San Francisco's Chinatown is not only the oldest but also the most popular and grandest Chinatown in the US. Thanks to the selection of ornamented houses, shops and eateries the area is one of San Francisco's most popular tourist attractions. It is also an ideal destination for buying a home.
The entrance gate to Chinatown is located at Grant Street. Many visitors go to Chinatown to explore unique shops, restaurants, and culture of the people and area. Most of the stores are near and around Grant Street, which is central Chinatown's tourist vicinity. The beauty is unique, withornamented lampposts and colorful Chinese motifs. Chinatown tends to draw more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge.
There are many temples in Chinatown that draw visitors. A good many are located at the upper level of row houses, so they are nearer to heaven. In Waverly Place - known as 'the street of painted balconies' there are three temples, among them the well known Tin How Temple. This temple was founded in 1852 and is the oldest in the United States. It is now housed in a building erected in 1911.
History of Chinatown
San Francisco's Chinatown was first established in the mid 19th century, attracting immigrants mostly from China's Guangdong Province. Most of these individuals had jobs with the Central Pacific Railroad. They soon established their own town within the city.
By the end of the 19th century however, racial tensions in San Francisco started to grow and the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, greatly reducing the number of Chinese allowed into the country, which impacted the population of Chinatown. During the 1906 fire caused by the Great Earthquake, much of the neighborhood was destroyed.
Chinatown revitalized despite the setbacks. During the 1920s more buildings were decorated with pagoda-like roofs and the lampposts were decorated with dragon motifs. After World War II the racial law was retracted and in the 1950s Chinatown started to grow again . This time the area not only attracted Chinese immigrants but it also started to lure tourists who wanted to find out more about the Chinese culture.
Besides the temples there are many other interesting buildings in Chinatown such as the Old St. Mary's Church, a catholic church from 1854 and San Francisco's oldest cathedral. There's also the Bank of Canton - a 1909 structure that was built as a telephone exchange - its operators spoke a range of different Chinese dialects - and the historic Sing Chong Building, the first structure in the area that was built after the 1906 earthquake.
Chinatown's central public space at Portsmouth Plaza square is very popular with both children and the elderly, who regularly congregate to relax and play board games. This is ne of the few open areas in an otherwise crowded neighborhood.
The large Chinatown Gateway is the most photographed structure in Chinatown and is also known as the Dragon Gate. It is located in Grant Street at the southern edge of Chinatown. Clayton Lee designed the gate in 1970 based on the ceremonial gates that can be found in Chinese villages. The gate is adorned with sculptures of fish and dragons and is flanked by two large lion statues. The gate has three passageways. The large, central one is meant for dignitaries while the two smaller passageways are meant for the common people.
Sights & Culture in Chinatown
Chinatown Gate: A remarkably decorated gate marks the entrance to Grant Avenue's Chinatown. Unveiled in 1970, it helped to secure the street's status as the neighborhood's center. Once past the gate, visitors see elaborate 1920s streetlights sculpted to resemble golden dragons.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory: Inside a storefront on tiny Ross Alley, some 20,000 fortune cookies are handmade every day by two women, each manning a conveyor belt. The factory opened in August 1962, it is the only Fortune Cookie Faktory where the cookies are still made by hand, the old-fashioned way. Anyone is welcome to stroll in and watch the cookies being made. The factory is open seven days a week, 8 a. m. to 6 p.m.. Admission is free. 56 Ross Alley, (415) 781-3956.
Waverly Place: A street full of sights and smells Waverly Place is the nexus of temples in Chinatown, including Tien Hau. Parallel to Grant Avenue and Stockton Street, between Washington and Sacramento streets.
Chinese Historical Society of America: The Chinese Historical Society of America is one of the oldest and largest organizations dedicated to the study, documentation, and dissemination of Chinese American history. 965 Clay St., (415) 391-1188. Tues-Fri Noon to 5pm, free to the public first Thursday of every month.
Autumn Moon Festival: The Mid-Autumn Festival, the Moon Festival takes place in September, around the same time as the autumn equinox. Highlights include live entertainment such as martial arts, acrobats, Chinese opera, karaoke, music, dance and a youth talent contest, with more activities for kids like Chinese calligraphy, and mini-car races.
Chinese New Year: The Lunar New Year is celebrated with food, flowers, firecrackers and envelopes of "lucky money." The two-week celebration includes music events, street fairs. The Miss Chinatown USA pageant culminates here with a spectacular parade featuring a 160-foot-long dragon.
