less-touristy thoroughfare is Stockton Street, one block west of Grant. Its many Asian markets and their offerings (complete with their sometimes “exotic” odors) give you a feel for how the locals live. Lee Foster includes many details about this area and its unique offerings in his Chinatown San Francisco article.
Historic Chinatown Buildings
Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral is located two blocks north of the Dragon Gate at Grant and California. Dedicated in 1854, Saint Mary’s was the first cathedral built in California. The structure was built with granite quarried and cut in China and bricks brought around Cape Horn from New England. As Chinatown grew and the Barbary Coast—with its often disreputable denizens—expanded, the location was deemed too dangerous; a new cathedral in a safer neighborhood was built and dedicated in 1891. Demoted to a parish church, “Old” became part of the landmark’s name.
The early Chinatown community’s main link to the old country was the Chinese Telephone Exchange, now the United Commercial Bank (formerly Bank of Canton) at 743 Washington Street. Site of the first public telephone pay station in 1891, a switchboard was installed in 1894.
Chinese thought referring to people by number was rude so operators had to know everyone by name, address and occupation—to resolve same name conflicts—in addition to needing to speak five Chinese dialects and English.
The Chinese Telephone Exchange building was rebuilt in 1909 after the 1906 earthquake and fire and operated until 1949 when rotary dial phones replaced switchboards. Bank of Canton bought and restored the Chinese Telephone Exchange building in 1960. This site is designated California Historic Site no. 85 as the location of the first newspaper in San Francisco,The California Star—later The Alta Californian, Samuel Brannan publisher in an earlier building.
A building at 965 Clay Street, designed by the famous architect Julia Morgan and constructed in 1932 as the Chinatown YWCA, has housed the Chinese Historical Society of America—one of the oldest and largest organizations dedicated to the study, documentation and dissemination of Chinese American history—since 1996.
Chinatown's narrow alleys are lined with more historic buildings.
Alleys in Chinatown
Interesting alleys to explore in Chinatown include Waverly (one of the widest alleys, it runs parallel to Grant Avenue, between Washington and Sacramento Streets), Ross Alley (also parallel to Grant, between Washington and Jackson Streets) and Hang Ah or Pagoda who's name changes depending on whether you enter from Clay or Sacramento Street.
Photographers love the picturesque balconies on many of Waverly Place’s buildings.
Tien Hau Temple, the oldest Taoist temple in the United States, is located at 125 Waverly Place (be prepared to walk up a few flights of narrow stairs to get to the small third floor temple).
Ross Alley is the location of the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, a hole-in-the-wall storefront where 20,000 fortune cookies are baked and folded by hand every day. Don’t miss the colorful murals on the alley’s walls.
Pagoda is the western name for Hang Ah—‘fragrant’ in Chinese—so named after a German chemist opened a perfumery in the alley. You will see the Pagoda street sign at one end of the alley and Hang Ah at the other. Alternating English and Chinese writing on the pathway in this alley provide some details of Chinatown's history.
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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2014 Lee W. Nelson