AAA Editor Notes
Chinatown is symbolically entered via the gate at Bush St. and Grant Ave. The neighborhood is bounded roughly north and south by Vallejo and Bush streets and east and west by Kearny and Powell streets. Although there are other Chinese enclaves in San Francisco, notably in the Richmond and Inner Sunset districts, Chinatown was the first and is still the foremost. Part time-honored tourist destination, part workaday neighborhood, it has an atmosphere all its own.
The first Chinese immigrants arrived in San Francisco in 1848. They came to work for companies seeking cheap labor, and many ended up toiling at back-breaking menial jobs. Anti-immigration sentiment during the 1870s targeted these industrious new arrivals and reached a peak with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Today's Chinatown began taking shape in the 1880s as a safe haven for Chinese workers and their families.
The green-tiled ornamental gate that arches over Grant Avenue was dedicated in 1970. Grant is tourist central, with shops selling everything from cheap plastic Buddhas to fine jewelry and more restaurants than you can shake a chopstick at. Ornate tiled roofs cap apartment buildings, intertwined dragons coil around old-fashioned lampposts, red and yellow banners flutter in the breeze, and storefront signs are a mix of Chinese and English.
The vibe is a bit different along Stockton Street, a block west. Muni buses lurch to a stop, disgorging streams of passengers. Boxes of produce are unloaded from double-parked trucks. Grocers hustle back and forth arranging the merchandise in wooden bins while matriarchs inspect it with a discerning eye. Rows of roasted ducks, their brown skins glistening, are on display in the windows of meat markets, along with whole fish and sundry unidentifiable animal parts.
The United Commercial Bank at the corner of Grant Avenue and Washington Street, formerly the Bank of Canton, was built in 1909 and originally housed the Chinatown telephone office. The tiered pagoda roofs are especially intriguing along Waverly Place (parallel to Grant Avenue between Washington and Sacramento streets). There are several temples along this narrow little street. Every floor of the Tien Hau Temple (on Waverly at Clay Street) has a different look; it's a little jewel of a building. The temple itself is on the top floor (visitors must climb three flights of stairs) and has exhibits about Chinatown's history.
The Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, on the third floor of the Hilton San Francisco hotel at 750 Kearny St., provides information about Chinatown and features displays of Chinese art. The center also offers a 90-minute heritage walking tour that visits food markets, herbal and tea shops, and architectural and historical points of interest.