Chinatown in San Francisco is the largest Chinese enclave outside of Asia and the oldest Chinatown in North America. Centered on Stockton Street and Grant Avenue, the neighborhood boasts a rich history and highly influential culture.
In the mid-19th century, Chinatown was a port of entry for Chinese immigrants, particularly those from Guangdong province. These immigrants settled near Dupont Street, now called Grant Ave. However, the U.S. didn’t welcome them with open arms; in fact, the neighborhood was the only region where Chinese people were allowed to inherit and inhabit dwellings in the city.
Early Chinese immigrants were predominantly men, with the reported Chinese population in California comprising 12,000 men and just 10 women in 1851. Most of these men came to work and send money back home to their families. Initially, Chinese immigrants primarily worked as miners and independent prospectors looking to take advantage of the Gold Rush. As they became more established, immigrants began opening up Chinese-centered shops and restaurants in the neighborhood, helping to retain their history and culture.
However, Chinese establishment in the U.S. was far from easy. The severe nationwide unemployment during the late-19th century caused non-Chinese workers to fear that Chinese immigrants were taking their jobs and preventing them from securing employment. These tensions culminated in several race riots, including a two-day riot in Chinatown in 1877 that took the lives of four people and resulted in $100,000 in property damages (the equivalent of over $2 million today).
In 1882, the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which severely restricted Chinese immigration. Then, in 1906, a massive earthquake all but leveled the city of San Francisco. However, Chinese immigrants demonstrated great tenacity in rebuilding the neighborhood, constructing new buildings in what was then called “Oriental” style of architecture. These buildings were touted for their ornate design and modern, fireproof construction of brick and stone, which ultimately attracted more visitors to the neighborhood.
In 1943, the U.S. repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act, opening the door for an influx of Chinese immigrants of diverse backgrounds who helped to further cultivate the neighborhood.
These days, Chinatown is a bustling neighborhood with its own customs and traditions, two hospitals, multiple parks, numerous churches, and various other infrastructure. It’s also a massive tourist destination, with people far and wide visiting for the shops, museums, and especially the food it offers.
In fact, the Chinatown restaurants in San Francisco are widely attributed to being responsible for the Americanized Chinese cuisine that’s so popular today. Depending on what you’re in the mood for, you can nosh on late-night Vietnamese food from My Canh; bakery offerings from Hong Kong-style bakery, VIP Coffee & Cake Shop; Sichuan-style noodles from Chong Qing Xiao Mian; or any number of other offerings. Chinatown is also typically quite affordable compared to other neighborhoods in San Francisco, so it’s a great option for those dining on a budget.
But delicious and affordable Chinese cuisine isn’t the only thing this neighborhood has to offer. It also hosts events, like the Chinese New Year Parade, and cultural attractions, like the Sing Chong Building—the first building constructed after the aforementioned 1906 earthquake and the most-photographed piece of architecture in the city. Another fun attraction is the neighborhood’s Fortune Cooke Factory, which produces more than 20,000 fortune cookies per day—by hand. It’s a great stop to make after enjoying a meal from one of Chinatown’s many restaurants.
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