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Walking down the Chinatown alleys of San Francisco


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In a Nutshell...

San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the city’s top tourist destinations. Starting when the city was still a gold rush boom town, it has grown to be the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. One of the most remarkable things about it is how little it has changed since it was rebuilt some hundred years ago after the great quake. Today it remains very much an authentic living community of Chinese immigrants, holding onto their own culture and traditions in the heart of a modern American city. Although its streets are lined with tourist shops selling gaudy bric-à-brac of all descriptions, look a little deeper and you will see it is not all a show.


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Some Chinatown highlights ...


China Gate

The China Gate over Grant Avenue


The King of Chinatown and his favorate wife greet you.China Gate is Chinatown's official entry point at the corner of Grant and Bush streets. Serving the crowd of tourists making their way up the hill from Union Square and its high-end fashion offerings, this gate exuberantly shouts, "And now for something completely different..." Its green tile roof is topped with fish hanging on the roof ridge by their mouths, while flapping their tails in the air, two dragons with an orb and small animals perch the roof's edge. All these things are auspicious of good luck. As if that is not enough, to entice everyone to enter Chinatown to do business, at the gate's base there are two official greeters in the form of goggle eyed lions with wide grins of crazed excitement. Good thing these fellows are made of stone, they look as if they would be hopping around, unable to contain their glee. Let's push ahead and find the source of their over stimulation.


The Grant Avenue Shops

Looking down Grant Avenue in Chinatown


The main tourist draw to Chinatown is the shops along Grant Avenue. Starting from the Chinatown Gateway and extending seven blocks to the north, there are the usual uninteresting luggage, camera and tee shirts shops that one finds in just about any tourist districts around the world.  But there are also dozens of bead shops, tea shops, shops selling kites, Asian antiques, silks and most famously, bazaars filled with brightly colored kitsch of every wild and weird conception.  


Old St. Mary's Cathedral

The bricks that withstood the quake and fire


Looking out of place among its more colorful neighbors stands the sober brick walls of Old St. Mary’s Cathedral on the corner of Grant Avenue and California Street. Since 1854 it’s clock tower has been telling passersby, “Son, observe the time and fly from evil”, advice one guesses that has been largely ignored particularly in its early years. Then, this district was filled with brothels, opium dens, gambling halls and sleazy bars. It was from these neighborhoods that men would enter a bar, only to wake up the next day from a drug induced stupor, finding themselves the latest crew member of a literally “a slow boat to China” – Shanghaied, as it was called. Tough place.  When the great 1906 earthquake shook the city, most of neighborhood fell while Old St. Mary’s remained upright. But the next day, fires swept through and left it a burned out shell. The fire was so intense that even the bells in the tower melted. Rather than knock down the walls and start over, they restored it and reopened in 1909.


If one has a taste for such things, take a step inside and look at the stained glass windows as well as the display of historical photos just inside the door. They show the devastation of the earthquake.  And on the outside, it is worth taking a moment and placing your hand on its brick walls and reflecting on the fact that not only did these bricks survived the quake and fires of ’06, but were also shipped from the East Coast, around the tip of South America on square rigger sailing ships and the granite trim was shipped from China, across the Pacific on the same. Observe the time indeed.


Chinatown Alleys

Chinatown Alleys


Don’t restrict your Chinatown expedition to just Grant Avenue. To experience the authentic atmosphere of old Chinatown, explore the alleys off of Washington Street, between Grant Avenue and Stockton Street. Here you will find the tightly packed buildings that rose up on the footprints of the slum tenements of 19th Century Chinatown, after it was destroyed in the 1906 quake.  The new buildings were cleaner and had more Chinese flair, but kept much of the same character of the old neighborhood. Unlike the tourist shops on Grant Avenue, the shops and restaurants here are to serve the needs of Chinatown’s residents.


Golden Gate Fortune Cookies

The Fortune Cookie Machine


Head down Ross Alley and you will be herded into an old-fashioned sweatshop-style fortune cookie factory by a Mr. Yee, the establishment’s proprietor. There the mysteries of the cookies will be revealed. Three women sit before  mechanical contraptions that drip batter onto irons that then close and rotate into an oven. On the other side, the irons rotate out and open up, so the women can peal the cookie off, place the fortune in place and fold the cookie. Aw, so that is how it is done.

The pigeon soiled sign above its door tells us that they have been there since August 5th, 1962, which is surprising since it seems much older than that.

They are unusually proud of their risqué fortunes which they describe as being “French adult.” This is, in itself, a giveaway that they are of the type of old-fashioned naughtiness that past generations of more innocent times found titillating; "Man who make war with woman during day, get no piece at night." Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.


Portsmouth Square

Watching the world go by on Portsmouth Square


The city's first home was built near Portsmouth Square in 1835. Eleven years later, in 1846, Captain John Montgomery, of the U.S.S Portsmouth, raised the US flag here and declared the area a possession of the US. Thus was how Portsmouth Square and Montgomery Street got their names.


Sidewalk Game near Portsmought PlazaFor the last 100 years or so, writers have referred to the plaza as “Chinatown’s living room” (or parlor).  Stop by and you will understand why. Chinatown has long been one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in America. Its buildings were built to serve the modest needs of poor Chinese immigrants and were made up of one room apartments with shared toilets at the end of the hall. To escape their cramped quarters they gather in Portsmouth Plaza, where there are always crowds watching the dozen or so games of mahjong that have been going on there for generations. It is certainly worth the short side trip off Grant Avenue to Portsmouth Plaza if, for nothing else, than to prove to yourself, that Chinatown is not just some made-up ethnic themed tourist trap trading on its long past history, but is instead, just as much a living breathing  community as it ever was.


Chinese Culture Center

The Chinese Cultural Center


From Portsmouth Plaza you will see a large pedestrian overpass of obvious importance crossing over Kearny Street to the Hilton Tower and leading up to the Chinese Cultural Center. I am sure most who see this architectural pomp aimed squarely at the Center's sign will think it must be a rival of the Asian Arts Museum, only being focused on the arts and history of China. Well, its not. Instead, it is a mid sized gallery of rotating shows displaying the works of modern artists of Chinese heritage - quite nice for what it is, but it is easy to see how people can get the wrong idea about it.


Chinese Historical Society

The old YWMCA


The Chinese Historical Society maintains exhibits about the Chinese immigrant experience in the city. They have a few tools on display that were used by early Chinese laborers, but most of the exhibits deal with the civil rights history of the Chinese American community.


The Society is housed in a marvelous Julia Morgan building. Julia Morgan (most famously the architect of Hearst Castle) designed many YWCA's around California and this is one of them as a lamp on street will attest. The building adapted well to its new use as a small museum.


It is located a block and a half up the hill from Grant Avenue at 965 Clay Street. Its hours are Tue-Fri, 12 am - 5 pm; Sat, 11 am - 4 pm. A $5 admission for adults, $3 for students and $2 for children 6-17 allows you access to the exhibits. Their web site can be found at:




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