Chinatown, San Francisco facts for kids
Quick facts for kids
Chinatown businesses line Jackson Street, with the Bay Bridge in the background.
| • Estimate
|Time zone||UTC−8 (Pacific)|
|• Summer (DST)||UTC−7 (PDT)|
94108, 94133, 94102, 94111, 94109
The Chinatown centered on Grant Avenue and Stockton Street in San Francisco, California, (Chinese: 唐人街; Mandarin Pinyin: tángrénjiē; Jyutping: tong4 jan4 gaai1) is the oldest Chinatown in North America and one of the largest Chinese enclaves outside Asia. It is also the oldest and largest of the four notable Chinese enclaves within San Francisco. Since its establishment in 1848, it has been important and influential in the history and culture of ethnic Chinese immigrants in North America. Chinatown is an enclave that has retained its own customs, languages, places of worship, social clubs, and identity. There are two hospitals, several parks and squares, numerous churches, a post office, and other infrastructure. Recent immigrants, many of whom are elderly, opt to live in Chinatown because of the availability of affordable housing and their familiarity with the culture. San Francisco's Chinatown is also renowned as a major tourist attraction, drawing more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge.
Geography and location
Chinatown has been traditionally defined by the neighborhoods of North Beach, and Telegraph Hill areas as bound by Bush Street, Taylor Street, Bay Street, and the water. Officially, Chinatown is located in downtown San Francisco, covers 24 square blocks, and overlaps two postal ZIP codes (94108 and 94133). It is within an area of roughly a half mile long by a quarter mile wide with the current boundaries being Kearney Street in the east, Broadway in the north, Powell Street in the west, and Bush Street in the south.
Within Chinatown there are two major thoroughfares. One is Grant Avenue (都板街), with the Dragon Gate ("Chinatown Gate" on some maps) at the intersection of Bush Street and Grant Avenue; St. Mary's Square with a statue of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen by Benjamin Bufano; a war memorial to Chinese war veterans; and stores, restaurants and mini-malls that cater mainly to tourists. The other, Stockton Street (市德頓街), is frequented less often by tourists, and it presents an authentic Chinese look and feel reminiscent of Hong Kong, with its produce and fish markets, stores, and restaurants. It is dominated by mixed-use buildings that are three to four stories high, with shops on the ground floor and residential apartments upstairs.
A major focal point in Chinatown is Portsmouth Square. Since it is one of the few open spaces in Chinatown and sits above a large underground parking lot, Portsmouth Square bustles with activity such as T'ai Chi and old men playing Chinese chess. A replica of the Goddess of Democracy used in the Tiananmen Square protest was built in 1999 by Thomas Marsh and stands in the square. It is made of bronze and weighs approximately 600 lb (270 kg).
According to the San Francisco Planning Department, Chinatown is "the most densely populated urban area west of Manhattan", with 15,000 residents living in 20 square blocks. In the 1970s, the population density in Chinatown was seven times the San Francisco average.
During the time from 2009 to 2013, the median household income was $20,000 – compared to $76,000 citywide – with 29% of residents below the national poverty threshold. The median age was 50 years, the oldest of any neighborhood. As of 2015, two thirds of the residents lived in one of Chinatown's 105 single room occupancy hotels (SRO), 96 of which had private owners and nine were owned by nonprofits. There are two public housing projects in Chinatown, Ping Yuen and North Ping Yuen.
Most residents are monolingual speakers of mutually unintelligible dialects of the Chinese language: historically Hoisanese, now Cantonese and some Mandarin. In 2015, only 14% of households in the SROs were headed by a person that spoke English fluently. The areas of Stockton and Washington Streets and Jackson and Kearny Streets in Chinatown are almost entirely Chinese or Asian, with blocks ranging from 93% to 100% Asian. According to a study by the San Francisco Planning Department in 2018, 81% of the residents in the neighborhood were Asian.
Working-class Hongkonger immigrants began arriving in large numbers in the late 1960s. Despite their status and professional qualifications in Hong Kong, many took low-paying employment in restaurants and garment factories in Chinatown because of limited English. An increase in Cantonese-speaking immigrants from Hong Kong and Mainland China has gradually led to the replacement in Chinatown of the Hoisanese dialect by the standard Cantonese dialect.
