San Francisco’s Chinatown, with a start date of 1848, is the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest Chinese community outside Asia. Chinatown is the most densely populated neighborhood in the city and its streets and narrow alleys are a tightly packed menagerie of buildings with small stores selling everything from groceries to souvenirs. Chinatown retains its customs, languages, places of worship, social clubs, and identity. It has developed its own government and carries on as a “city-within-a-city.”
While San Francisco today might seem unimaginable without Chinatown, its residents were forced to fight for the ground several times since its foundation. In the wake of rampant unemployment in the wake of the Panic of 1873 racial tensions in San Francisco flared into full-blown race riots. In response to the violence, the Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Association or the Chinese Six Companies was created as a means of providing the community with a unified voice. One of their first battles was over immigration quotas when the United States government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first of several odious laws targeting the Chinese.
In the rebuilding effort after the 1906 Earthquake city officials saw an opportunity to ship the Chinese to the southern fringes of the city. The Chinese Six Companies thwarted the plan, mostly by agreeing to transform the neighborhood into a westernized tourist attraction. It is that vision of Chinatown that endures today.
Chinatown has captured the popular imagination. Bruce Lee was born here; chop suey was popularized here; Humphrey Bogart solved the intricacies of the Maltese Falcon here. Our walking tour of Chinatown will find temples, fortune cookies and several buildings by one of the most famous women architects in America and it will all start in an open space oft times referred to as “the Heart of Chinatown”...
bounded by Kearny Street on the east, Washington Street on the north, Clay Street on the south, and Walter Lum Place on the west
Portsmouth Square could easily be called the “Square of Firsts;” instead it carries the name of the warship the USS Portsmouth, commanded by Captain John Berrien Montgomery during the Mexican-American War. The plaza was the first public square established in the early 19th century in the Mexican community of Yerba Buena, whose name was changed to San Francisco in 1847. Montgomery first raised the American flag near the Mexican adobe custom house on the plaza on July 9, 1846. The community’s first public school building was erected on the southwest corner of the plaza in 1847 where religious services and many public meeting were held. The Clay Street Hill Railroad Company launched the world’s first cable-propelled street cars here in 1873. And so on. Markers remember these and other events and there is a monument to author Robert Louis Stevenson who spent many an hour in the park during a visit in 1879. Portsmouth Square sits atop a four-level underground parking garage.
WALK OVER TO THE NORTH SIDE OF THE SQUARE AT WASHINGTON STREET.
Buddha’s Universal Church
720 Washington Street
This is the largest Buddhist church in the United States and home to the largest congregation in the City. Dedicated in 1963, the church was constructed on the site of a former night club with concrete, steel, marble and wood and then filled with images of the Buddha formed in gold leaf and mosaic tiles.
TURN LEFT AND WALK UP WASHINGTON STREET.
Chinese Telephone Exchange Company/United Commercial Bank
843 Washington Street
In the 1890s the Chinese Telephone Exchange Company became the only foreign language telephone exchange in the United States. A small switchboard was set up here to implement the telephone system, fraught with special challenges for the operators. In Chinese custom it was considered rude to refer to people by numbers so the operators were required to know each of the 2,000 subscribers by name to route calls. And since many had the same name, the operators had to memorize residences and occupations to make the correct connections. On top of that, it was necessary to speak five different dialects of Chinese and know English as well. The Chinatown Telephone Exchange, “China-5,” was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and rebuilt in blue, gold and vibrant red in 1909. The exchange operated until 1949 when rotary dial telephones were introduced. The building was restored by the Bank of Canton in 1960 and has spent the past half-century doing duty as a bank.
CONTINUE ACROSS GRANT AVENUE AND TURN RIGHT TO WALK INTO TINY ROSS ALLEY.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
56 Ross Alley
This is the only place in San Francisco where fortune cookies are still made by hand the old-fashioned way, as they have been here since 1962. Two ladies turn out 20,000 fortune cookies a day from motorized circular griddles. A bag of 40 runs $3 and if you want to snap a photograph of the operation you are politely asked for 50 cents.
RETURN TO WASHINGTON STREET AND TURN RIGHT, CONTINUING ACROSS STOCKTON STREET.
Gum Moon Women’s Residence
940 Washington Street
So many Chinese men came to America to supply cheap labor in the 1850s that the ratio of Chinese men to Chinese women in San Francisco was one female per 1,685 men. Unscrupulous businessmen saw a moneymaking opportunity in the Chinese community and recruited women from China, promising marriage to wealthy American merchants. Others abducted guileless Chinese women. Either way, an easy life was not awaiting these women in America. It is estimated that prostitution employed 90% of all Chinese females who lived in San Francisco in the 1870s. In response, the first Methodist mission for the Chinese was started in 1868 by Reverend Otis Gibson at 916 Washington Street. He painted his doorbell white so it would be easy to find for those in distress. On October 29, 1870 Gibson and his wife formed the Women’s Missionary Society of the Pacific Coast to work among the slave girls in Chinatown. In 1893, they were able to buy their own home known as the Oriental Home and School next door at 912 Washington. After the Earthquake of 1906, celebrated architect Julia Morgan designed this brick building for the mission. In the 1930s the Oriental Home and School was renamed Gum Moon, literally translating from Cantonese as the “Golden Door.” It continues to serve as a refuge for women today.
