Chinatown | San Francisco, CA

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April 1, 2015
Chinatown

Guide to Eastern Influence in San Francisco

Home to the oldest Japantown in the U.S. and also the oldest Chinatown in the U.S., and one of the largest, San Francisco also is home to Little Saigon. The Asian Art Museum, a stroll through the Japanese Tea Garden and souvenir shopping along Grant Avenue are “musts” for visitors. 

Chinatown

Above the Chinatown Gate at Bush and Grant is the inscription: “All under Heaven is for the good of the people.” Chinatown, San Francisco’s densest neighborhood, runs roughly eight blocks long and six blocks wide. Settled in the 1860s by Chinese immigrant railroad workers, miners and farm laborers, Chinatown was leveled by the ’06 quake. This packed neighborhood gradually rebuilt and has been home to Chinese Americans for more than 150 years.

At Grant and California Street, two pagoda-like buildings — the Sing Chong Building and the Sing Fat Building — face the 1853 Gothic Revival Old St. Mary’s, built by Chinese laborers. In St. Mary’s Square is sculptor Beniamino Bufano’s stainless steel and rose granite statue of early 20th century Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen.

If looking for jewelry and sculpture, start your shopping at the China Gem Co. (500 Grant; 397-5070). Up Sacramento a half-block is Waverly Place and the Clarion Music Center (816 Sacramento; 391-1317), which sells many Chinese instruments — and often there are demonstrations. Note Tin How Temple on the top floor of 125 Waverly. The Canton Bazaar (616 Grant; 362-5750) features sculpture, ceramics and furniture. Kee Fung Ng Gallery (757 Grant; 434-1844) has “chops” — sealing stones with your name in Chinese and English — made while you wait.

Rest awhile in Portsmouth Square (Kearny Street between Clay and Washington) where children romp and the elderly play Chinese chess and practice t’ai chi. When San Francisco was still Yerba Buena in the 1840s, this was the town square. Take the foot bridge across Kearny to the Hilton S.F. Financial District. On the third floor is the Chinese Culture Center (750 Kearny; 986-1822), where you can catch art exhibits and performances, do genealogical research and get a guided tour through Chinatown.

Wai Hing (829 Grant; 956-8522) and Man Hing Arts of China (843 Grant; 989-5824) sell beautiful ceramics and carved ivory and jade items, and across the street the China Trade Center (838 Grant; 837-1509), flanked by impressive sentinel lions, carries many types of fine arts. The owner of Stylers Art Gallery (661 Jackson; 788-8639) will demonstrate Chinese calligraphy and painting. Hungry? Head to the New Asia Dim Sum Restaurant (772 Pacific; 391-6666) for Chinese breakfast pastries and tea.

Walk over to Stockton Street, which is grocery central; scores of shops feature the array of fresh foods so important in Chinese cuisine: chickens, ducks, pigeons, frogs, turtles, crabs, mussels, geoducks, catfish, squid, and melons, greens and fruit of every hue. At Stockton near Pacific, look for the soaring mural by Darryl Mar that graces the side of landmark Ping Yuen housing project. Eastwind Arts & Books (1435 Stockton; 772-5888) carries the city’s largest selection of Chinese and other Asian literature. End your tour at the Chinese Historical Society of America (965 Clay, Suite 402; 391-1188), which has the most extensive collection of Chinese American artifacts.

Angel Island

This Ellis Island of the West is where, from 1910 to 1940, authorities held Chinese immigrants until they passed their admission-to-the-U.S. exams (Angel Island State Park; 435-5390). Have a picnic. Tour the historic barracks; on their walls, detainees etched poems expressing their anger, fears and hopes for life in the Gam Saan, the Golden Mountain, San Francisco. To get to Angel Island, take a Blue & Gold Fleet ferry at Pier 41 (705-8200). 

Japantown

Japanese emigrated to San Francisco in large numbers in the 1890s. They lived largely South of Market until the ’06 quake destroyed that neighborhood. They moved to the Western Addition and established Nihonmachi, now Japantown. Tour Japantown, experience the art and culture, especially the three-block-long  Japan Center on Geary Boulevard.

Begin the art tour at the Peace Plaza Pagoda at Post and Buchanan, a 100-foot-tall gift from Sister City Osaka, Japan. Next door is the Japan Center, a shopping center in the Japantown neighborhood that opened in 1968. There one can find traditional Japanese kimonos and antique shops ( Peace Plaza #510; 440-1171). On the other side of the plaza in the Kintetsu Mall where one can find several places that sell traditional Japanese food. Also, make sure to check out the Japanese flower arranging as well (1737 Post St.; 346-1993). 

Across the Webster Street bridge is the San Francisco Taiko Dojo Showroom (1581 Webster. Suite 200; 928-2456) — music classes, contemporary art and locales for taiko drum concerts. Stop in at Shige Antiques (1730 Geary; 346-5567) for beautiful kimonos. Kinokuniya Bookstore (1581 Webster; 567-7625) has all the best on Japan, including art, culture, history and language, and its stationery store across the hall has a wide selection of rice paper and stationery.

Downstairs, Asakichi Iron Teapot (1730 Geary; 921-2147) sells folk arts, antiques and ceramics; in front of the store is a replica of a castle from Osaka. 