Chinatown Temples and Churches
Buddhas Universal Church: Buddhas Universal Church is the largest Buddhist church in the country. Built in 1961, the temple is a place of serenity for the largest Buddhist congregation in San Francisco. It also provides views over the whole city. 720 Washington St., (415) 982-6116.
First Chinese Baptist Church: One of the oldest churches in the community, the First Chinese Baptist Church was organized in 1880, with the congregation settling into a building at the current location eight years later. The church at the site was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and rebuilt in 1908. The church offers services as well as language classes. 15 Waverly Place, (415) 362-4139.
Gold Mountain Sagely Monastery: This Buddhist sanctuary in the heart of Chinatown offers lectures on Buddhism, Sutra recitations, and meditation classes. 800 Sacramento St., (415) 421-6117.
Kong Chow Temple: This Taoist temple, founded in 1857, has some of the most colorful altars in the entire city. The green, red and gold altars display various gods. This fourth-floor location was built in 1977, and is also home to the Chinatown Post Office. 855 Stockton St., (415) 788-1339.
Norras Temple: Norras Temple is the oldest Buddhist Temple in San Francisco, dating back more than 50 years. Featuring an altar made of wood imported from China, the temple is adorned with symbols from Tibetan Buddhism. 109 Waverly St., (Third Floor), (415) 362-1993.
Old St. Mary's Cathedral: Old St. Mary's is one of the most prominent buildings in the Chinatown area. The cathedral was built by Chinese laborers in 1854 using brick that was shipped around Cape Horn and granite from China. Though the original was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, the cathedral was rebuilt in 1909. 660 California St., (415) 288-3800.
Tien Hau Temple: Each floor of this building has a completely different look to it, ranging from opulent to neon. It was designed in 1911 and achieved its mishmash of influences through the years. On the top floor is the temple, dedicated to the Goddess of Heaven. The building is brightly painted on the outside, with the scent of incense wafting from its walls. Admission is free, donations are appreciated. 125 Waverly Place (at Clay Street), (415) 986-2520.
Shakris Fine Asian Works of Art: True Asian antiques are featured at this gallery that highlights Chinese ceramics dating from the Han Dynasty. Here you find jade pieces, such as an owl-faced pendant, from 4,000 to 2,500 BC, and religious sculptures from the Ming Dynasty. Shakris also showcases works from other Asian countries, such as Khmer stone and bronze sculptures, Indonesian arts and Japanese Netsuke carvings. 954 Bush St., (415) 922-3838.
Chinese Culture Center: The center offers a variety of cultural events, including exhibitions of traditional and contemporary art, performances of Chinese Opera and dance, classes in Chinese language, painting and floral design, publications, tours, artists workshops and craft fairs. 750 Kearny Street (Third Floor), (415) 986-1822.
Stylers Art Gallery: This small gallery offers classes in Chinese calligraphy, brush painting, and other traditional Chinese art. 661 Jackson St., (415) 788-8639.
Empress of China: Filled with temple artifacts and grand chandeliers, Empress exudes an air of elegance. The restaurant's sixth-floor views over Portsmouth Square are worth a look,with a Cantonese cuisine. 838 Grant Ave., (415) 434-1345.
Gold Mountain: Almost every dish is a winner at this bright and vast Chinese restaurant. 644 Broadway (near Stockton Street), (415) 296-7733.
Golden Gate Bakery: Golden Gate Bakery is known for its custard-filled confections, as well as for its densely sweet lotus seed paste moon cakes. 1029 Grant Ave., (415) 781-2627.
Great Eastern Restaurant: Cantonese seafood is a specialty at Great Eastern. Dungeness crabs and prawns to catfish and black bass, are in large tanks in the dining room. Prices aren't cheap, but this is one of the best spots for Hong Kong specialties in the city. 649 Jackson St., (415) 986-2500.
Green Garden: Straightforward Chinese food made with fresh ingredients. 434 Broadway, (near Kearny), (415) 392-8338
Hang Ah Tea Room: Hang Ah, is tucked away in one of Chinatown's small alleys and is one of San Francisco's oldest dim sum house. Popular edibles include barbecue pork steam buns, shrimp dumplings, and sticky rice with pork. For dessert Hang Ah serves homemade ice cream in fruity flavors, such as fresh mango. The restaurant also serves pearl drinks, made from tapioca and various fruits. 1 Pagoda Pl., (415) 982-5686.
Henry Chung's Hunan: The key word at this longtime San Francisco institution is spice. From the hair-raising hot sauce accompanying Henry's steamed dumplings to the curried tofu or chicken curry, the Hunan is definitely one of Chinatown's hottest spots. 674 Sacramento St., (415) 788-2234.
