One of San Francisco’s most popular attractions is the city’s world famous Chinatown, drawing more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s also the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest Chinese community outside of Asia.
I hadn’t been to Chinatown for many years so I thought it was about time that I reacquainted myself with this fascinating area. Today’s Chinatown was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake and its architecture is a strange mix of Edwardian building with Chinese details. I start my visit at the Chinatown Gate on Bush Street and Grant Avenue.
The Chinatown Gate is a fairly modern addition that was erected in 1970 to mark the entrance to Chinatown from Union Square. It’s a decorative structure and has a pair of Chinese lions, called Shi in Chinese or Foo Dogs in English, that are believed to provide protection. In China they’re a common sight and can be found outside Imperial Palaces, Temples and government buildings.
Grant Avenue is the tourist centre of Chinatown with dozens of shops selling all kinds of souvenirs. The streetlights here date from 1925 and are beautifully ornate with golden dragons supporting the lamps.
At the intersection of Grant Avenue and California Street is the historic St Mary’s Church. It was the first church to be built as a cathedral in California and was for many years one of San Francisco’s most prominent buildings. The granite stones used for the church’s foundations actually came from China and the bricks were brought around the Horn of South America travelling with the gold seekers. The church was badly damaged during the 1906 earthquake and fire but was rebuilt into what is seen today.
A couple of shops that I found quite interesting along Grant Avenue were the Wok Shop at number 718 and the Eastern Bakery at 720. The Wok Shop has been there for many years and sells a fascinating array of cleavers, woks and chopsticks. The Eastern Bakery is America’s oldest Chinese Bakery opening in 1924, they’re famous for their Moon cakes filled with either a light melon or rich lotus seed paste.
San Francisco’s first mayor created three city parks one of them being Portsmouth Square. The square now acts as Chinatown’s social centre and is used by residents as an extension of their homes. Aside from kids playing, men playing Chinese chess and women playing cards, there’s also a memorial to Robert Louis Stevenson and a marker commemorating the first public school in California.
The Old Telephone Exchange that sits at 743 Washington is now a bank but used to be the Chinese Telephone Exchange. In Chinese culture to refer to a person by using a number was thought of as being rude so callers would ask for people by name only meaning the operators working here had to know each subscriber by name. Many people also had the same name so they also had to know everyone’s address and occupation as well as speaking English and five Chinese dialects. The operators worked on the main floor and lived on the upper floor, the exchange finally closed in the late 1940’s.
On Washington between Grant and Kearny Streets is where you’ll find some of Chinatown’s best rated restaurants, trust me when I tell you there’s a lot to choose from.
If like me you like a good cup of tea then Red Blossom on Grant Avenue is the place to go, it’s one of the best tea shops in the city.
Where Chinatown meets North Beach at the corner of Columbus Avenue and Broadway is a huge mural on a corner building. One side commemorates North Beach’s Italian roots while the side facing Broadway is dedicated to San Francisco’s Chinese heritage.
Stockton Street is packed with small shops selling all kinds of fresh produce from vegetables and Asian speciality foods to fresh fish and seafood. This is a great place to people watch, especially the older Chinese women arguing over pak choi or shaking an aubergine to see if it’s firm.
Ross Alley is a small alleyway that houses one of Chinatown’s most unique places, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. This small building is the only place in Chinatown still left that makes fortune cookies by hand and is something not likely to be seen anywhere else.
Another small alleyway is Spofford Alley, there’s nothing really to be seen here but just stand and listen and you can here the tiles clicking from the numerous mahjong parlours that are based along here.
The Street of the Painted Balconies also known as Waverly Place is a bit faded these days but is still worth a look. Many of the buildings have street facing balconies and it’s a nice place to just wander for a few minutes looking in the shop windows and generally taking in the atmosphere.
At number 125 Waverly Place is Tin Hou Temple, it sits on the top floor of the building and is dedicated to the Goddess of Heaven. Inside the tiny incense filled room there are several shrines and a statue of the goddess in the back. Visitors are welcome but there is no photography allowed.
Back on the street and I feel that I’ve definitely reacquainted myself with San Francisco’s Chinatown, somewhere that shouldn’t be missed if you’re visiting this great city.