Due to such overcrowding and poverty, other Chinese areas have been established within the city of San Francisco proper, including one in its Richmond and three more in its Sunset districts, as well as a recently established one in the Visitacion Valley neighborhood. These outer neighborhoods have been settled largely by Chinese from Southeast Asia. There are also many suburban Chinese communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, especially in Silicon Valley, such as Cupertino, Fremont, and Milpitas, where many Mandarin-speaking Taiwanese Americans settled. Despite these developments, many continue to commute in from these outer neighborhoods and cities to shop in Chinatown, causing gridlock on roads and delays in public transit, especially on weekends. To address this problem, the local public transit agency, Muni, is planning to extend the city's subway network to the neighborhood via the new Central Subway.
Unlike in most Chinatowns in the United States, ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam have not established businesses in San Francisco's Chinatown district, due to high property values and rents. Instead, many Chinese-Vietnamese – as opposed to ethnic Vietnamese who tended to congregate in larger numbers in San Jose – have established a separate Vietnamese enclave on Larkin Street in the heavily working-class Tenderloin district of San Francisco, where it is now known as the city's "Little Saigon".
San Francisco's Chinatown was the port of entry for early Hoisanese and Zhongshanese Chinese immigrants from the Guangdong province of southern China from the 1850s to the 1900s. The area was the one geographical region deeded by the city government and private property owners which allowed Chinese persons to inherit and inhabit dwellings within the city. The majority of these Chinese shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and hired workers in San Francisco Chinatown were predominantly Hoisanese and male. Many Chinese found jobs working for large companies seeking a source of labor, most famously as part of the Central Pacific on the Transcontinental Railroad. Other early immigrants worked as mine workers or independent prospectors hoping to strike it rich during the 1849 Gold Rush.
1870s to the 1906 earthquake
With nationwide unemployment in the wake of the Panic of 1873, racial tensions in the city boiled over into full blown race riots. In response to the violence, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, also known as the Chinese Six Companies, which evolved out of the labor recruiting organizations for different areas of Guangdong, was created to provide the community with a unified voice. The heads of these companies advocated for the Chinese community to the wider business community as a whole and to the city government.
Anti-immigrant sentiment became law as the United States Government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—the first immigration restriction law aimed at a single ethnic group. This law, along with other immigration restriction laws such as the Geary Act, greatly reduced the numbers of Chinese allowed into the country and the city, and in theory limited Chinese immigration to single males only. Exceptions were in fact granted to the families of wealthy merchants, but the law was still enough to reduce the population of the neighborhood to an all-time low in the 1920s. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed during World War II by the Magnuson Act in recognition of the important role of China as an ally in the war, but tight quotas still applied.
As in much of San Francisco, a period of criminality ensued in some tongs based on smuggling and gambling. By the early 1880s, the population had adopted the term Tong war to describe periods of violence in Chinatown and the San Francisco Police Department had established its so-called Chinatown Squad. One of the more successful sergeants, Jack Manion, was appointed in 1921 and served for two decades. The squad was finally disbanded in August 1955 by Police Chief George Healey, upon the request of the influential Chinese World newspaper, which had editorialized that the squad was an "affront to Americans of Chinese descent".
In March 1900, a Chinese-born man who was a long-time resident of Chinatown was found dead of bubonic plague. The next morning, all of Chinatown was quarantined, with policemen preventing "Asiatics" (people of Asian heritage) from either entering or leaving. The San Francisco Board of Health began looking for more cases of plague and began burning personal property and sanitizing buildings, streets and sewers within Chinatown. Chinese Americans protested and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association threatened lawsuits.
The quarantine was lifted but the burning and fumigating continued. A federal court ruled that public health officials could not close off Chinatown without any proof that Chinese Americans were any more susceptible to plague than Anglo Americans. However, the delays caused by the political infighting probably allowed the plague to spread, and gave the plague its first foothold in North America. The four-year death toll of the plague was 113 people, almost all from a ten-block area of Chinatown.
