San Francisco China Town

Welcome to China Town!

Chinatown of San Francisco is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia as well as the oldest Chinatown in North America. It is one of the top tourist attractions in San Francisco.

The Chinatown is centered on Grant Avenue and Stockton Street in San Francisco, California. While there are many Chinatowns across the United States and around the globe, San Francisco’s Chinese community is the oldest, largest, and most visually recognizable urban Chinese American enclave. It is the oldest of the four notable Chinatowns in the city. Since its establishment in 1848, it has been highly important and influential in the history and culture of ethnic Chinese immigrants in North America. Visitors can easily become immersed in a microcosmic Asian world, filled with herbal shops, temples, pagoda roofs and dragon parades. While recent immigrants and the elderly choose to live in here because of the availability of affordable housing and their familiarity with the culture, the place is also a major tourist attraction, drawing more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge.

As more and more Chinese immigrants migrated into northern California in search of fortune and work, San Francisco Chinatown served as their home away from home, a comfortingly familiar place in an alien and oftentimes hostile land. Everything that a Chinese person needed or wanted was available within its dozen or so square blocks: work, food, benevolent associations, entertainment, newspapers, education, and religious houses were some of the many accessible amenities. The streets teemed with life as residents went about their daily business and outside visitors came to experience San Francisco’s “Little Shanghai.”

Here comes the History of the Chinatown. In 1848, the first Chinese immigrants, two men and one woman, arrived in San Francisco on the American sailing vessel, Eagle. The long history of San Francisco’s Chinatown has been clouded with racism, hatred, and repression. From the Gold Rush through the 1870s, a large migration of mostly single male laborers came to San Francisco and the American West, as well as to Canada and Peru. With the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the nation’s first racially restrictive immigration measure, the Chinese American population fell from 26,000 in 1881 to 11,000 in 1920.

Between 1852 and 1882, many predominant male Chinese laborers and a few merchants and labor brokerscame to San Francisco. Floods in China propelled a virtualdiaspora of Cantonese-dialect-speaking people all around the Pacific Basin. It has been estimated that 2.5 million people emigrated from China between 1840 and 1900. Of 153 pieces of property in Chinatown in 1873, only 10 were Chinese owned. All the rest were leased from Anglo-Americans, Franco-Americans, Italian Americans, and German Americans.

In 1882, Chinatown’s habitually suspicious key associations formed an umbrella association, uniting the most important of the district associations in what became known as the Chinese Six Companies, officially called the Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Association. The association, incorporated in the State of California in 1901, became the cockpit of personal and group political, economic, and social contention. In 1904, of 316 parcels, Chinese-Americans owned only 25.

As Chinese immigration dwindled, and as individual assimilationtook place, parochial clan and regional attachments weakened. While the Chinese were, practically speaking, segregated within Chinatown until the late 1940s, some assimilation nonetheless took place. In 1943, during World War II, when the United States allied with China against Japan, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed by Congress, but a small quota of 105 Chinese a year kept migration minimal.

The post-World War II era saw the economic and social advancement of Chinese Americans. The nullification of California’s anti-miscegnation law in 1948, and the striking down of racially restrictive covenants in the sale of California real estate in the same year, emancipated Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans. When the Nationalist government retreated to Taiwan in 1949, an influx of Mandarin-speaking professionals and wealthy merchants fled Red China to San Francisco.

In 1965, the Civil Rights Act was passed and the United States began to break through the psychological and legal barriers of its historic racial antipathies and to put a positive spin on the reality of its multiracial society. In the same year, immigration quotas were reconfigured to reflect a multiracial reality and to permit more Asian immigration. From 105 a year, quotas for Chinese grew to 20,000 per year by 1970. By that time, 56 percent of Chinese Americans were in white-collar occupations.

Since the late 1970s, more and more Chinese from Vietnam, along with other Southeast Asian peoples, have arrived in San Francisco. By 1970, 52 percent of all San Franciscans of Chinese ancestry were foreign born. The new immigration laws favor migrants with skills and/or large amounts of money.

