Chinatown is the quickest trip you will ever make to Hong Kong’s present and past. A residential area includes authentic markets and fantastic / inexpensive restaurants. Parking here is particularly unavailable so consider taxi’s & buses. You can enjoy a great (& filling!) meal in a Chinatown restaurant and purchase imported wares. Take a trip to the Far East in Chinatown!
The Underground traveler’s scam is go to to the alternative, smaller, and cooler “New Chinatown” at 5th Avenue and Clement Street. You will have to take a bus or taxi here as it’s about 3 miles from the main tourist areas. A very good alternative to the overcrowded real Chinatown as I will now discuss…
This place can be a bit of a shock as the smells of garbage and food are pungent in the sometimes dirty alleyways. You will see animals is their natural state, rather than the McDonald’s way of food presentation. This can be surprising to some visitors. It is also very crowded. Still, a worthwhile short experience…
There are a variety of shady activities that go on in Chinatown’s own underground. The park near the Washington Street Parking is a hot spot for games and a little gambling for Chinatown’s citizens.
Worth about 1-2 hours of your time; good to combine with a walk through North Beach’s nearby Italian section.
Being the largest of it’s kind in the United States, Chinatown is always on the list of things to do when coming to San Francisco.
Chinatown became established in the mid 1800’s when there was a large boom in Chinese immigration to the United States. The political and social conditions in China were volatile during that time, so the Chinese flooded to the United States. Most entered as laborers and went to work on the railroad system, while others were drawn by the gold being discovered in California and became miners. At the time, the bay came up as far as Montgomery Street, so the location of Chinatown was the port of entry for the bulk of those immigrants. Due to strict laws that were passed in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Chinese immigration was severely halted and only allowed a few select people to enter the country. Most of those laws were repealed much later in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and Chinese immigration grew once again.
The current look of Chinatown came after the 1906 earthquake. Because Chinatown at the time of the quake was mostly wooden shacks, the area was almost completely demolished. The powers that be at the time wanted to move the location of Chinatown so that area could be absorbed by the richer surrounding neighborhoods, but after much deliberation and debate, Chinatown was rebuilt in it’s original location. This time it was built to be a tourist attraction though, and was rebuilt to attract western tourists. Though some of the architecture may not be true Chinese, the food, culture and people continue to bring authenticity back to the area.
Chinatown is located in the heart of the city bordered by Kearny and the Financial District to the East, Powell Street and Nob Hill to the West, Columbus and North Beach the North and Bush and Union Square to the South. The two main streets of interest are Grant and Stockton. Grant is more for the tourists, as the streets are lined with all kinds of shops and restaurants, and banners and lanterns usually are draped across the road. On Stockton you’ll get more of the local flavor, as the streets are lined with authentic Chinese food markets where locals go to do their shopping. If you go during the busy time, the streets are crowded with throngs of people all carrying pink bags from the local vendors.
There is actually quite a bit to see if you have the time to wander the streets. You’ll want to stray off the two main roads to see some of the alleys throughout Chinatown. A few that are particularly interesting are Waverly Place, Spofford Alley, which is lined with various Chinese associations and social clubs, as well as Ross Alley, home to the Golden Gate Cookie Factory. There are other fortune cookie factories in the city, but the Golden Gate Cookie Factory was established in 1962 and still makes 20,0000 cookies a day by hand the old fashioned way.
Others spots of interest include Old St. Mary’s Cathedral on California, that was built in 1854. I would also suggest wandering through Portsmouth Square, as it has been home to many events in San Francisco history. It was on the square, that Captain John B. Montgomery first raised the American flag to signify his capture of the city. Many of the events that have taken place here are acknowledged in various markers throughout the square. For a photo opportunity, you’ll want to get a shot of the Chinatown Gateway located at the Grant Avenue and Bush Street intersection. The gateway was built in 1970, and carries a quote by Dr. Sun Yat-sen saying, ’All under heaven is for the good of the people’.
For the art lovers, Chinatown is not without art galleries which include the Kee Fung Ng Gallery, Shakris Fine Asian Works of Art and Stylers Art Gallery.Here you can see authentic Chinese artwork, sculpture and crafts as you wander the streets.
For the full Chinatown experience, I would stop by The Chinese Historical Society of America and the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco. The Chinese Historical Society is located at 965 Clay Street, and can be reached at (415)391-1188. The Chinese Culture Center in located at 750 Kearny on the third floor and can be reached at (415)986-1822. Both Centers offer information and events dedicated to preserving the Chinese culture and art. Both also offer walking tours of Chinatown, and can provide visitors information about the area.
