Chinatown: History, Culture, Dim Sum & Then Some

Start: Corner of Grant Avenue and Bush Street.

Public Transportation: Bus no. 2, 3, 4, 9X, 15, 30, 38, 45, or 76.

Finish: Commercial Street between Montgomery and Kearny streets.

Time: 2 hours, not including museum or shopping stops.

Best Times: Daylight hours, when the streets are most active.

Worst Times: Early or late in the day, because shops are closed and no one is milling around.

Hills That Could Kill: None.

This tiny section of San Francisco, bounded loosely by Broadway and by Stockton, Kearny, and Bush streets, is said to harbor one of the largest Chinese populations outside Asia. Daily proof is the crowds of Chinese residents who flock to the herbal stores, vegetable markets, restaurants, and businesses. Chinatown, specifically Portsmouth Square, also marks the original spot of the city center. On this walk, you'll learn why Chinatown remains intriguing to all who wind through its narrow, crowded streets, and how its origins are responsible for the city as we know it.

To begin the tour, make your way to the corner of Bush Street and Grant Avenue, 4 blocks from Union Square and all the downtown buses, where you can't miss the:

1. Chinatown Gateway Arch

Many Chinese villages have their own gateways, and bowing to tradition, so do many Chinatowns around the world. This one, to me, is very much an emblem of San Francisco’s Chinatown. That’s because it’s not even Chinese, but Pan-Asian. It was a gift from modern-day Taiwan.

Once you cross the threshold, you’ll be at the beginning of Chinatown’s portion of:

2. Grant Avenue

This is a mecca for tourists who wander in and out of gift shops that offer a variety of junk interspersed with quality imports.

But all of this is today’s Chinatown. Before rampant landfilling, this area was closer to the wharves, and Chinese residents could easily get back and forth from here to work on the docks. In 1849, there were only 54 Chinese here, but by 1876, there were 116,000 in the state. They mined for treasure. They broke their backs building the railroad. For their pains, they were despised, overtaxed, and excluded. In the late 1800s, this area would have been teeming with prostitutes, many young teens who were brought here as virtual slaves. As for the men, the so-called “coolies”—a bastardized word derived from the Chinese words for “rent” and “muscle—they had slightly more protection in the form of benevolent societies, where acclimated Chinese helped them negotiate for jobs. But to booming San Francisco industry, these men were just as disposable as the girls.

The great earthquake of 1906 changed everything. The whole district was wiped out. The rebuilt Chinatown was more civilized than the old one, full of benevolent societies and churches rather than opium dens and saloons—although the buildings were still mostly owned by Western men, not Chinese. A local businessman named Look Tin Eli recognized that the squalor of the old Chinatown gave his neighbors an image problem, so he arranged to make buildings more tourist-friendly, decorating them with false pagodas and sloping roofs. At a time when the vast majority of Americans never left their home country, coming here felt like venturing to the Orient. The ruse worked, and today, Chinatown retains both its stage-set appearance and its fascination for visitors.

Tear yourself away from the shops and turn right at the corner of Pine Street. Cross to the other side of Pine and on your left you’ll come to:

3. St. Mary’s Square

The 14-foot metal-and-granite statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China, was the work of sculptor Beniamino Bufano, whose lifelong dream according to the “New York Times,” was to carve the face of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore. Let’s hope getting to create this likeness of the heroic Sun Yat-sen (he led the rebellion that ended the reign of the Qing Dynasty) was a happy second prize for him. It’s appropriate the statue is here: during Sun Yat-sen’s exile in San Francisco (before the revolution in 1916), he often whiled away the hours in this square. Visit early in the morning and you may see locals practicing tai chi here.

Walk to the other end of the square, toward California Street, turn left, cross California Street at Grant Street, and you’ll be standing in front of:

4. Old St. Mary’s Cathedral

Here stands the state’s first building purpose-built to be a cathedral, which it was from 1854 to 1894. Because the city began with such meager resources and fires were rampant, the oldest churches here are not the prettiest. The interior of this one is no exception, mostly because it was gutted by two catastrophic blazes—one being the Great Earthquake on 1906. The shell of the building is original, but the inside dates to the days of Donna Reed. It was here, in 1902, that America’s first mission for indigent Chinese immigrants was established; food was served, English taught, and charity otherwise available for anyone who was suffering in the New World.