Ramshackle old Chinatown was completely wiped out by the fire of 1906. When the district was rebuilt by non-Chinese absentee landowners, between 1906 and about 1929, a newer, cleaner if still extraordinarily dense, early-20th-century city of remarkable consistency emerged. Those new buildings conformed to better municipal building laws that required brick or concrete construction in the “congested district.” The resulting Edwardian buildings are the stuff of today’s Chinatown. In the early 1970s new Chinese-style Chinese-American architects contributed designs.

Working-class Hong Kong Chinese immigrants began arriving in large numbers in the 1960s. Despite their status and professional qualifications in Hong Kong, many took low-paying employment in restaurants and garment factories in Chinatown because of limited English. An increase in Cantonese-speaking immigrants from Hong Kong and Mainland China has gradually led to the replacement in Chinatown of the Hoisanese/Taishanese dialect by the standard Cantonese dialect. Today, Chinatown is one of the densest neighborhoods in the nation with some 160 people per acre: second only to New York City’s Chinatown. Seventy-five percent of its residents are foreign-born.

Chinatown’s central public space is Portsmouth Plaza, one of the few open areas in this otherwise crowded neighborhood. Here all the buildings are decorated in a pagoda style. The square is very popular with both children and the elderly, who regularly congregate here to play board games. A replica of the Goddess of Democracy used in the Tiananmen Square protest was built in 1999 by Thomas Marsh, and stands in the square. It is made of bronze and weighs approximately 600 lbs (270 kg).

The most photographed structure in Chinatown is undoubtedly the large Chinatown Gateway, also known as the Dragon Gate. It is located in Grant Street at the southern edge of Chinatown. The gate was designed in 1970 by Clayton Lee and is based on the ceremonial gates that can be found in Chinese villages. The gate is adorned with sculptures of fish and dragons and is flanked by two large lion statues. The gate has three passageways. The large, central one is meant for dignitaries while the two smaller passageways are meant for the common people.

Many visitors head to Chinatown to explore its unique shops, restaurants, and the overall culture of the area. Most of the shops are located around Grant Street, the central axis of Chinatown’s tourist area. Here all lampposts are ornamented with colorful Chinese motifs. Another attraction for visitors is the temples in Chinatown. In Waverly Place – known as ‘the street of painted balconies’ – are no less than three temples, among them the well known Tin How Temple. This temple was founded in 1852 and is the oldest in the United States. It is now housed in a building erected in 1911.

Besides the temples there are many other interesting buildings in Chinatown such as the Old St. Mary’s Church, a Catholic church from 1854 and San Francisco’s oldest cathedral. There’s also the Bank of Canton – a 1909 structure that was built as a telephone exchange and the historic Sing Chong Building, the first structure in the area that was built after the 1906 earthquake. For the art lovers, Chinatown has several art galleries where one can see authentic Chinese artwork, sculpture and crafts.

The China Town contains the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, more commonly known as the Chinese Six Companies. It was originally formed during the 1850s and the Six Companies was the most powerful organization in Chinatown, authorized to speak on behalf the Chinese throughout the United States.

Chinatown also has quite a few special events that occur at various times of the year. The Chinese New Year Flower Fair showcases not only flowers, but also traditional Chinese dancing and music. The Chinatown Community Street Fair includes food, arts, crafts and various other traditional Chinese fairs. San Francisco Chinatown’s annual Autumn Moon Festival celebrates seasonal change and the opportunity to give thanks to a bountiful summer harvest. The festival is held each year during mid-September, and is free to the public.

Though some of the architecture may not be true Chinese, the food, culture and people continue to bring authenticity back to the area. Being the largest of its kind in the United States, Chinatown is always on the list of things to do when a person is coming to San Francisco.


About the Author


Leave a Comment:

All fields with “*” are required

Leave a Comment:

All fields with “*” are required