1906 to the 1960s
The Chinatown neighborhood was completely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake that leveled most of the city.
As the city rebuilt afterwards, certain city officials and real-estate developers hatched plans to move Chinatown to the Hunters Point neighborhood at the southern edge of the city, or even further south to Daly City. Abe Ruef, the political boss widely considered to be the power behind Mayor Eugene Schmitz, invited himself to become part of the Committee of Fifty and formed an additional Subcommittee on Relocating the Chinese, because he felt the land was too valuable for Chinese. Opposition arose, however, from politicians who feared that the removal of the Chinese would affect San Francisco's lucrative oriental trade. Moreover, the government of China was also opposed, and soon after the earthquake, the first secretary of the Chinese legation in Washington, DC, arrived in San Francisco, conveying to California governor George Pardee, the opposition of China's Empress Dowager Cixi to the plan. Ironically, these plans failed in the end because restrictive housing covenants in other areas of the city prohibited Chinese from settling.
When the earthquake destroyed Chinatown's wooden tenements, it also dealt a death blow to the tongs. Criminal tongs continued on until the 1920s, but after the earthquake legitimate Chinese merchants and a more capable police force under Jack Manion gained the upper hand.
The famous Sam Wo restaurant opened in 1912.
During the Great Depression, a bunch of nightclubs and cocktail bars started business located in Chinatown. The nightclub Forbidden City, located at 369 Sutter Street in Chinatown and run by Charlie Low, became one of the most famous entertainment places in San Francisco. During its time in business from the late 1930s to the late 1950s, the Forbidden City gained an international reputation with its unique showcase of exotic oriental performance from Chinese American performers. Another popular club for tourists and LGBT clients was Li Po, which, like Forbidden City, combined western entertainment with "Oriental" culture. It was advertised in a 1939 tourism guide book as a "jovial and informal Chinatown cocktail lounge".
Many early Chinese immigrants to San Francisco and beyond were processed at Angel Island, in the San Francisco Bay, which is now a state park. Unlike Ellis Island on the east coast where prospective European immigrants might be held for up to a week, Angel Island typically detained Chinese immigrants for months while they were interrogated closely to validate their papers. The detention facility was renovated in 2005 and 2006 under a federal grant.
The repeal of the Exclusion Act and the other immigration restriction laws, in conjunction with passage of the War Brides Act, allowed Chinese-American veterans to bring their families outside of national quotas and led to a major population boom in the area during the 1950s.
Frank Wong dioramas
San Francisco artist Frank Wong created miniature dioramas that depict Chinatown during the 1930s and 1940s. In 2004, Wong donated seven miniatures of scenes of Chinatown, titled "The Chinatown Miniatures Collection," to the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA). The dioramas are on permanent display in CHSA’s Main Gallery.
In the 1960s, the shifting of underutilized national immigration quotas brought in another huge wave of immigrants, mostly from Hong Kong. This changed San Francisco Chinatown from predominantly Say Yip Wah(Cantonese sub-dialect of Hoisan and 3 other towns)-speaking to Sam Yip Wah(major Cantonese)-speaking. During the same decade, many stores moved from Grant Avenue to Stockton Street, drawn by lower rents and the better transportation enabled by the 30-Stockton Muni trolleybus line.
There were areas where many Chinese in Northern California living outside of San Francisco Chinatown could maintain small communities or individual businesses, but except for in Oakland, they did not set up any special town with shopping and restaurants.
San Francisco's Chinatown is home to the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (known as the Chinese Six Companies), which is the umbrella organization for local Chinese family and regional associations in Chinatown. It has spawned lodges in other Chinatowns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Chinatown, Los Angeles and Chinatown, Portland.
The Chinese Culture Center is a community based non-profit organization located on the third floor of a Holiday Inn. The Center promotes exhibitions about Chinese life in the United States and organizes tours of the area. The Chinese Historical Society of America is located on Clay.
Since the 1950s, a number of Chinese-American leaders organized the San Francisco Chinese New Year Festival and Parade, including art shows, street dances, martial arts, music, and a fashion show. In 1954, the parade added beauty queens to this annual ritual, which by 1958 had been formally expanded into the pageant of "Miss Chinatown U.S.A". In 1994, around 120 queer Asian Americans joined the annual parade, which was the first time that Asian American queer community had appeared in public and gained acceptance from Chinese-American society.