WALK BACK DOWN WASHINGTON STREET TO STOCKTON STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
Presbyterian Church in Chinatown
925 Stockton Street
Founded in 1853, the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown is the oldest Asian American Christian congregation in North America. Designated a “foreign mission” by the Presbyterian denomination, the church opened its doors on November 6, 1853 with four members under the leadership of the Reverend Dr. William Speer. The church supports three congregations - Mandarin, Cantonese and English.
Kong Chow Temple
855 Stockton Street at southwest corner of Washington Street
The traditional Oriental trappings that once graced this facade have been stripped away making the building appear more like the Chinatown Post Office that operates here but inside the red, green and gold altars are among the most colorful in the City. This Taoist temple was founded in 1857.
Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association
843 Stockton Street
The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association was a name given to organizations formed in the 19th century in cities with large Chinese populations to help navigate everyday American life. That could take the form of internal dispute resolution, battling anti-Chinese laws or easing the process of coming to America or returning to China. In San Francisco, the town with the largest Chinese population, the association formed in the 1880s, known as the Six Companies, consisting of the six most important Chinese district associations of California at that time: the Sam Yup Company, Yeong Wo Company, Kong Chow Company, Ning Yung Company, Hop Wo Company, and Yan Wo Company.
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall of San Francisco
836 Stockton Street
The Kuomintang, the dominant political party of the Republic of China, maintains offices in some of the Chinatowns of the world. Its United States party headquarters are located here in a white building named in honor of Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary and first president and founding father of the Republic of China. Sun played an instrumental role in the overthrow of the Qing dynasty during the Xinhai Revolution. Emblazoned in traditional characters on the front of the building are the words “Chinese Kuomintang U.S. Branch.”
WALK BACK TO CLAY STREET AND TURN LEFT, HEADING UP THE HILL.
Chinese Historical Society of America Museum
965 Clay Street
This is the oldest and largest archive and history center documenting the Chinese American experience in the United States. The organization now operates out of the former YWCA Building, constructed in 1932 on plans drawn by Julia Morgan, the creator of Hearst Castle. Morgan’s affiliation with the William Randolph Hearst family brought her a connection to the YWCA and she designed buildings for the organization and other women’s groups throughout California and across the Southwest. A San Francisco native, Morgan was the first woman to graduate with an architecture degree from the famous Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France. In her long career Julia Morgan designed over 700 buildings and in 2008 she was inducted into the California Hall of Fame.
TURN LEFT INTO JOICE STREET IN FRONT OF THE OLD YWCA AND WALK THROUGH THE NARROW ALLEY TO SACRAMENTO STREET AND TURN LEFT.
Donaldina Cameron House
920 Sacramento Street
The Presbyterian Church established a mission for the town’s Chinese immigrants in 1874. The rebuilt mission house was one of four Chinatown buildings conceived by Julia Morgan. Here she fashioned the Mission Home from firebrick salvaged from the ruins of the original structure. In 1942 it was named in honor of Donaldina Camero, a church missionary who spent 39 years here rescuing and educating an estimated 3,000 Chinese girls from enforced slavery.
WALK DOWN THE HILL TO STOCKTON STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
Stockton Street Tunnel
The Stockton Street Tunnel carries its namesake street underneath a section of Nob Hill for about three blocks. San Francisco’s many hills, while fostering the city’s legendary scenic views, proved a hindrance to traffic in the new age of the automobile. To level the grades for the horseless carriages city planners began to look underground. The Stockton Tunnel was the first, conceived in 1910 by Hartland Law as “The Open Door to North Beach.” Not that all the residents of the isolated and heretofore rural North Beach were looking for an open door to their community. The project was tied up in law suits for several years but ground was broken in June of 1913 and six months later work was complete. The final price tag included $450,000 for the tunnel and $195,000 to settle damage suits. The tunnel is 911 feet long, 50 feet wide, and arched to a height of 19 feet.
WALK THROUGH ONE OF THE PEDESTRIAN PORTALS AND UP TO STOCKTON STREET ABOVE THE TUNNEL. CONTINUE DOWN TO CALIFORNIA STREET.
Metropolitan Life Building
600 Stockton Street at southeast corner of California Street
The New York architecture firm of Napoleon LeBrun and Sons (it was the sons Pierre and Michael designing, the celebrated LeBrun had died in 1901) conceived this Neoclassical building in 1908. Faced in white terra cotta it was built in five stages over a period of forty-four years for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. The original wing is the one on Stockton Street and is now the main entrance to a Ritz Carlton Hotel which occupies the entire structure. The splendid tableau in the triangular pediment supported by fluted Ionic columns was created by sculptor Haig Patigan who graced San Francisco and Oakland with many public works before his death in 1950 at the age of 74. A pediment was often found on financial buildings, suggesting stability, strength and wealth.
