Why You Need to Experience Chinatown on Your First Visit to San Francisco
Built near Portsmouth Square, the historic heart of San Francisco, our Chinatown is the oldest and one of the largest such neighborhoods in the U.S. The core of Chinatown is approximately 24 blocks, bordered by Powell, Kearny, Bush and Broadway. It is a “city within city,” changing constantly to reflect new waves of immigrants bringing new customs and experiences to America.
According to San Francisco’s Planning Department, our Chinatown has the oldest and second largest Chinese American community in the U.S. Grant Avenue (known as Dupont Street before the 1906 earthquake and fire), is the oldest street in San Francisco. Dating back to the 1850s when some 30,000 Chinese came in pursuit of riches during the California Gold Rush, Chinatown is home to the oldest standing Chinese temple in the U.S.: Tin How at 125 Waverly.
In the wake of the 1906 earthquake and fire, city officials fought hard to relocate Chinatown to a more remote area of the city. Leaders in the community resisted and transformed this area surrounding Portsmouth Square, the historic heart of San Francisco, into an “Oriental City,” according to the late Philip P. Choy whose book, San Francisco Chinatown: A Guide to Its History and Architecture, is essential reading for those who want to know more about the history of this neighborhood.
For many decades, it was a bachelor society. This was largely because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was passed in 1882 was not repealed until 1943. And even then, only 105 Chinese immigrants per year were admitted to the U.S. Large scale Chinese immigration did not occur until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion,” a permanent exhibition at the Chinese Historical Society of America, chronicles the complex history of the Chinese in America.
In recent years, Chinatown has been singled out as a “Great Neighborhood” by the American Planning Association for its “unique sense of place” and a “cultural identity that has persevered for more than 160 years.”
Offering familiar language, goods and services, Chinatown continues to be an area where new immigrants settle. With more than 20,000 residents, approximately 75 percent of whom are born outside the U.S., Chinatown is the most densely populated neighborhood west of New York City.
Best Time to Visit
The annual Chinese New Year festival is the best time to visit Chinatown. Usually falling between late January and early March, it climaxes with what is considered one of the best nighttime parades in the United States. In 2020, the parade ushering in the Year of the Rat occurs on Sat., Feb. 8. If you’re a first-timer, we’ve got some helpful hints for you. Also of note is the annual Autumn Moon Festival that transforms Grant Avenue into an open air stage in late September.
Best Places to Visit
There are a number of historic buildings and locations in Chinatown, including Portsmouth Square, where the U.S. flag was first raised on July 9, 1846. The architecture alone is worth a trip. If you are walking from downtown, you will encounter Old St. Mary’s Church at the corner of California Street and Grant Avenue. It is #2 on the city’s list of historic landmarks and dates back to 1853; the current building was rebuilt in 1907. Check out the Noontime Concerts if time permits.
Three local museums focus on the Chinese American experience. Housed in a building designed by Julia Morgan, the same architect who designed Hearst Castle, the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum (www.chsa.org) has rotating historical and cultural exhibits and counts more than 50,000 artifacts in its collection. The Chinese Culture Center on the lower level of the Hilton San Francisco Financial District hosts cultural events and art exhibits. The Pacific Heritage Museum, tucked away on Commercial Street, is housed in one of the original U.S. sub-treasury buildings, dating back to 1875.
Temples in the area include Kong Chow Temple, 855 Stockton St., one of the oldest Chinese temples in North America; Tien Hou Temple, 125 Waverly, the oldest Taoist temple in San Francisco and one of the oldest in the U.S.; and Buddha’s Universal Church, 720 Washington St., one of the largest Buddhist churches in the U.S.
Also of note is the ornate gateway to Chinatown at Grant Avenue and Bush Street. Completed in 1970, the tiles and ornamentation were donated from Taiwan.
The typical greeting between Cantonese-speaking residents of Chinatown roughly translates as, “Have you eaten?” This speaks to how central the experience of a shared meal is to the culture. And so around the whirling lazy susans of banquet tables and the roaming carts of dim sum, the journey begins from the silky noodles of Shaanxi to the dumplings of Xi’an, sparked along the way by the spicy red peppers of Sichuan. Congee, boba tea, fun see (Chinese vermicelli), rice plates … there’s no end to the variety found on menus in Chinatown. Jackson Street between Kearny Street and Grant Avenue is currently favored by Chinatown regulars because of the diverse menus offered. There are more than a dozen restaurants along this stretch of Jackson. Other favorites include: Cathay House, China Live, Far East Café and R&G Lounge. Explore more great places to eat in Chinatown.
If you’re looking for a simple snack, tuck into one of the bakeries lining Grant Avenue and snag a dan tat (egg custard tart) or chao siu bao (barbecue pork-filled bun). They are portable, delicious and are just enough to fuel a leisurely walk through the neighborhood.
Explore all that Chinatown has to offer on a Wok Wiz Walking Tour. Choose from a variety of walking tours that share the cultural stories of Chinatown, take you through its historic communities, and often ends with a dim sum tasting luncheon. Visit the local herbalist, famous fortune cookie factory, Chinese temples, and much more!
For more information about San Francisco's Chinatown, visit our new Chinatown Visitor Information Center on Kearney St.