By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: I am out exploring California as I update my book Northern California History Weekends for a new edition. This chapter is about Chinatown San Francisco.)
In Brief: All year, Chinatown San Francisco presents an intriguing and exotic walk for any visitor to the city. A January/February visitor will be especially fortunate. The celebration of the Chinese New Year includes a cheerful urban cacophony of unparalleled dimension.
(The 2017 official Chinese New Year is on January 28. The colorful parade day for 2017 is on the evening of Saturday, February 11.)
The Chinese, who are said to have invented fireworks, know how to raise the decibel level in the urban canyons as the traditional Chinese Dragon snakes its way along the parade route to begin a new lunar calendar year.
San Francisco is home to one of the largest Chinese enclaves outside Asia (New York and Vancouver are also large). During the festival, Chinatown presents a spectrum of activities over a week-long celebration, but the night of the big parade offers the best public access to the phenomenon.
However, any day of the year, a traveler can walk through the dragon-crested portals of Chinatown at Grant and Bush and explore the roughly 24 square blocks of hustle and bustle of another world.
The Historic Story: Chinese nationals were among the many people who sought their fortunes in the California Gold Rush, which began in 1848. In the 1860s thousands of Chinese workers also came to construct the Central Pacific Railroad.
The Chinese teams on the railroad were among the most productive, for a reason we understand today, but was not apparent then. The reason was hygienic. The Chinese boiled just about everything that went into their bodies—the tea, the rice, the vegetables, and the proteins. Adjacent to them, a Welch railroad crew just drank the water from the river. Stomach issues occurred. This is a theme throughout human history. The Vikings in ninth century Dublin Ireland were the most successful sailors, traders, plunderers, and warriors of their era. Their women wore lace from China. But the Vikings also had systemic stomach/intestinal issues that slowed them down, partly because they were drinking untreated water right out of the river. The technology of boiling water to kill bacteria was not understood.
In the 1880s Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson mused away his time in Chinatown, just as hundreds of San Franciscans and visitors do every day. Today, on Kearny Street in the heart of Chinatown, a stone bridge, the Dr. Rolland and Kathryn Lowe Bridge, links Portsmouth Square with the Chinese Culture Center in the Hilton hotel building (http://www.c-c-c.org/). The Center sponsors interpretive exhibits about Chinese life in America, art shows, and organizes guided walks through the area. In the early morning at Portsmouth Square tai chi practitioners exercise. Later in the day, children and older adults enjoy the sun of the park, the pigeons, and Chinese chess. It was at Portsmouth Square that the first U.S. flag was raised in San Francisco, in 1846.
Other historical displays can be seen at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum at 965 Clay Street (www.chsa.org).
The Museum reminds a traveler that 80 percent of the Chinese in the United States trace their roots to a small region in Guangdong Province, which is about the size of the San Francisco Bay Area. In the 19th century, overpopulation and wars caused many farm families to urge their sons to migrate to America.
A temple on a side street in Chinatown is open to visitors and there you can learn about the spirituality of the Chinese. Visit the Tin How Temple (125 Waverly Place) to see the offerings of oranges, rice, and tea to ancestors and to the gods. Incense burns constantly in this restful and meditative setting of carved Buddhas and red lanterns. The temple exhibits a colorful facade, as do other temples, such as the Norras Temple, on this quiet street running parallel to Grant.
The opening of trade with mainland China in the 1970s gave Chinatown another renewal. In the past decade Chinatown has been rejuvenated by thousands of immigrants from Hong Kong, filling a gap when Chinese moved out of the area to other locations in the city, such as to the prosperous Richmond District, now a Chinese stronghold.
San Francisco’s Chinatown, sometimes dubbed Cathay-by-the-Bay, is an ethnic capital and reference point for many of the 1.6 million Americans who are of Chinese descent.
Getting There: Chinatown is in the heart of San Francisco. Enter through the gates where Grant Avenue intersects Bush Street.
Be Sure to See: Beyond the gates at Grant and Bush, stroll the area bounded by Stockton, Broadway, Kearny, and Bush.
Stockton between Washington and Broadway is where you’ll find the largest concentration of Chinese markets, exhibiting an amazing array of vegetables and meats. The food markets stock vegetables such as bok choy and live meat, including pigeons. Numerous fat ducks hang raw or cooked. Baskets of paper-thin dried fish are on display. On Stockton you may even see crates of chickens or a butcher carve up a pig carcass. Live fish, frogs, turtles, and shrimp await the foot buyer at Liang’s Food, 1145 Stockton.
Jade and ivory carvings can be seen at many shops, such as Michael’s, a corner shop on both sides of the street as you enter Chinatown at Grant and Bush.
In St. Mary’s Square there is a Benjamino Bufano sculpture of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Chinese Republic (1911-1913).
Chinatown is a city within a city, a fascinating and foreign place.
Best Time of Year: Any time of the year is good for Chinatown, but the Chinese New Year in February is special.
Part of the fascination of Occidentals with the Chinese New Year festivities is the lunar calendar. The Chinese rotate the years between 12 different creatures, sequentially. This year’s animal will be replaced in future annual changings of the animal guard by the ram, monkey, rooster, dog, boar, rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, serpent, and horse. The personality characteristics of the ruling animal deity are said to govern the year in this Chinese zodiac.
A visitor during the Chinese New Year period is likely to be greeted with the phrase “gung hay fat choy” or “may you prosper.”
Lodging: One lodging and eastern emphasis choice nearby is the Loews Regency (222 Sansome Street, https://www.loewshotels.com/regency-san-francisco/). This elegant Financial District location is known for its impeccable service.
Dining: Restaurants in Chinatown/North Beach have outgrown their ethnic boundaries of Chinese or Italian. One tasty newcomer is Salisa Skinner’s Thai place, known as Tamarind Hall (1268 Grant Avenue, http://www.tamarindhall.com). Chef Skinner recreates Thai comfort food of her childhood, striving to be “true to who we are.” Starters include fried duck eggs with homemade chili jam, known as Yum Kai Dao. Popular among her salads is the sour, smoky Bangkok classic grilled eggplant with soft-cooked duck eggs, mint, and coriander, called Yam Makua Yao. Spectacular in both presentation and subtle taste for a main course is a whole snapper bathed in a “knockout sauce” and topped with lime leaves, basil leaves, and lemon grass. On the menu it is known simply as Knockout Snapper.
For Further Information: The overall San Francisco information source for visitors is San Francisco Travel. Details: http://www.sftravel.com.
San Francisco figures prominently in my book/ebook titled The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco. My main book/ebook on Northern California is Northern California Travel: The Best Options. Those volumes, including some more on California, can be seen on my Amazon Author Page. My further books on Northern California are Back Roads California and Northern California History Weekends. One of my California books, Northern California Travel: The Best Options, is now available as an ebook in Chinese.