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Chinatown: Another World Inside the City

Start: Corner of Grant Avenue and Bush Street.

Public Transportation: Bus no. 2, 3, 30, 38, or 45.

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, when shops are closed and no one is milling around. Note: Some destinations on this tour are closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Hills That Could Kill: None.

This small but magical section of San Francisco, bounded loosely by Broadway, Stockton, Kearny, and Bush streets, isn’t just home to the largest Chinese community outside of Asia, it’s also the oldest Chinatown in North America. And that’s what makes this place so compelling—its history is visible in the architecture, food, and crowds of Chinese residents who flock to the herb stores, vegetable markets, restaurants, and businesses. So much more than a top tourist destination, this densely populated section of the city is a bustling world unto itself, and its Portsmouth Square marks the original city center. On this walk, you’ll learn how Chinatown was critical to the original formation of the city and why it continues to be a major destination—not to mention where to grab some delicious food along the way. 

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

This gateway, also called “The Dragon Gate,” was built in 1970 with the same materials used in the ceremonial arched entrances of thousands of villages in China. The lion statues flanking the gate are there to guard against evil spirits. The gate has three passageways; if you’re feeling important, make sure you enter through the larger, central one—it’s meant for dignitaries while the other two are for the common folk. 

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

2. Grant Avenue

Through the gateway, you’ll see the street flanked with shops selling quality imports, such as delicately carved jade figurines and less expensive but still lovely painted bowls, alongside cheap souvenirs (think San Francisco mugs and T-shirts). There are also a number of stores selling outlandishly huge and glitzy statues, sculptures, and other “art” that is in no way obviously Chinese but was perhaps made there. 

Chinatown’s beginnings can be traced to the first three immigrants—two men and one woman—who arrived from China in 1848 on an American ship called The Eagle. Gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California in 1849, and in the 1850s, more immigrants began to arrive from China—predominantly men from southern China’s Guangdong province. They toiled building the railroad and working in the shipyards, but despite their hard work (or maybe even because of it), they were despised, overtaxed, and excluded. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned immigration of Chinese laborers to the U.S. and prohibited all Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens.

The great earthquake of 1906 changed everything when the whole district was wiped out—saloons, brothels, homes, and schools burned to the ground. Chinatown was quickly rebuilt, and this time the area saw more benevolent societies and churches than opium dens and saloons. 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 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

This small park features a 14-foot metal-and-granite statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, leader of the rebellion that ended the Qing Dynasty and founder of the Republic of China. The work of Italian sculptor Beniamino Bufano, who in 1920 travelled to China and met Sun Yat-sen, the statue is in a fitting location; 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 (right over the whirring cable car tracks) at Grant Street, and you’ll be standing in front of:

4. Old St. Mary’s Cathedral 

Completed in 1854, this was the state’s first building expressly designed to be a cathedral. Since then, it has been through a lot. In 1891, it was superseded by a larger cathedral and demoted to a parish church; later, it was gutted by two catastrophic blazes, one being the 1906 post-earthquake fire. Before you step inside, look up at the tower’s clock and read the words beneath—I won’t give them away, but they were meant to deter men from visiting the area’s many brothels. The shell of the building is original, although its somewhat run-down interior dates to the late 1960s. In 1902, America’s first mission for indigent Chinese immigrants was established here; food was served, English was taught, and everyone was welcome. Step inside to find a written history of the church, striking photos of the destruction the building has endured over the years, and turn-of-the-20th-century photos of a developing 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) is one of the largest—and the kitschiest. You’ll find everything from souvenir T-shirts to shot glasses to chopsticks to teapots to Chinese pajamas for adults and children. You should also check out its sister store, Old Shanghai, directly across Grant. It’s got great deals on colorful Chinese slippers, an entire upper floor dedicated to women’s clothing, and more authentic art pieces at the very back of the store. 

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

This building is best appreciated from across the street so you can look up and admire the architecture. Even chain banks use traditional Chinese architectural features 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. In this wind-filled city, you’ll have plenty of places to fly a kite, including the Great Meadow in Fort Mason.