San Francisco Chinatown's annual Autumn Moon Festival celebrates seasonal change and the opportunity to give thanks to a bountiful summer harvest. The Moon Festival is popularly celebrated throughout China and surrounding countries each year, with local bazaars, entertainment, and mooncakes, the pastry filled with sweet bean paste and egg. The festival is held each year during mid-September, and is free to the public.
Chinatown is frequently the venue of traditional Chinese funeral processions, where a marching band (playing Western songs such as Nearer, My God, to Thee) takes the street with a motorcycle escort. The band is followed by a car displaying an image of the deceased (akin to the Chinese custom of parading a scroll with his or her name through the village), and the hearse and the mourners, who then usually travel to Colma south of San Francisco for the actual funeral. By union regulation, the procession route starts at the Green Street Mortuary proceeding on Stockton Street for six blocks and back on Grant Avenue, taking about one hour.
Chinatown Community Development Center
Chinatown Community Development Center is an organization formed in 1977 after the merger of the Chinatown Resource center and the Chinese Community Housing Corporation. The organization was started by Gordon Chin, who served as Executive Director since 1977 until he was succeeded by the organization's Deputy Director Rev. Norman Fong on October 1, 2011. The organization advocates and provides services to San Francisco's Chinatown. They have also started many groups, Adopt-An-Alleyway Youth Empowerment Project being the most notable, and have been involved with many tenant programs.
San Francisco Chinatown restaurants are considered to be the birthplace of Westernized Chinese cuisine such as food items like Chop Suey while introducing and popularizing Dim Sum to Western and American tastes, as its Dim Sum tea houses are a major tourist attraction. Johnny Kan was the proprietor of one of the first modern style Chinese restaurants, which opened in 1953. Many of the district's restaurants have been featured in food television programs on Chinese cuisine such as Martin Yan's Martin Yan - Quick & Easy.
Chinatown has served as a backdrop for several movies, television shows, plays and documentaries including The Maltese Falcon, Big Trouble in Little China, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Presidio, Flower Drum Song, The Dead Pool, and Godzilla.
Noted Chinese American writers grew up there such as Russell Leong, and Amy Tan whose experiences growing up in the neighborhood formed the basis of her book The Joy Luck Club and the subsequent film. Notable 1940s basketball player Willie "Woo Woo" Wong, who excelled in local schools, college and professional teams, was born in, and grew up playing basketball in, Chinatown; a local playground bears his name. Actor Bruce Lee, who was born at San Francisco Chinese Hospital before moving back to Hong Kong three months later, returned to the United States at the age of eighteen, residing in San Francisco's Chinatown for the first few months before moving to Seattle.
San Francisco cable cars have long served areas of Chinatown; the modern system serves the southern (along California Street) and western (along Powell Street) sections of the neighborhood.
The Stockton Street Tunnel was completed in 1914 and brought San Francisco Municipal Railway Streetcar service to Stockton Street. After the tracks were removed, the overhead wires were maintained and buses replaced streetcars along the route. The 30 Stockton and 45 Union-Stockton are among the most heavily ridden lines in the system. Modern rail service will return at Chinatown station upon completion of the Central Subway.
The Broadway Tunnel was completed in 1952 and was intended to serve as a connection between the Embarcadero Freeway and the Central Freeway. These plans did not materialize due to the highway revolts at the time. The tunnel currently serves to connect Chinatown with Russian Hill and Van Ness Avenue to the west.
In the 1980s, Chinatown merchants were opposed to the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway, but these objections were overturned after it was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, activist Rose Pak then "almost single-handedly persuaded the city to build" the $1.5 billion Central Subway project to compensate Chinatown for the demolition of the freeway.
The 49-Mile Scenic Drive is routed through Chinatown, with particular attention paid to the corner of Grant and Clay.
Images for kids
Sacramento St.; 唐人街: literally "Tang people street"
Chinatown, San Francisco Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.