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Historic Chinatown San Francisco: The Cantonese Enclave

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 February visitor will be especially fortunate. The February celebration of the Chinese New Year includes cheerful urban cacophony of unparalleled dimension.

San Francisco: Lanterns on Chinatown Grant Avenue

San Francisco: Lanterns on Chinatown Grant Avenue

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 the second-largest Chinese enclave outside Asia (New York’s Chinatown is larger). 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 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 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 644 Broadway (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 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.

Jade and ivory carvings can be seen at many shops, such as Peking Bazaar (832 Grant Street). The oldest grocery here is Mow Lee Shing Kee & Company (774 Commercial Street), dating from 1856.

The New China Book Store (642 Pacific) carries extensive literature portraying visions of life and thought in the People’s Republic.

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, in keeping with our theme, is the Mandarin Oriental (222 Sansome Street, www.mandarinoriental.com). This elegant Financial District location is known for its impeccable service.

Dining: Henry’s Hunan Restaurant (110 Natoma Street, http://henryshunan.com/) is a critically acclaimed Chinese restaurant. Innovative preparations breathe vitality into familiar-sounding dishes. Try the Henry’s Special (chicken, shrimp, and scallops), named for chef-founder Henry Chung.

See Lee’s four Northern California books/ebooks on his Amazon Author Page.

See Lee’s books/ebooks
on his Amazon Author Page and in independent bookstores, such as Book Passage in the San Francisco Bay Area

For Further Information: The overall San Francisco information source for visitors is San Francisco Travel. Details: http://www.sanfrancisco.travel/.

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