If you look close today at the clinker-brick buildings lining these narrow backstreets, past the temple balconies jutting out over bakeries, acupuncture clinics, barbershops, and travel agencies, you'll see a microcosm of the the American dream. San Francisco's storied Chinatown is the oldest in North America, and the largest off the Asian continent. For almost two hundred years, the 41 historic alleyways packed into Chinatown's 22 blocks have welcomed newcomers from every province, and been the stage for sometimes improbable stories of tenacity and resilience.
San Francisco's Chinatown history
The first Chinese immigrants arrived in San Francisco in 1848, drawn largely from the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong by the promise of good jobs. In just five years, almost 5,000 Chinese immigrants arrived in San Francisco – a lot of names for the switchboard operators at the Chinese Telephone Exchange to keep track of as the largely male population called home to their families on the other side of the Pacific. By the 1880s, the city's Chinatown had begun to coalesce near Portsmouth Square, and was already drawing not only immigrants craving the familiar sights, sounds, and scents of home but also curious tourists.
Still, the backlash was swift when the city's demographics and economic fortunes shifted at the end of the 19th century and San Francisco blamed its woes on its newest citizens. As editor and historian Gary Kimya explains in Cool Grey City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco, "The movement to get rid of Chinatown began as soon as there was a Chinatown." A 1900 outbreak of bubonic plague followed up by the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco very nearly did the job.
Not only did Chinatown literally rise from the ashes, however, it returned more Chinese than ever as residents collaborated with white architects and landlords to create new architectural styles that reflected the neighborhood's unique heritage. Chinatown may have had to grow up rather than out thanks to the limitations imposed by the Chinese exclusion laws first passed in the 1880s. Nowhere is this more evident than Waverly Place, one of San Francisco's most treasured Chinatown alleys. It's home to the Tin How Temple – the oldest surviving Taoist temple in San Francisco, which has been welcoming worshipers since 1852.
Still, San Franciscans had to admit Chinatown's alleyways offered something special that couldn't be found anywhere else, wether it was booze in Spofford Alley during Prohibition, nightlife at legendary clubs like Forbidden City, or brand-new "Chinese" dishes invented stateside in California kitchens like chop suey and moo goo gai pan. Indeed, some of San Francisco's most beloved haunts have been part of Chinatown for over a hundred years, including Mister Jiu's, which has been serving up mouth-watering banquets sine the 1880s; Hang Ah Tea Room, the oldest dim sum restaurant in the United States; and Sam Wo Restaurant, a late-night mainstay that's been open since 1912 and charmed Beat generation luminaries from neighboring North Beach like Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski.
Despite the huge cultural impact the Chinese community has made on San Francisco, there continue to be battles to fight. Activists and politicians like Rose Pak, Ed Lee, and Gordon Chin have fought hard since the 1970s against the steady tide of gentrification to keep the Chinatown district affordable. Indeed, Chin founded the Chinatown Community Development Center that's continued to build affordable housing and keep long-time residents in the neighborhood. Now many of those elders are experiencing a fresh wave of anti-Asian sentiment and violence in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, painfully recalling the last century's scapegoating of Chinese immigrants for the Barbary Plague.
San Francisco Chinatown parking and what to do
If you've got a yen to experience San Francisco's vibrant Chinatown for yourself, leave you vehicle at the Good Luck Parking Garage and be sure to snap a photo by the Dragon's Gate, which was gifted by Taiwan in 1970. One of the best ways to get oriented is setting off on one of the Chinatown Alleyway Tours and Chinatown Heritage Walking Tours that offer community-supporting, time-traveling strolls through defining moments in American history.
The later are hosted by the Chinese Culture Center, which also offers everything from art classes to Mandarin lessons and genealogy services. Visitors can also take in the rotating exhibits at the Chinese Historical Society of America, which was founded in the 1960s as a new wave of Chinese immigrants arrived largely from Hong Kong. Don't miss the magical mosaic mural at Wentworth Place, either – it's one of the Chinatown alleyways most dazzling sights.
For the full Chinatown experience, time your visit for the Lunar New Year, when the neighborhood's winding alleys are lit up by lanterns and firecrackers as crowds pack in to see the lion dances and parade floats go by. For a real treat, duck into the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory at 56 Ross Alley to see how the classic treats are made by hand – and even crunch into some hot off the cast iron griddle.