Who saw one Chinatown in America has seen them all.
I saw many, but this one was my favorite. Small, clean, nice smell (well... not so bad!), some beautiful buidings, and as expected, chinese goods at almost chinese prices. And,as we met winter being prepared for summer, a chinese coat was welcome.
There is actually is two Chinatowns in San Francisco, the Old but touristy Chinatown here at Grant Street and the New Chinatown at Inner Richmond at Clement Street: Clement Street is the one belongs to the locals, the other in Grant Street charms the tourists. They overlap and dance with each other but the Chinatown in Downtown drawing more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge. It is only Surpassed by the Fisherman's Wharf.
Why the popularity? Because visitors expect something they won't find anywhere else. They expect to be stunned and enchanted and stuffed with great food. And they will. You don't need an itinerary to tackle Chinatown. Wandering aimlessly, weaving between locals and ducking into shops is enough of a plan. Main Street for tourists is Grant Avenue, which is more about cheap and kitschy plastic Buddhas than the long heritage of Chinatown. It should definitely be seen, but moving on to the next block can be more rewarding.
Chinatown is located in downtown San Francisco. It is roughly bordered by Powell Street and the Nob Hill District on the west. On the east is Kearny Street and The City's Financial District. On the north is North Beach and Green Street and Columbus Street. On the south is Bush Street and the Union Square area.
Within Chinatown there are two major thoroughfares. One is Grant Avenue, with the famous Dragon gate on the corner of Bush Street and Grant Avenue; St. Mary's Park that boasts a statue of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen; a war memorial to Chinese war veterans; and a plethora of stores, restaurants and mini-malls that cater mainly to tourists. The other, Stockton Street, 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. Chinatown boasts smaller side streets and alleyways that also provide an authentic character. Another major focal point in Chinatown is Portsmouth Square. Due to its being one of the few open spaces in Chinatown, Portsmouth Square bustles with activity such as Tai 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.
The city of San Francisco defines an alley as a thoroughfare whose width is narrower than 32 feet, and Chinatown has many of these.
Chinatown Alleyway Tours, sponsored by a non-profit group and led by enthusiastic Asian American students with personal ties to Chinatown, will lead you through the back alleys of Chinatown and give you a different historical and cultural perspective on one of the major tourist areas of the city.
Among many other things, you'll learn the three different names for each alley, what the metal octagons on brick buildings mean, how the alleys are being reclaimed and rejuvenated by the Chinatown Community Development Center , and why the project has chosen the legendary Monkey King as its symbol. You'll take a quick peek into a fortune cookie factory, hear about 19th century missionary Donaldina Cameron's efforts to rescue Chinese "slave girls," and how a 20th century residence hotel found itself embroiled in political controversy.
In Chinatown, you can always expect the unexpected. When we took the tour, we heard the elderly musician featured in "The Pursuit of Happyness" play his erhu, watched costumed drummers and colorful lion dancers rehearse in the street, and saw a Chinese funeral procession pass by.
I highly recommend taking this tour. I've lived in the Bay Area for all of my adult life and am no stranger to either SF Chinatown or its history, but I came away feeling enriched and enlightened. The personal connection you make with your tour guide is a special plus (thank you, Diana!), and I like the fact that my money is not lining some random tour operator's pocket but instead, is contributing to the ongoing improvement of Chinatown.
Saturdays and Sundays, 11:00, by reservation only, at least 5 days in advance - see website for pricing and other info.
Note: this is a two-hour walking tour that wanders up and down San Francisco hills, so participants should be in good physical condition. Wear comfortable walking shoes with non-slip soles.
The Gateway to Chinatown is a large gate at the southern entrance to Chinatown. The Gate was built in 1970 and is inscribed with a saying by Dr. Sun Yat-sen "All under heaven is for the good of the people."
San Francisco Chinatown is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia . It is also the oldest Chinatown in North America. A trip to SF isn't complete without a visit to Chinatown and its array of shops, restaurants and attractions.
Our last visit to Chinatown was during Winter 2011. My wife and i had an amazing lunch at the R&G Lounge. We feated on some of their Salt & Pepper Dungeness Crab and S&P Prawns. The crab was amazing and I think it is a must try when visiting Chinatown.
After we had checked into our hotel and walked 2 block up California to tour Grace Cathedral out next venture was to start walking down toward the wharf area past Chinatown. It was a beautiful sunny Sunday and when we entered Chinatown the town was just buzzing with activity not of tourist, but the Chinese community.
We walked through a couple of the streets and then happened upon Portsmouth Square Plaza between Washington and Clay Streets. This is where the real action was. Most of the pictures from Chinatown this day were taken in the park. There were a number of different card games going with both women and men. They were segregated groups and while you could see the women's game going on up close there were so many men around the men card games you really couldn't get close enough to see what was being wagered in each game.
