San Francisco's Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in all of the United States, as well as the most significant. Even today, it is the most relevant center of Chinese culture outside of China in all the world. The sprawling, bustling neighborhood is located in downtown San Francisco, a stone's throw away from both the heavily Italian North Beach neighborhood and the city's business center, an area known as the financial district.
Chinatown's main thoroughfare is Grant Street, which prominently features the neighborhood's best-known calling card - the gateway known as the "Dragon Gate." On Grant, you will find buzzing Chinese gift shops (both low-end and high-end), churches, bars, banks, and of course, restaurants. During the tourist high season months of June, July, and August, you can expect to see swarms of people of all ethnicities cramming the sidewalks in search of that one great souvenir to take home.
While Chinatown's population has dwindled a bit in recent years (new Chinese communities have emerged in the city's Richmond and Sunset Districts), it is still the number one most-visited attraction in all of San Francisco, even beating out the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.
The neighborhood - which lies fairly close to the San Francisco Bay - began in the early 1850s as port of entry for Chinese immigrants from the Southern Guangdong province. Many of these immigrants were of Taishanese descent, and the neighborhood's many businesses quickly became owned, operated, or managed by the Taishanese men. Many of these new immigrants came to America to make their way in either gold (the 1848 Gold Rush) or railroads (the Transcontinental Railroad was rapidly on the rise).
As more and more Chinese people began to flood into the city, racial tensions arose and quickly exploded, prompting the government to create the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred all Chinese people from setting up shop in America for 10 years. Shockingly, the act was renewed under different names in both 1892 and then again in 1902. In 1943 it was repealed under the Magnuson Act, which allowed a total of 105 Chinese people to enter America each year. This act, coupled with the Immigration Act of 1965 (which lifted all bans on the number of Chinese people permitted into the states), allowed Chinese immigration to explode in full force, as did the rise of communism in China. The city once again became a Mecca for the Chinese, for many who came over after the bans were lifted had had family living there already for quite some time.
The Effect of the 1906 Earthquake
There have been two distinctive periods in the look and feel of San Francisco's Chinatown - there was the period before the 1906 earthquake, when the neighborhood looked and felt like the typical market district of an actual neighborhood in China, and then there is the period following the immediate wake of the earthquake, when Chinatown was completely destroyed. Upon rebuilding, the Chinese decided to construct buildings that had a more Western flavor to reflect their new homeland, but rebuilding - at least in the beginning - wasn't that easy.
Crooked, highly racist real estate developers and city planners decided to try to run the Chinese out of the city and down South to where the suburb Daly City now lies, but they faced major opposition. The Consolidated Chinese Box Companies - which consisted of Chinese businessmen, merchants, and workers - fought back and kept control of the terrain, along with the help of non-crooked real estate developers and city planners.
Major Attractions in San Francisco's Chinatown
- The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (56 Ross Alley) has been supplying fortune cookies to Chinese restaurants around the world for over 40 years. You can watch the cookies being made without even having to walk, and fortune cookies of all shapes and sizes are available to purchase in the gift shop.
- The Chinese Cultural Center (750 Kearny Street) is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving both Chinese and Chinese-American culture and heritage. The center offers ever-changing art exhibitions, genealogy resources, Chinese opera performances, and much more.
- Portsmouth Square (733 Kearny Street) is widely known as the heart of Chinatown. This elevated, lively park offers terrific views of downtown, and is the place to go to if you want to watch intense chess games.
- The Chinatown Library (1135 Powell Street) carries an enormous amount of English language texts on Asian subjects, as well as Chinese and Vietnamese language texts on the same subjects.
Chinese New Year in San Francisco's Chinatown
If you are in San Francisco during the month of February, you will hopefully be able to catch the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade and Celebration. It is one of the largest Asian events in the entire world, and has been called one of the best parades in the world on numerous occasions. Expect to see elaborately decked out floats, dancers, marching bands, stilt walkers, acrobats, and the beloved Golden Dragon, which is over 200 feet long and is followed by a dazzling procession of wondrous fireworks. The celebration also includes other events - the Chinese New Year Flower Fair and the Chinatown Community Street Fair. This is one of the city's most beloved and anticipated events - the date of its happening all depends on the Chinese calendar, but it usually occurs somewhere in the middle of the month. Do web research at the beginning of February and you'll be in the know pretty quickly.