Chinese lanterns on Grant Avenue in San Francisco's Chinatown

Historic Chinatown San Francisco: The Cantonese Enclave

Author’s Note: This article “Historic Chinatown San Francisco: The Cantonese Enclave” is a chapter in my new book/ebook Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. The subject is also covered in my book/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available in English as a book/ebook and also as an ebook in Chinese. Several of my books on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.

By Lee Foster

In Brief

All year, Chinatown San Francisco presents an intriguing and exotic walk for any visitor to the city. Moreover, a January/February visitor will be especially fortunate. At that time, the community celebrates Chinese New Year with a cheerful urban cacophony of unparalleled dimension.

The Chinese invented fireworks. And they certainly know how to raise the decibel level in the urban canyons as the traditional Chinese Dragon snakes its way along the parade route. (The New Year’s Parade is February 8 in 2020.)

San Francisco is home to one of the largest Chinese enclaves outside Asia. (Other large Chinese populations live in New York and Vancouver.) 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. There, at Grant and Bush, you enter the roughly 24 square blocks of hustle and bustle of another world.

The Historic Story

Chinese nationals arrived to seek 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 railroad teams were among the most productive. The reason was mainly because of their hygiene. The Chinese boiled everything they ate—the tea, the rice, the vegetables, and the proteins. On the other hand, for instance, a Welch railroad crew drank water from the river. Stomach issues occurred. That was because the Welch didn’t understand boiling water killed bacteria.

Heart of Chinatown

In the 1880s Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson mused away his time in Chinatown. Today hundreds of San Franciscans and visitors do the same every day. For instance, contemplate, 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 (https://www.cccsf.us/).

The Center sponsors interpretive exhibits about Chinese life in America. It also presents art shows. And it organizes guided walks through the area. In the early morning tai chi practitioners exercise at the square. Later in the day, children and older adults enjoy the sun in the park. They feed the pigeons, and play Chinese chess. The first U.S. flag was raised in San Francisco, in 1846, at Portsmouth Square.

Chinese Museum

The Chinese Historical Society of America Museum presents historical displays 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. The province is about the size of the San Francisco Bay Area. In the 19th century, many farm families urged their sons to migrate to America because of overpopulation and wars in China.

California: Chinatown San Francisco. Entrance gate to Chinatown on Grant Ave.
California: Chinatown San Francisco. Entrance gate to Chinatown on Grant Ave.

Visitors should stop at Tin How Temple (125 Waverly Place) on a side street in Chinatown. There you can learn about Chinese spirituality.  See the offerings of oranges, rice, and tea to ancestors and to the gods. Adherents burn incense in this meditative setting of carved Buddhas and red lanterns. The temple exhibits a colorful facade. Another parallel attraction is the Norras Temple, located on this quiet street running parallel to Grant.

Trade with mainland China began in the 1970s. That business gave Chinatown another renewal. Furthermore, in later decades, thousands of Hong Kong immigrants have rejuvenated Chinatown. The newcomers fill a gap when prosperous Chinese move out of the area to other locations in the city. For instance, San Francisco’s Richmond District is partly a Chinese stronghold.

The city’s Chinatown is sometimes dubbed Cathay-by-the-Bay. The name is apt. It is a true ethnic capital. Additionally the enclave is a reference point for 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.

You’ll find the largest concentration of Chinese markets, exhibiting an amazing array of vegetables and meats, on Stockton between Washington and Broadway. The food markets stock vegetables such as bok choy and live meat, including pigeons. Numerous fat ducks hang raw or cooked. Some merchants display baskets of paper-thin dried fish. 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 shopper at Liang’s Food, 1145 Stockton.

You will find jade carvings at many shops. One such store is Michael’s, a corner shop on both sides of the street as you enter Chinatown at Grant and Bush.

In St. Mary’s Square don’t miss the 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 for Chinatown San Francisco

Any time of the year is good to visit Chinatown. However, the Chinese New Year in February is special.

Occidentals are fascinated with the Chinese New Year festivities. A lunar calendar determines when the celebration occurs. Chinese sequentially rotate the years between 12 different creatures. The current year’s animal rotates among 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.

During the Chinese New Year period, locals greet visitors 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

Simple restaurants on Grant where the roast ducks hang in the windows and the patrons are the locals may be your best choice. Small plates of cooked meats are a specialty in some small eateries.

For Further Information in Chinatown San Francisco

The overall San Francisco information source for visitors is San Francisco Travel. Details at https://www.sftravel.com/.

My article “San Francisco’s Chinese Heritage” will alert you to more aspects of the culture. See that at https://www.fostertravel.com/san-franciscos-chinese-heritage/.