They also had a live band playing traditional Chinese music. A few days later we went back through the same area and it was very quiet as the men and women who were there on Sunday enjoying there day off were I'm sure hard at work.
So my advice is if you really want to get a good flavor for what Chinatown is all about venture a little bit off the beaten path were all the stores catering to tourist are and go the parks and churches in the area where the "real" community works and plays.
Chinatown is a great tourist destination, just keep your money in your pockets, you do not need to spend that much money in Chinatown SF to have a great time. Some places i recommend going to in chinatown are, the kite shop, if you like weapons, the weaponry stores, and some of the nick-nack shops. Places i do not recommend: the fortune cookie factory, junk shops, some of the food. The main reason to not like Chinatown is the smell. It is a little repulsive, but you get used to it after a while. I hope this helps.
Chinatown in San Fran is the oldest in North America and has the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. The Chinese community, local San Franciscans and tourists give the area its bustle and charm. Spend a full day roaming its streets and see the lovely architecture and the pagoda roofs, similar to authentic Chinese pagodas, which lend to its appeal. Grant Ave. and Bush Street is where you'll find the famous Dragon Gate. Visit Portsmouth Square, where you'll see many Chinese locals performing Tai Chi or playing Chinese checkers. Take a walk down Stockton Street which isn't frequented as much by tourists. Here it presents a feel reminiscent to Hong Kong with many produce and fish markets. Maybe you'll get lucky on your visit to Chinatown and catch a dragon parade, there are many throughout the year.
The boundaries of Chinatown include Columbus Ave.and the financial district in the east, Union Street and North Beach to the north, Bush Street and Union Square to the south and the San Francisco Bay to the west.
The majority of businesses are shops selling souvenirs and restaurants and many are quite inexpensive. There are also quite a few herbal shops and I even saw a couple of massage parlors.
Take a wander through the park, back streets and alleys for a taste of where the Chinese community lives, shops and socializes. This is not Grant Avenue, with its wall-to-wall souvenir shops and tourist-mobbed sidewalks, but dim little corridors of commerce - and long-ago prostitution, opium and gambling dens. Much of today's Chinatown is elderly and poor, the younger generation gradually migrating to the suburbs, and many live in single-room tenements above street- level shops and markets. Above your head is a clutter of fire escapes and laundry, and through open windows and doorways is the clatter of countless mahjong games. You'll pass by tiny groceries, herbalists, tea rooms, restaurants, fraternal halls, temples and even a fortune cookie factory.
Portsmouth Square is to this community what the piazza is to Italians. Once a Spanish plaza, this green space above a massive, underground parking garage is the gathering spot for grandfathers to throw games of dice, grandmothers to stretch though morning tai chi exercises, children to run the playground and others to just chat in the sunshine. You might run into a festival or flea market here and it's a fun spot for watching the activity over a take-away dim sum lunch.
Alleys/backstreets: see website for complete list but a good walk is to head north on Hang Ah St. at Stockton, jog 1/2 block right to Spofford St. at Clay, and another small jog right at Washington to Ross Alley. Also the 2 blocks of Waverly Place - next block east of Hang Ah.
Portsmouth Square: corner of Clay and Kearny or Kearny and Washington.
It's the largest and oldest Chinese community in the US. It has a fascinating past. It's usually the first thing many visitors want to see. And you should see it - at least once. With all due respect to the culture and valuable contributions to San Francisco history though, it's just not my favorite cup of oolong. On this fourth trip to the city I gave it another shot and detoured off the main drag into the back alleys where it was rumored that "real" Chinatown could be found. That was interesting - will follow this up with more on that.
So what's not to love? I find it just too insanely crowded, cluttered, noisy and overloaded with shops hawking cheap, mass-produced tchotchkes (what IS it with the weird Waving Cats??!!), t-shirts and electronics.
What makes a trip worth the shoe leather? Interesting architecture (although essentially created for the tourists), temples, a handful of better stores, a stroll through a few of the Chinese groceries (love those piles of neon-hued candies), some great bakeries and tea shops, and maybe a stop for dim sum. I also think you'll find your experience much richer if you do some background reading before you go - it's the heritage of this resilient, hard-working community that is its claim to fame.
Children will love the all the bright colors and you can pick up an inexpensive toy here for the grandkids at home (fun kites!) but maneuvering strollers through the hordes of people and displays clogging the sidewalks can be a real challenge. Do get off Grant Avenue and into some of the lesser-traveled corners (try Waverly Place) to find a little breathing room and less of the tourist junk.
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