Cross Grant Avenue to 718 Grant Ave.:

8. The Wok Shop

This culinary marvel is literally jam-packed with just about any cleaver, wok, cookbook, or vessel you might need for Chinese-style cooking in your own kitchen. And yes, they sell woks—piles and piles of them.

When you exit the shop, go right.  Walk past Commercial Street and stop at 752 Grant for:

9. Dragon Papa

In the window of this unusual confectionary, you’ll find Shing or Derek Tam (father and son) making “dragon’s beard” candy by gently wrestling a thick rope of malt syrup, pulling and twisting until it forms millions of white, filmy strands, which they then carefully wrap around a combination of sesame seeds, peanuts and toasted coconut. The beauty of this candy is its subtle, mildly sweet flavor and unusual texture. Try some and carry on. 

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 the:

10. East West Bank

This building boasts the oldest (dating back to 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 attract 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

While the service can be abrupt, this Hong Kong–style diner offers tasty rolls and pastries (the traditional egg custard tarts are good) and exotic, delicious beverages worth stopping for. The lengthy drinks menu is filled with things that may be new to you: red bean ice, jelly grass, and hot melon milk tea, to name a few. There’s also Hong Kong–style milk tea, which is black tea with condensed milk or evaporated milk and sugar. Grab a light snack, if you’re hungry. There’s still much to see. 

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

12. Vital Tea Leaf

(If you already visited the Vital Tea Leaf shop at 509 Grant, you could skip this one.) Step inside to peruse this tea shop’s monumental selection of loose and bagged teas. If you’re lucky, Uncle Gee, the grouchy owner, will be there to greet you with good-natured insults and jokey threats (along with the occasional fortune cookie) before he introduces 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, head west up Jackson on the left side of the street to Ross Alley, and 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. St. Louis alley, also off Jackson (you’ll pass it as you head to Ross Alley), was known for its slave market, where naked girls were auctioned off to pimps. Thankfully, it’s hard to picture today, and there are new memories to be made, including the edible ones at your next stop. 

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

14. Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company

You’ll probably see the line of tourists or smell the aroma of baking cookies wafting down the alley before you arrive at this tiny storefront. It’s worth visiting if only for the glimpse of workaday Chinatown that is so rarely afforded to outsiders. Once inside, you’ll see women sitting at a conveyer belt, folding messages into warm cookies as the manager invariably encourages you to try a sample and buy a big bag of the fortune-telling treats. You can purchase regular fortune cookies, unfolded flat cookies without fortunes, or, if you bring your own fortunes, pay extra to have them make custom cookies just for you (I’ve done this for parties a number of times). Photos inside the factory cost 50 cents.

As you exit the alley, cross Washington Street, take a right heading west on Washington, and walk to:

15. 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. 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 how much of the produce and other food items you can identify. You’ll find durian, starfruit, fresh lychee, and Chinese broccoli (at excellent prices), as well as salted duck eggs and dried cuttlefish, and you’ll have to swim through crowds of assertive Chinese grandmas 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. 

A quick note about the culture: While some Westerners may find local shoppers (and some shopkeepers) abrupt and pushy, rest assured that it’s not about you, but simply a part of the everyday culture here. When you live in a very crowded area, it’s often customary to push your way to the front to get what you need, much like native New Yorkers do when navigating the crowds blocking the food case at their favorite deli. 

A noteworthy part of this area’s history is Cameron House (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 were forced into prostitution and slavery. Lo Mo is believed to have personally rescued 3,000 Chinese girls who were bound for a life of slavery. Today, Cameron House provides services to thousands of low-income and immigrant children and families.

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 chatting 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, especially their popular pork ribs, 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 (see below).

16. Chinese Historical Society of America Museum

This is the place to go to really learn about the history and personal experiences of Chinese immigrants in America. In 2016, the museum (chsa.org; [tel] 415/391-1188) opened a new permanent exhibit, “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion,” which explores the Chinese American experience, from the first immigrants to today. Diving deeply into the lives of Chinese immigrants across the U.S., it is the largest exhibition of its kind in America to date.

