Chinatown - Discover the Amazing Secrets the Chinese Used to Help Create San Francisco

Ever wondered how Chinatown got started in San Francisco?

Let’s take a short trip back in time... back to the mid 1840’s, when following the defeat by Britain in the first Opium War, a series of natural catastrophes occurred across China resulting in famine, peasant uprisings and rebellions.
So... when the news of gold and opportunity in far away America reached China, many Chinese seized the opportunity to seek their fortune.
Unfortunately... when they arrived, the Chinese were met with mixed feelings by Californians.
And to make matters worse... the U.S. government passed legislation making it impossible for Chinese immigrants to own land or to file mining claims - passing a law taxing all foreign miners.

However... their strong work ethic proved useful in the gold mines and in helping to build the Transcontinental Railroad.
But... after the gold rush peaked and the railroad completed in 1869 - some twenty thousand Chinese suddenly found themselves... out of work.
Racial discrimination and repressive legislation drove them from any traditional ways of earning a living... to the sanctuary of the neighborhood that became known as Chinatown.

Their farm laboring skills produced superior assortments of rice, oranges, apples, cherries and peaches.

So... in order to survive, the Chinese worked hard to meet the basic needs of the community by providing domestic services to the white families.
They developed and successfully ran laundry businesses, restaurant businesses, fishing and shrimping industries, and leather goods manufacturing.

Now... fast forwarding to Chinatown today... San Francisco, Chinatown - the oldest in North America - is the quickest trip you will ever make to Hong Kong's present and past without actually traveling to Asia.

It’s a story of a neighborhood... an American neighborhood...  an old neighborhood... and an immigrant neighborhood... where the old country still lives inside the new one.
Two neighborhoods in one... it’s located in the heart of the city - surrounded by...

  • Kearny and the Financial District to the East
  • Powell Street and Nob Hill to the West
  • Columbus and North Beach to the North and
  • Bush and Union Square to the South

Dragon’s Gate - at the intersection of Grant & Bush Avenue... leads to the tourist-thronged Chinatown... overflowing with antique stores... souvenir shops... and restaurants.

Chinatown in San Francisco

Stepping through the gateway - guarded by lion-statue sentinels - is like walking into a whole new world. The street is lined with dragon-entwined lamp posts and calligraphy street signs.

Shops are filled with food... herbs... porcelains... furniture... fabrics... and trinkets from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

The other neighborhood - on Stockton Street... draws locals and mirrors the streets of Hong Kong... with fish markets...  produce stands... and dim sum shops.
The area’s real flavor stretches beyond the two thoroughfares... onto side streets and alleys filled with herb shops, trading companies, and temples.

Walk around a unique neighborhood defined by its people and its history...

One such colorful side street to explore is... Waverly Place - known as the street of painted balconies. It’s a picturesque lane of herb shops and colorful banners.
It’s also the location of the oldest Chinese temple in the United States... the Tien Hou Temple - founded in 1852.
Climbing to the balcony of the temple on the fourth-floor you’ll discover lotus-shaped metal lanterns...  incense pots... shrines... and more.

Drop by and pay your respects. Entry is free... but it's customary to leave an offering for temple upkeep.
Another stop worth your time is at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral  on California Street. It largely served the Irish congregation from 1854 to 1891. And... it’s California’s first church.

The clock tower displayed overhead bears a large inscription, "Son, observe the time and fly from evil", said to have been directed at the brothels that stood across the street at the time it was built.
Portsmouth Square - San Francisco’s first plaza, dates from 1839. Today the square is commonly used by the community for morning Tai Chi.
But on July 9, 1846, Portsmouth Square Plaza is where Captain John B. Montgomery landed with his seventy sailors and marines, marched to the Plaza, and took possession of the plaza in the name of the United States of America.
This plaza is where he raised the ‘Stars and Stripes’ flag of our country over San Francisco for the first time.

Pacific Heritage Museum - 608 Commercial Street - displays frequently changing collections of Asian arts.
You can peek into the old coin vaults through a cutaway section on the ground floor of the building, or descend down in the elevator and get a closer look.

Discover where the locals go to eat and drink...

Chinatown is a suburb of Hong Kong, cuisine-wise, with a host of good restaurants.
Locals love Yuet Lee Chinese Seafood Restaurant - on Stockton Street - especially after hours.

Stop by at 2am for salt-and-pepper squid or frog legs.

According to film director Wayne Wang - director of many films such as... A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Joy Luck Club  -  the most authentic place to eat is the always packed R&G Lounge at 631 Kearny St.
We found a short clip of the lounge. So take a look for yourself...

Well... they’re sure BUSY!

 Mmmm...! Those salt ‘n pepper crab legs looked Ssooo... GOOD!  Lightly battered and crispy fried... WOW! That makes us hungry.

And by the way... thanks to the Travel Channel for letting us share their video.

Tea connoisseurs head to Red Blossom Tea Company - on Grant Avenue - where their knowledgeable staff are eager to teach you the ins and outs of Asian teas.
The folks who live in the area tell us to smell the tea before we buy it because the aroma and aftertaste are just as important as its flavor.
They say... smelling the leaves can be a very enjoyable and informative addition to our tea tasting experience.

Tastings are encouraged and a gamut of teapots and accessories are for sale.

See the secret alley where fortune cookies are made...

Explore another of the neighborhood’s famous alleys - Ross Alley.
It’s the oldest and once housed brothels and gambling venues. Now it’s the home of the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.

Watch cookies being made at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.

Did you know that despite the close connection with Chinese food and culture, the fortune cookie is virtually unknown in China?

There are many stories about where it originated.

One such story... believes that the fortune cookies were actually invented in 1909 in San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden by the chief gardener of the time... Makota Hagiwara.
Fascinating!  Wouldn't you say?

There’s so much more  to see in Chinatown...

We’ve only touched on a few places to explore when you come to Chinatown.
There’s still much, much more to discover.
You see... today's Chinatown is a unique neighborhood defined by its people, its institutions and its history.

The neighborhood has developed cultural autonomy which sustains many activities such as... dance...  music groups... a children's orchestra... artists... a Chinese Culture Center... and the Chinese Historical Society of America.

Walking around the neighborhood definitely showcases how Chinatown contributed to San Francisco’s culture today.
By spending a couple of days gives us a taste. But if we really want to see more... take a week or more.

Well... what are you waiting for... let’s go!

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