San Francisco Chinatown: Neighborhood Spotlight

A while ago we told you a few interesting facts about North Beach, as part of our ongoing series about the neighborhoods of San Francisco. Today, we’re highlighting another of San Francisco’s iconic neighborhoods: Chinatown.

San Francisco Chinatown
San Francisco Chinatown at night.
Via Kathy Vitulano

Welcome to Chinatown

San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in North America, and is the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. With distinctions like this, it’s no wonder the neighborhood is one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting more visitors every year than the Golden Gate Bridge!

But Chinatown is not just a tourist destination. Over 100,000 people call the neighborhood home. Many residents can trace their family’s history in the area back to the early days of San Francisco, though newcomers abound as well. Packed into an area of just over 1 square mile, the neighborhood is the most densely populated in town, with room still for residents and visitors alike.

History

The 24 square block area lies to the west of the financial district, and has been officially part of the city since its birth in the middle of the 1800s. Like many similar enclaves throughout the United States, the neighborhood has its origins in the segregationist attitudes prevalent in the country at that time. As such, Chinatown was originally the only place in the city where Chinese immigrants could own and inherit land and property.

This discrimination continued for decades, as city officials routinely treated the neighborhood’s residents as second class citizens. At one point, after the 1906 earthquake leveled Chinatown and most of the rest of the city, some city officials considered moving the entire Chinese population down to Hunter’s Point or even Daly City, far from the city center. Thankfully, they were unsuccessful.

Today, however, the neighborhood enjoys a revered status as an enduring symbol of San Francisco’s unique cultural and demographic heritage. Indeed, several other new Chinatowns have sprung up throughout the city to accommodate continued immigration from China. These exist in the Richmond and Sunset districts, and in Visitacion Valley.

Things to See

One of the most famous structures in Chinatown is the San Francisco Chinatown gate. Although it has a traditional appearance, the gate has only been around since 1970, a fraction of the history of the neighborhood. The structure, which stands on the southern entrance to Chinatown, is inscribed with a quotation from the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen: “All under heaven is for the good of the people.”

Other historical buildings include Old Saint Mary’s Church, built in 1853 and at the time the tallest building in the state. The street corner where it is located, at Grant and California, is also the site of famous San Franciscan Emperor Norton’s death in 1880.

One of the most important reasons to visit Chinatown, however, is the food! The area is famous as the site of some of the first westernized Chinese food restaurants in the United States. Visitors today can choose from a variety of restaurants, or find authentic spices and ingredients to make something special back home.

Whether you’re a tourist, a history buff, a foodie, or all of the above, San Francisco’s Chinatown is truly a neighborhood worth visiting.

For parking options near Chinatown, visit our San Francisco Chinatown parking page here.

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