New Hong Kong Menu: Braised noodle with spicy meat sauce, a Cantonese, Southern-style take on a Northern dish is good and so is the braised lamb with dried bean curd in the clay pot section. 667-669 Commercial St. (at Kearny); (415) 391-3677.
R&G Lounge: Chinese businessmen frequent the upstairs area at R&G Lounge, where Cantonese banquet menus are the usual, featuring fresh produce and fresh fish. 631 Kearny St., (415) 982-7877.
Y. Ben House: The buns, dumplings, rice and noodles are fresh and enticing, unlike the worn-out decor. 835 Pacific Ave. (near Stockton), (415) 397-3168.
Yuet Lee Seafood Restaurant: If you simply must have frog legs at two in the morning, this is the place. The atmosphere in the after-drinking hours is jovial, and the lazy Susan overflows with spicy condiments. 1300 Stockton St., (415) 982-6020.
Asian Renaissance: Asian imports of all persuasions fill this aesthetically pleasing store. Bedspreads, Thai silk runners, kimonos, sake and tea sets and candles are all beautifully presented, while New Age-style music plays in the background. 662 Grant Ave., (415) 397-1897.
Asian Image: The larger cousin of Asian Renaissance, Asian Image spans two floors. The upstairs includes books on Asian culture and crafts, sushi-shaped candles, silk fortune cookie covers, purses and scarves. 800 Grant Ave., (415) 398-2602.
Bonsai Villa: Aside from the slew of bonsai plants in this small shop, Bonsai Villa offers books on bonsai, Tai Chi and Chinese culture in general. 825 Clay St., (415) 837-1688.
Canton Bazaar: Canton Bazaar spans three floors featuring Lucky Cat collections, Mao statues, an array of Buddhas, hand-carved dragons, porcelain sake sets and kimonos. 616 Grant Ave., (415) 362-5750.
Chinatown Kite Shop: This family-owned shop specializes in a vast array of kite designs, from traditional Chinese handmade silk butterfly kites to Winnie the Pooh diamond kites.717 Grant Ave., (415) 989-5182.
City of Hong Kong: Confucius figures, hanging wall scrolls, Chinese silk jackets and an endless sea of knickknacks cram the shelves. In back there is a section for exquisitely handcrafted vases and other art works. 519 Grant Ave., (415) 982-1818.
Clarion Music Center: A melting pot for musical instruments, CDs and classes, Clarion is the one spot in the city where you can pick up an Australian didgeridoo, Chinese erhu, Moroccan gimbre or H'mong drur. Clarion also sells complete lion dance costumes with instructions. 816 Sacramento St., (415) 391-1317.
Dragon House: Dragon House sells genuine antiques and Asian fine arts, which is often hard to find among Chinatown's reproductions. Its collection of ivory carvings, ceramics, and jewelry dates back 2,000 years and beyond. 455 Grant Ave., (415) 781-2351.
Eastwind Books & Arts: Eastwind Books & Arts houses one of the most extensive selections of Chinese language and Chinese-related books in the U.S. Publications hail from North America and Greater China. 1435 Stockton St., (415) 772-5877.
Han Palace Antiques & Art Center: Han Palace Fine Arts specializes in high-quality authentic Chinese antiques: bronzes, ceramics, potteries, stone and wood carved sculptures from the Neolithic Period to the Qing Dynasty. 1201 Powell St., (415) 788-5338
Old Shanghai: Filled with everything from antique bronze incense burners that fetch $29,500 to ceramic tea pots, Old Shanghai offers an eclectic range of Chinese fashions and home decor. 645 Grant Ave., (415) 986-1222.
Peking Bazaar: Peking Bazaar definitely has something for everyone. The discount imports include Vietnamese sarongs, pajama sets, raw silk kimonos, Chinese dolls, lanterns and a sprawling jewelry section. Downstairs features tea sets, dishes and other housewares. 826-832 Grant Ave., (415) 982-9847.
The Wok Shop: This no-nonsense cooking-equipment market sells woks, tea sets and more. 718 Grant Ave., (415) 989-3797.
Great China Herb Co.: This shop offers a full wall of fresh Chinese herbs and carries everything from ginseng to dried scallops. There is a Chinese doctor at the store for those feeling ill. 857 Washington St., (415) 982-2195.
Superior Trading Company: This herb company boasts the largest house of Oriental herbs and ginseng, with imports from China, Korea and Hong Kong. 835-837 Washington St., (415) 982-8722.