Step inside to find a written history of the church and turn-of-the-20th-century photos of San Francisco.

Upon leaving the church, take a right, walk to the corner of Grant Avenue and California Street, and go right on Grant. Here you’ll find a shop called:

5. Canton Bazaar

Of the knickknack and import shops lining Grant Avenue, this one (at no. 616) has the most comprehensive selection, including a boatload of Mao memorabilia for fans of kitsch.

Continue in the same direction on Grant Avenue and cross Sacramento Street to the northwest corner of Sacramento and Grant. You’ll be at the doorstep of the:

6. Bank of America

Look up: even chain banks use traditional Chinese architectural style here. Notice the dragons subtly portrayed on many parts of the building.

Head in the same direction (north) on Grant Avenue to 717 Grant Ave.:

7. Chinatown Kite Shop

A popular neighborhood fixture, owned by the same family since 1969, the Kite Shop offers an assortment of flying objects, including lovely fish kites, nylon or cotton windsock kites, hand-painted Chinese paper kites, wood-and-paper biplanes, pentagonal kites, and even design-it-yourself options.

Cross Grant Avenue to 718 Grant Ave.:

8. The Wok Shop

Here’s where you can purchase just about any cleaver, wok, cookbook, or vessel you might need for Chinese-style cooking in your own kitchen.

When you exit the shop, go right. Walk past Commercial Street and you’ll arrive at the corner of Grant Avenue and Clay Street; cross Clay and you’ll be standing on the:

9. Original Street of “American” California

Here an English seaman named William Richardson set up the first tent in 1835, making it the first place that an Anglo set up base in California.

Continue north on Grant Avenue to Washington Street. Turn right and at 743 Washington St. you will be standing in front of the former Bank of Canton, now known as the:

10. United Commercial Bank

This building boasts the oldest (from 1909) Asian-style edifice in Chinatown. After the earthquake, the city fathers were contemplating moving Chinatown to the outskirts of the city. The construction of this three-tiered pagoda-style building (it once housed the China Telephone Exchange) convinced these powerful men that the neighborhood had the potential to lure tourists and so Chinatown remained where it was.

You’re probably thirsty by now, so follow Washington Street a few doors down (east); on your right-hand side, at 733 Washington St., you will come upon:

11. Washington Bakery & Restaurant

No need to have a full meal here—the service can be abrupt. Do stop in, however, for a little potable adventure: snow red beans with ice cream. The sugary-sweet drink mixed with whole beans and ice cream is not something you’re likely to have tried elsewhere, and it happens to be quite tasty.

Head back to Grant Avenue, cross Washington Street, and follow the east side of street 2 blocks to 1044 Gran Avenue:

12. Vital Tea Leaf

Stop here for tea and Gee—Uncle Gee, that is. The grouchy owner, who stands on the sidewalk luring passersby in with good-natured insults and jokey threats (along with the occasional fortune cookie) will introduce you to dozens of varieties of tea. And yes, tastings are part of the experience. You’ll come in a stranger, but you leave feeling like part of the family (I promise).

Leave Vital Tea Leaf, make a left, cross Jackson Street and cross Grant Street, walk to Ross Alley, make a left into the alley:

13. Ross Alley

These alleys, in the bad old days, were rife with gambling, brothels, drug dealing, and worse. Duncombe Alley, off Pacific, was famous for its opium dens. St. Louis alley, also off Pacific, was known for its slave market, where naked girls were auctioned off to pimps. It’s all so hard to picture today, but thankfully, it’s over. So have a cookie.

As you follow the alley south, on the left side of the street, at no. 56, you’ll encounter the:

14. Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company

This store is worth a stop if only for the glimpse of workaday Chinatown that is so rarely afforded to outsiders. It’s little more than a tiny place where three women sit at a conveyer belt, folding messages into warm cookies as the manager invariably calls out to tourists, beckoning them to buy a big bag of the fortune-telling treats and come in and try a sample. You can purchase regular fortunes, unfolded flat cookies without fortunes, or, if you bring your own fortunes, make custom cookies. Photos inside the factory cost 50[ce].