Tora-Ya Restaurant (1734 Post; 931-5200), Japantown’s oldest restaurant, has good food and reasonable prices. Next door is Sharaku (1726 Post; 929-9084), which sells Japanese music and instruments. Soko Hardware (1698 Post; 931-5510) — don’t be misled by the name — carries Japanese art, tools and art supplies.

Sakai K. Uoki Co. (1656 Post; 921-0514), the oldest grocery store in Japantown, is known widely for its impeccably fresh fish. Stop in at Paper Tree (1743 Buchanan; 921-7100) for origami samples and rice paper. Sanko Cooking Supply (1758 Buchanan; 922-8331) carries a nice selection of ceramics and Japanese kitchenware. The Nichi Bei Kai building has a traditional Tea Ceremony Room. Call in advance for reservations (1759 Sutter; 751-9676). Round out your day with a soothing massage at Kabuki Springs and Spa (1750 Geary; 922-6000).

Golden Gate Park • Civic Center

Outside Japantown are two destinations of importance to the Japanese community: the Japanese Tea Garden and the Asian Art Museum. The beautiful Tea Garden (752-1171) in Golden Gate Park, with tea house, bridges and koi pond, opened in 1894. The oldest public Japanese garden in the United States, it’s a serene spot to enjoy Japanese tea and cookies.

The Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin; 581-3500) occupies the former Main Library in the Civic Center. Among the largest museums in the West devoted exclusively to Asian art, the museum’s 40,000 square feet of gallery space includes 15,000 treasures that span 6,000 years of history in all the great Asian artistic traditions. With its frequent performances and a café for rest and refreshment, you could spend all day here.

Heart of the City Farmers Market

On Wednesday or Sunday, check out the colorful Heart of the City Farmers Market at U.N. Plaza (Market and Seventh St.), the primary source of fresh fruit and vegetables for residents, especially the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians and Filipinos who call the central city home.Nearby is Little Saigon.

Rim Shots

Many newcomers from the Pacific Rim have made their presence felt throughout San Francisco, sometimes in surprising places. Start out in the Tenderloin, historically the city’s underbelly. Today it bustles with family life with kids playing in the street and grocery stores well-stocked with Far East foods and within it the city’s Little Saigon.

The Tenderloin has several different authentic dining experiences to offer. Start with a dense, rich Vietnamese coffee at one of the bahn mi sandwich shops in the neighborhood. Many of these shops specialize in bargain-priced sandwiches of thinly sliced barbeque meats zesty with fresh cucumber, carrots, jalapeño and cilantro on soft rolls. For a hearty appetite, do not hesitate to go to Pho Hoa Restaurant (431 Jones; 673-3163) with its 24 types of noodle soup. The ultimate contains rare steak, well-done brisket and flank, tendons and tripe packed into a steaming tureen of noodles.

Cross Market Street and you’re in lively SoMa, where Filipino newcomers, like the Southeast Asians in the Tenderloin, bring a family focus to an otherwise wild-side neighborhood. The Bayanihan Community Center at Sixth and Mission is the heart of the Filipino community. In a storefront at the Center is Arkipelago (1010 Mission; 553-8185), featuring books and art by Filipinos, Filipino Americans and other Southeast Asians.

At the corner of Sixth Street and Folsom, is the South of Market Rec Center (554-9532) which often displays the work of budding young neighborhood artists. And catch a performance nearby at Bindlestiff (185 Sixth St.), the nation’s only performance venue showcasing emerging Filipino American and Pilipino artists.

For lunch, hit the ever-popular Tu Lan (8 Sixth St.; 626-0927), arguably the first Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco. This hole in the wall with a counter is packed with regulars. Spring rolls redolent with cilantro and lemon chicken salad with a peppery peanut and vinegar sauce are not to be missed.

For more varied Asian venues, you have to head south. Top off your lunch with Mitchell’s prize-winning ice cream (688 San Jose Ave.; 648-2300), including flavors from the islands found nowhere else — halo halo, macapuno, ube and unusual domestic flavors such as cantaloupe, pumpkin and, yes, avocado. 

The Pacific Islander Cultural Assn. (281-0221) has the best information about services, food, merchandise and events. In April, May and June, watch for the United States of Asian America Festival, a program of dance music, theater, literary readings and visual arts at various venues sponsored by the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center (864-4120). And, in August, there’s the Alcatraz Challenge Outrigger Race — competitors from around the world go round The Rock — and the Aloha Festival at the San Mateo County Event Center.

While on the Pacific side, do not miss out on some of the most authentic Vietnamese restaurants the city to has to offer. Thanh Long, for many years a lonely outpost on San Francisco’s western edge is now a popular venue most famed for its succulent roast crab! (4101 Judah; 665-1146). 

For calendar information and local expert recommendations on all of San Francisco’s arts and cultural activities, visit www.sfarts.org which features more than 1,000 arts events in its database along with curated arts highlights and feature articles. SFArts.org is accessible on iPads, iPhones and other mobile devices. 

Explore 10 self-guided tours designed to immerse visitors in San Francisco’s culture, rich ethnic heritage and world-class art. 

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