The museum also boasts some fascinating artifacts, including 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 Wednesday through Sunday from 11am to 4pm. Admission is $15 for adults; $10 for seniors, kids 13 to 17, and college students with ID; and free for kids 12 and under.

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

17. Waverly Place

Also known as “the Street of Painted Balconies” (mostly on your left), Waverly Place is probably Chinatown’s most popular side street or alleyway. At 125 Waverley, you’ll find the tiny Tin Hou Temple. Founded in 1852, it’s the oldest Chinese temple in America. It’s also on the top floor, and there’s no elevator. Visitors are welcome, but be sure 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. You’ll want to step out onto the balcony to catch the view, but do heed the safety signs recommending that no children under the age of 10 venture out—the railings are low and a bit creaky with age. (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, head back to Clay Street (turning right as you leave the temple), making a left onto Clay from Waverly Place. Walk 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.

18. Portsmouth Square

This very spot was the center of the region’s first township, Yerba Buena, settled by Spanish explorers in the 1770s. Before any semblance of a city had taken shape, this plaza lay at the foot of the bay’s eastern shoreline, which in those days was less than a block from here. 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.) There were fewer than 50 non–Native American residents in the settlement, and no substantial buildings to speak of. 

Yerba Buena—which was renamed San Francisco in 1847—remained a modest township until the Gold Rush of 1849. Over the next 2 years, the population grew from less than 1,000 to over 19,000. When the square became too crowded, long wharves were constructed to support new buildings above the bay. Eventually, landfill expanded the entire area. 

That was almost 150 years ago, but as you can see, these days the square is still hopping. By mid-afternoon most days, it’s a hive of activity. While you will see children running around the playground, the real games are playing out around upturned cardboard boxes, where groups of elderly men and women are absorbed in games of cards. 

It is said that when Robert Louis Stevenson lived in San Francisco in 1880, he loved 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 a Hilton hotel. Cross the street, enter the hotel, and take the elevator to the third floor, where you’ll find the:

19. Chinese Culture Center

This lively community center ([tel] 415/986-1822) offers a revolving series of guided tours, art installations, and exhibits, with new events and exhibitions every month. It’s free to visit the exhibits, and the knowledgeable staff is happy to offer suggestions for things to do and see in the area. The center is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 4pm.

When you leave the Hilton, 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:

20. Joshua A. (Emperor) 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.

Details about Joshua Norton’s life are a bit foggy until his arrival in San Francisco in 1849. He was born around 1818 somewhere in the British Isles and sailed as a young man to South Africa, where he served as a colonial rifleman. He arrived in San Francisco with $40,000 and proceeded to double and triple his fortune in real estate. With significant funds in the bank, 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. The rice market was suddenly flooded and Norton was bankrupt. He disappeared for several years and upon his return, proclaimed himself “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.” He took to walking the streets in an old brass-buttoned military uniform, sporting a hat with a large, dusty feather.

Instead of ostracizing him or sending him off to a mental hospital, San Franciscans embraced him and gave him free meals. When Emperor Norton died in 1880 (he collapsed at the corner of California St. and Grant Ave.), members of Nob Hill’s tony Pacific Club bought a coffin for him; it’s said that as many as 30,000 people participated in the funeral procession. In 2013, locals formed the Emperor’s Bridge Campaign, a non-profit dedicated to getting a proposition on the state ballot to change the name of the Bay Bridge to “The Emperor Norton Bridge.” His legacy lives on!

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.

21. R&G Lounge

For decades, the R&G Lounge has drawn everyone from neighbors to top chefs for its tasty salt-and-pepper crab, chicken with black-bean sauce, and gorgeously tender and tangy R&G Special Beef. They also offer a variety of vegetarian “meat” dishes, including vegetarian abalone and vegetarian goose. If you’re ready for a full Chinese meal, this is the place to indulge. 

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 Street) 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.