As you exit the alley, cross Washington Street, take a right heading west on Washington, and you’re in front of the:

15. Great China Herb Co.

Herbs and roots and mysterious powders—oh my! For centuries, the Chinese have come to shops like this one to cure all types of ailments, plus ensure good health and a long life. Thankfully, unlike owners in many similar area shops, Mr. and Mrs. Ho speak English, so you will not be met with a blank stare when you inquire what exactly is in each box, bag, or jar arranged along dozens of shelves. And the answers should be truly fascinating. A wonderful place to browse.

Take a left upon leaving the store and walk to:

16. Stockton Street

This is my favorite part of Chinatown, and the part that most closely resembles a typical urban street in an older Chinese city, with sidewalk produce stands, fish markets, and bakeries. Some of the greasy spoons display the roasted meats of the day in their windows, head and all—the sight repulses some Westerners, but many Chinese customers know how to tell at a glance whether the quality of the inventory is high today. You’ll also notice that the signs in the shop windows aren’t in English as often as they are on Grant Avenue; that’s because this is an active shopping street for everyday sundries, particularly for older Chinese-born residents.

Take your time and wander into the groceries to see what non-endemic produce is for sale. You’ll find durian, starfruit, lychee, and other fruits you won’t find at your local Winn-Dixie, and you’ll have to swim through crowds of Asian folks to get to them. Happily, shopkeepers, though displaying a businesslike manner, are generally willing to explain any product for which you can’t read the label.

One noteworthy part of this area’s history is Cameron House (actually up the hill at 920 Sacramento St., near Stockton St.), which was named after Donaldina Cameron (1869–1968). Called Lo Mo, or “the Mother,” by the Chinese, she spent her life trying to free Chinese women who came to America in hopes of marrying well but who found themselves forced into prostitution and slavery. Today, the house still helps women free themselves from domestic violence.

At 1068 Stockton St. you’ll find AA Bakery & Café, an extremely colorful bakery with Golden Gate Bridge–shaped cakes, bright green and pink snacks, moon cakes, and a flow of Chinese diners catching up over pastries. Gourmet Delight B.B.Q. (1045 Stockton St.) is another recommended stop; here, barbecued duck and pork hang alongside steamed pig feet and chicken feet. Everything’s to go, so if you grab a snack, don’t forget napkins. Head farther north along the street and you’ll see live fish and fowl awaiting their fate as the day’s dinner.

Meander south on Stockton Street to Clay Street and turn west (right) onto Clay. Continue to 965 Clay St., being sure to plan your visit during the museum’s open hours.

17. Chinese Historical Society of America Museum

Founded in 1963, this museum (tel. 415/391-1188) has a small but fascinating collection illuminating the role of Chinese immigrants in American history, particularly in San Francisco and the rest of California.

Artifacts on display—and they’re more interesting to see than they are to read about—include a shrimp-cleaning machine, 19th-century clothing and slippers of the Chinese pioneers, Chinese herbs and scales, historic hand-carved and painted shop signs, and a series of photographs that document the development of Chinese culture in America. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from noon to 5pm and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4pm. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for college students with ID and seniors, and $2 for kids 6 to 17.

Retrace your steps, heading east on Clay Street back toward Grant Avenue. Turn left onto:

18. Waverly Place

Also known as “the Street of Painted Balconies,” Waverly Place is probably Chinatown’s most popular side street or alleyway because of its colorful balconies and architectural details—a sort of Chinese-style New Orleans street. At 125 Waverley, you’ll find the Tin Hou Temple. Founded in 1852, it’s the oldest Chinese temple in America. Visitors are welcome, although it’s polite to remove your shoes when you go inside to inspect its carvings, traditional architectural details, and altar, portions of which survived the 1906 blaze; it’s also customary to leave a few dollars in a red envelope found on the front table. The temple, serene and wafting with incense, is on the top floor and there’s no elevator. (By the way, this kind of house of worship isn’t so common here; there are more Chinese Christians in Chinatown than there are Buddhists.)

Once you’ve finished exploring Waverly Place, walk east on Clay Street, past Grant Avenue, and continue until you come upon the block-wide urban playground that is also the most important site in San Francisco’s history.

