Established in 1848, San Francisco’s Chinatown is 175 years old, making it the oldest Chinatown in North America. It is also one of the biggest Chinese enclaves in the world outside of Asia and has done a remarkable job at maintaining its own identity, customs, languages, social clubs, and religious institutions. It has its own schools, hospital, businesses, restaurants, police station, post office, and parks. One could completely live, work, and socialize inside Chinatown and never, ever leave its boundaries. It’s a popular spot for tourists, drawing more visitors annually than even The Golden Gate Bridge..
Located in downtown San Francisco, it covers 24 square blocks, within an area that’s roughly 0.5 miles long, north to south, and 0.25 miles wide, east to west. While not large, as of 2018, it’s home to approximately 70,000 residents, with 81% Asian. Some blocks are 100% Asian. It was established as the official port of entry for early Chinese immigrants from the west side, which is why many decided to put down roots in the area.
Unfortunately, before the emergence of tourism, San Francisco’s Chinatown had a reputation for poverty and lawlessness, drawing prostitution and high crime. Towards the middle of the 19th century, that’s exactly what lured the tourists. The area ultimately attracted loads of working-class white folks who were bored with the suburban lifestyle and wanted to experience the exciting “oriental mystery” and “depravity” for themselves (keep in mind that this was the mid-1800s to early-1900’s). At the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, tourism skyrocketed in Chinatown.
There are numerous things to do these days, including walking through the world famous Dragon Gate; wandering the historic alleyways and streets, taking in the unique architecture; going to the Sing Chong Building (please see above), the first building to be rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake and fire, and one of the most photographed buildings in San Francisco; visiting the Red Blossom Tea Company, a family-owned teahouse that serves rare teas from China and Taiwan; hitting up the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, in existence since 1962 and cranking out over 20,000 cookies per day; or you can just enjoy shopping in the countless stores or eating at the numerous restaurants.
We had lunch at a fabulous local joint called Chef Hung’s Restaurant, which I recommend. Not a chain restaurant, it’s located in the basement of one of the buildings and is definitely a local fan favorite. If you’re craving Chinese or Taiwanese food, I strongly suggest coming to Chinatown – you won’t find it more authentic elsewhere!
As mentioned, passing through the Dragon Gate is a must-do for any first-time visitor. Located at the intersection of Bush Street and Grant Avenue, it’s open 24 hours a day, and is free to pass through. Constructed in the style of traditional Chinese pailou, it was gifted by the Republic of China (Taiwan) in 1969 and completed one year later. It’s one of the most photographed locations in Chinatown and an iconic San Francisco landmark.
Overall, no visit to San Francisco: The Golden City. would be fully complete without spending an afternoon in its world-famous Chinatown. Not only will you visit the oldest Chinatown in North America and see the iconic Dragon Gate, but you’ll also get to truly experience a different culture, eat wonderfully authentic food, and shop at unique and interesting stores. It’s like stepping into China when visiting San Francisco’s Chinatown… except without the long flight!