TURN LEFT ON CALIFORNIA STREET AND WALK DOWN TO GRANT AVENUE.
Sing Chong Building
601 Grant Avenue at northwest corner of California Avenue
This ornamented corner landmark was the first building constructed in Chinatown after the city-wide destruction caused by the earthquake and fire of 1906. The Sing Chong Building helped set a standard for the colorful “Oriental” style of architecture seen in Chinatown a century later. It was not whimsy nor a longing for Old World familiarity - Chinese merchants and landowners were aware of grumblings after the earthquake to move Chinatown off to the remote southern edge of town so they set out to make their neighborhood a vibrant tourist attraction with buildings like this. Thomas Paterson Ross sketched out the design; he was one of the busiest architects in San Francisco after the earthquake and is credited with over 200 buildings during his career.
Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral
660 California Street at northeast corner of Grant Avenue
Old Saint Mary’s was built in 1854 as the first cathedral of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Chinese laborers did the work and brick was shipped from the East Coast around Cape Horn; granite was imported from China. It was used as a cathedral until 1891 when it became a parish church. Old St. Mary’s survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, only to be gutted a day later by the resulting fires. The blaze was so hot it melted the church bells and marble altar. All that was left was the exterior brick walls and the bell tower. The renovation of the church was completed in 1909.
THE CEREMONIAL GATES TO CHINATOWN ARE TWO BLOCKS SOUTH ON GRANT AVENUE AT BUSH STREET, DOWN A STEEP HILL. IF YOU WANT TO SEE THEM TURN RIGHT AND RETURN HERE TO CONTINUE THE TOUR. IF YOU TAKE A PASS ON THE GATES, TURN LEFT AND WALK NORTH ON GRANT AVENUE.
Grant Avenue at Bush Street
Crafted in the image of ceremonial gates at traditional Chinese villages, the Gateway was designed by Clayton Lee, Melvin H. Lee and Joe Yee in 1970. Unlike similar structures which usually stand on wooden pillars, this iconic symbol conforms to Chinese gateway standards using stone from base to top and green-tiled roofs in addition to wood as basic building materials. 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.
IF YOU HAVE COME DOWN TO THE GATES, TURN AND RETRACE YOUR STEPS BACK UP GRANT AVENUE.
Bank of America
701 Grant Avenue at northwest corner of Sacramento Street
America’s largest bank crafted this branch in a traditional Chinese style. The building is decorated with gold dragons on its front columns and doors, along with 60 dragon medallions on its facade.
TURN RIGHT ON SACRAMENTO STREET.
Nam Kue Chinese School
755 Sacramento Street
The first wave of Chinese immigration to San Francisco in the 1800s was childless but by the early 1900s children were no longer a rarity in Chinatown. Chinese language schools began forming, operating in the afternoons after English schools let out and on the weekends. In addition to teaching traditional Chinese customs, students were drilled in the practice of Chinese calligraphy and taught to read and compose Chinese essays. One of the longest surviving schools preserving Chinese culture is the Nam Kue Chinese School, founded in 1919 by the Nam Hoy Fook Yum Benevolent Society . The people of Nam Foy had started the non-profit family service organization back in 1855, with education being a priority. The building dates to 1925 and still hosts classes for over 800 students.
TURN AND WALK BACK UP SACRAMENTO STREET, ACROSS GRANT AVENUE. TURN RIGHT ON WAVERLY PLACE.
Chinese Baptist Church
15 Waverly Place
Waverly Place is known as the “street of painted balconies” and boasts three temples among its treasures. This is the first Baptist church in San Francisco, organized on October 3, 1880 when the congregation met in rented quarters on Washington Street across from Portsmouth Square. The first church was constructed here in 1888 and this post-earthquake structure dates to 1908.
109 Waverly Place
Named after Tibet’s Norras Buddhist Temple, this is the oldest Buddhist temple in California. On alternate Sundays, monks perform their religious observances, and those who maintain a respectful attitude are welcome to attend. The altar is crafted from wood and the temple is adorned with symbols from Tibetan Buddhism.
Tien Hau Temple
125 Waverly Place
The oldest of the Waverly Place temples is Tien Hau that was founded in 1852. The temple is consecrated to the goddess T’ien Hau, worshiped as the guardian angel of fishermen, seafarers, and women in distress. The building was erected in 1911 and each floor has acquired a completely different look over the past century. The temple is on the top floor, typical of Chinatown temples since the upper level is closest to heaven.
TURN RIGHT ON WASHINGTON STREET AND WALK DOWN THE HILL TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT IN PORTSMOUTH SQUARE, A LITTLE MORE THAN ONE BLOCK AWAY.