19. Portsmouth Square

This very spot was the center of the region’s first township, which was called Yerba Buena before it was renamed San Francisco in 1847. Around 1846, before any semblance of a city had taken shape, this plaza lay at the foot of the bay’s eastern shoreline. There were fewer than 50 non–Native American residents in the settlement, no substantial buildings to speak of, and the few boats that pulled into the cove did so less than a block from where you’re standing.

In 1846, when California was claimed as a U.S. territory, the marines who landed here named the square after their ship, the USS Portsmouth. (Today a bronze plaque marks the spot where they raised the U.S. flag.)

Yerba Buena remained a modest township until the gold rush of 1849 when, over the next 2 years, the population grew from under 1,000 to over 19,000, as gold seekers from around the world made their way here. When the square became too crowded, long wharves were constructed to support new buildings above the bay. Eventually, the entire area became landfill. That was almost 150 years ago, but today the square still serves as an important meeting place for neighborhood Chinese—a sort of communal outdoor living room.

Throughout the day, the square is heavily trafficked by children and—in large part—by elderly men, who gamble over Chinese cards and play chess. If you arrive early in the morning, you might come across people practicing tai chi.

It is said that Robert Louis Stevenson used to love to sit on a bench here and watch life go by. (At the northeast corner of the square, you’ll find a monument to his memory, consisting of a model of the Hispaniola, the ship in Stevenson’s novel “Treasure Island,” and an excerpt from his “Christmas Sermon.”)

Once you’ve had your fill of the square, exit to the east at Kearny Street. Directly across the street, at 750 Kearny St., is the Holiday Inn. Cross the street, enter the hotel, and take the elevator to the third floor, where you’ll find the:

20. Chinese Culture Center

This center is oriented toward both the community and tourists, offering display cases of Chinese art and a gallery with rotating exhibits of Asian art and writings that are often worth a look. The center is open Tuesday through Friday from 9:30 to 4pm, Saturday 10am to 4pm.

When you leave the Holiday Inn, take a left on Kearny Street and go 3 short blocks to Commercial Street. Take a left onto Commercial and note that you are standing on the street once known as the site of:

21. Joshua A. Norton’s Home

Every town has its eccentric local celebrities, and San Francisco likely has had more than its share. But few are as fondly remembered as “Emperor Joshua Norton.”

Norton was born around 1815 in the British Isles and sailed as a young man to South Africa, where he served as a colonial rifleman. He came to San Francisco in 1849 with $40,000 and proceeded to double and triple his fortune in real estate. Unfortunately for him, he next chose to go into the rice business. While Norton was busy cornering the market and forcing prices up, several ships loaded with rice arrived unexpectedly in San Francisco’s harbor. With rice market was suddenly flooded, Norton was forced into bankruptcy. He left San Francisco for about 3 years and must have experienced a breakdown (or revelation) of some sort, for upon his return, Norton thought he was an emperor. In fact, he called himself: “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico,” and used to walk around the streets in an old brass-buttoned military uniform, sporting a hat with a “dusty plume.”

He lived in a fantasy world, but instead of ostracizing him, San Franciscans embraced him and gave him free meals. When Emperor Norton died in 1880 (while sleeping at the corner of California St. and Grant Ave.), approximately 10,000 people passed by his coffin, which was bought with money raised at the Pacific Union Club, and more than 30,000 people participated in the funeral procession.

From here, if you’ve still got an appetite, you should go directly to 631 Kearny St. (at Clay St.), home of the R&G Lounge.

22. R&G Lounge

The R&G Lounge is a sure thing for tasty $5 rice-plate specials, chicken with black-bean sauce, and gorgeously tender and tangy R&G Special Beef.

Otherwise, you might want to backtrack on Commercial Street to Grant Avenue, take a left, and follow Grant back to Bush Street, the entrance to Chinatown. You’ll be at the beginning of the Union Square area, where you can catch any number of buses (especially on Market St.) or cable cars, or do a little shopping. Or you might backtrack to Grant, take a right (north), and follow Grant to the end. You’ll be at Broadway and Columbus, the beginning of North Beach, where you can venture onward for our North Beach tour.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.