For the traditional tourist that is going to Chinatown to eat and shop, you won’t be disappointed. If you want souvenirs, you’ll find it there. The most concentrated area for souvenirs and knickknacks is near the Chinatown gate on Grant Street, but you’ll see more as you walk the streets.
For some of the finer and more specialized shops that showcase more true Chinese creations you may want to visit some of the following:
Bonsai Villa ’ 825 Clay
Chinatown Kite Shop ’ 717 Grant
Clarion Music Center ’ 816 Sacramento
Contemporary Art & Glass Incorporated ’ 607 Grant
Dragon House ’ 455 Grant Ave
Eastwind Books & Arts ’ 1435 Stockton
Han Place Antiques & Art Center ’ 1201 Powell
Jefer Trading Company ’ 535 Grant
Man Hing Imports ’ 839-843 Grant
Peter Pap Oriental Rugs ’ 470 Jackson
Salve Regina Books & Gifts ’ 728 Pacific Ave. #115
The Wok Shop ’ 718 Grant
Because the Chinese are known for specializing in natural herbs and teas, you may want to make a stop at some of the many herb or tea shops. Some of the more popular one include:
Imperial Tea Court ’ 1411 Powell
Great China Herb Co. ’ 857 Washington
Superior Trading Company ’ 837 Washington
It would be hard to go to Chinatown and not stop in at one of it’s many restaurants. As you walk the streets you’ll be bombarded by people handing you menus and urging you to try their restaurants.
Dim Sum Restaurants:
Great Eastern ’ 649 Jackson
Hang Ah Tea Room ’ 1 Pagoda
Lichee Garden ’ 1416 Powell
New Asia ’ 772 Pacific
Y. Ben House ’ 835 Pacific
Affordable, Recommended Chinese Restaurants:
Chef Jia’s ’ 925 Kearny
Gold Mountain ’ 644 Broadway
Henry Chung’s Hunan ’ 674 Sacramento
House of Nanking ’ 919 Kearny
Hunan Home’s Restaurant ’ 622 Jackson
Kam Po Kitchen ’ 801 Broadway
Yuet Lee ’ 1300 Stockton
Formal Chinese Restaurants:
Empress of China ’ 838 Grant
Great Eastern Restaurant ’ 649 Jackson
Jai Yun ’ 923 Pacific
Tommy Toys ’ 655 Montgomery
Chinatown also has quite a few special events that occur at various times of the year. If you are in town for the Chinese New Year, there are lots of events to keep you busy. The Chinese New Year Flower Fair is held the weekend before the parade, showcasing not only flowers, but also traditional Chinese dancing and music.
Voted one of the top ten best parades in the world, if you are in town you should not miss the Chinese New Year parade. Along with the parade, the Chinatown Community Street Fair occurs on the same weekend, and includes food, arts, crafts and various other traditional Chinese fair.
Other events are held closer to the end of the year, including the Annual Autumn Moon Festival held in September, and the Chinatown Night Market Fair, that generally runs from October to December. Because there are always things going on, you can contact the aforementioned Chinese Culture Society or the Historical Society for a list of current events.
Having gone through Chinatown quite a few times, I think one of the best ways to get the most out of Chinatown is to take one of the many tours offered.As I said before, the culture and historical centers offer tours, but I also found great tours through Alcatraz San Francisco. Along with offering tours of Alcatraz, of course, they also provide twelve different types of tours of Chinatown. Some are just general walking tours, but most include food and one even includes an hour on a bay cruise. The tours will walk you through most of Chinatown giving you history as well as pointing to some of the local areas of interest. The only drawback, is they can be expensive because meals are included, and many of them require you have a minimum of 6 persons in your group. You can call 800-410-8233 to get more information or to make a reservation.
Because of Chinatown’s location, it is very easy to get to. There are a number of bus lines that go directly through Chinatown, including the 30 and 45 lines. For the full tourist experience, the cable car is also an option. The California Line stops in the heart of Chinatown at California and Grant. The Powell line stops at Powell and California, so you only have to walk a couple of blocks to get there.
If you’re driving and want to park in or very near Chinatown, your best bets are either the Bush/Stockton Garage on Bush and Stockton above the Stockton Tunnel or the Portsmouth Square Garage on Kearny. The Portsmouth Square Garage puts you right in the middle of Chinatown, but often fills up quickly due to it’s location near the Financial District. The Bush/Stockton Garage puts you almost right in front of the Chinatown Gate which is good for walking in, but is not centrally located. Your best bet – particularly in this area – is a San Francisco taxi that can drop you off cheaply and avoid the parking hassles.
By: Colleen Kelly, Copyright SFTRAVEL LLC