Visiting Chinatown in San Francisco

San Francisco’s Chinatown claims to be the oldest and the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. It’s also one of the top tourist destinations in the area with a number of noted locations and events.

Chinatown was established in the mid 1800s when a large number of Chinese immigrants moved to the region. During that time what is now considered Chinatown was then a port of entry for immigrants coming from the Bay. Many of the immigrants settled in the region and Chinatown developed into a congested area that was poorly built with many small shacks lining the streets. Because of this poor construction the large earthquake of 1906 was particularly damaging and destroyed almost the entire area. The area was rebuilt to attract tourists so the structures were more along the lines of what an American tourist thinks a Chinese building looks like than authentic traditional Chinese architecture. And although the region was designed to attract tourists it’s still mainly populated by people of Chinese origin and the food, wares, traditions and atmosphere is definitely authentic Chinese.

Bank of Canton

The Bank of Canton in Chinatown was previously the Chinese Telephone Exchange. This beautiful structure was built in 1891 and was the first public telephone pay station in Chinatown. The small community in Chinatown was unique in that most people didn’t have telephone numbers, the local operators memorized the subscribers names, addresses and occupations and could connect callers this way rather than by number. The operators of the day not only needed to have a good memory but they also needed to be fluent in five different Chinese dialects and English. The great earthquake of 1906 destroyed the original building but it was rebuilt and was an essential part of life in Chinatown until 1949 when technology made the telephone exchange obsolete. The Bank of Canton purchased the building and restored it in 1960.

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

Chances are you’ve had a fortune cookie from the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory as this company has been supplying fortune cookies around the world since 1962. Enter the store and you can see the cookies being made right in front of you. Although machines help the process along much of the work is still done by hand and done incredibly fast.  Take not of Ross Alley, where the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory is located, is the artwork that lines the alley. Once a hotbed of sin the street used to be full of gambling and brothels, today the alley features beautiful murals depicting everyday life on Chinatown.

Walter U. Lum Place

Walter U. Lum Place is a street that is very popular with locals and tourists as it’s where the street carnival is held annually at the Chinese New Year’s Celebration. The street is named after a famous Chinese American activist and borders Portsmouth Square.

Chinese New Year

One of the most popular celebrations in San Francisco’s Chinatown is Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year is celebrated for two weeks every spring. The celebration has been held for more than 5,000 years in China and began in the 1860s in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. The event has grown to be one of the largest Asian celebrations in all of North America. During the celebration there are two major fairs, the Chinese New Year Flower Fair and the Chinatown Community Street Fair. At the end of the celebration is the famous Chinese New Year Parade, named one of the world’s top ten parades. More than 100 participants enter the parade each year and most of them tie their presentation to the year’s theme. But the highlight every year is probably the Golden Dragon, at more than 201 feet long it is always the grade finale of the parade and actually came from China. One hundred people are needed to support the dragon and walk it through the streets, this may seem like a big burden but each of the people chosen to participate in carrying the dragon feel it’s a great honor.

Portsmouth Square

Portsmouth Square once bordered the area to one side but now has been enveloped and the square sits firmly in the center of Chinatown. The square was the hub of many early activities and features numerous plaques and markers noting such historical events. The square was named for the U.S.S. Portsmouth which traveled to the region in 1846. Take time during the day to walk the square and take in the monuments, enjoy the park with a picnic but be sure to come back at night. Every Saturday from July to October from 6pm to 11pm Portsmouth Square hosts Chinatown Night Market Fair. This nightly transformation of the square to a hustling and bustling market like the ones in Hong Kong is amazing and quite a lot of fun for everybody. Look for bargains on trinkets and souvenirs, fresh authentic Chinese street food, traditional entertainment and unusual arts.

Old St. Mary’s

The first cathedral in California was Old St. Mary’s. Much of the stone work for the building actually came from China and was brought over to San Francisco by ship. From 1854 to 1891 the cathedral served as the archdiocese for San Francisco and designed to serve as a mission where the new Chinese immigrants could be converted to the Catholic faith. Unfortunately the building, even though it was soundly constructed, was destroyed in 1906 by the earthquake. Rebuilding began in 1909 and the church once again became a hub for local worship.

In addition to all of the attractions in Chinatown there are some other experiences you just must seek out. The first is of course to dine there. The food is completely authentic and incredibly good and fresh. In fact it’s so fresh you may be a little put off by the corner markets with produce for sale as it is not sold like a traditional American grocery store. Which brings us to another experience visitors to Chinatown should soak in, the markets and stores. Buy souvenirs and authentic Chinese products in the stores where you’ll find some incredible deals. The herb shops are also a must, whether you want to try some ancient herbal remedies for what ails you or if you just want to look around, it’s an interesting experience. Immerse yourself in Chinatown and you’ll be happy you did.
Creative Commons License Photo credit: doortoriver