I took the week off between jobs to play tourist in San Francisco and Sacramento (more on that later). I had such a great experience visiting Haight-Ashbury last November that when I starting planning what I wanted to do I immediately looked to some of the food tours in San Francisco. The only problem was it was Spring Break so a lot of the tours were completely booked. I kept trying and trying and managed to slip into a Chinatown tour on last-minute notice. Someone must have canceled as all the other Chinatown tours were canceled – lucky me!
And I did luck out when I selected Wok Wiz Chinatown Walking Tour because I had a great time! I lucked out on the weather too as the day was gorgeous, it had been threatening rain all week, and in fact that next day there was a deluge! So I very happily met my tour guide Emily and 5 other tourists – a couple from Maryland; an aunt and niece from Michigan (or Minnesota) and a culinary student from Los Angeles to learn a little more about this distinct neighborhood in San Francisco.
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We began in Portsmouth Square which is the heart of Chinatown. Literally. It is pulsing with activity whether it be morning tai-chi; mid-day people watching and neighborhood gossip sessions, or animated card and mahjong-playing excitement, this spot is always crowded.
I am a history nut, it was always my favorite subject in school and Chinatown is full of it. San Francisco’s earliest history begins here with Captain John Berrien Montgomery of the USS Portsmouth seized the plaza and raised the American flag in an act of defiance during the Mexican-American War. Near the end of that war, in fact, two weeks prior, gold was discovered in Northern California, an event that would change the landscape of San Francisco forever.
In 1846 when the war began there were 250 people in San Francisco. In 1848, after the news of the gold rush, 60,000 immigrants descended on San Francisco, including 30,000 of Chinese descent from the Guangdong Province. However, as many of you may know, gold wasn’t actually harder to come by than just picking up pieces of it on the street, and 1 in 5 miners died and most of them had no money at all. The Chinese immigrants were, in essence, stuck in San Francisco because the notion of returning home as failures was an impossible consideration, as they would have lost face. Instead, they began to start businesses.
The ratio of men to women was 27:1 so there was a ton of small jobs that were deemed “women’s work” including things like laundry. Due to the lack of women, men would just buy clothes and wear them until they fell off, but as time went on the Chinese opened laundry services and thus the completely accurate stereotype of Chinese laundries and dry cleaning began!
There is a ton more of history and stories that the docents of Wok Wiz Chinatown Walking Tour have to tell, I am not going to share them all, as I would encourage you to check out a tour when you visit San Francisco!
We visited several alleys which are throughout the Chinatown area. Some like the Walter U Lum Alley was a spot for activism both in San Francisco as well as working in affiliation with rebels who helped overthrow the last emperor of China. Some like Wentworth Alley or Fish Alley was known for what you buy there, in this case, fish as this spot served as the city’s original fish market, although my tour guide Emily also fondly remember going to the disco Dragon A Go Go when she was young!
Some alleys were former homes of opium dens hidden behind Chinese laundries or in basements, like this one:
Other alleys host temples like the Ma Tsu Temple which announces itself with beautiful red lanterns (I am a sucker for red!).
As there were so many immigrants most of them came without family or friends. District benevolent and family associations were created for each family name or district as support centers for those in need. There are 24 districts in Guangdong Province, all represented in Chinatown. These associations still run today, while doing my research I found this site for the Lee Association which is still very active!
Those who were rich had luxurious and extremely well-decorated buildings, especially in the facades, like these:
The tour did include eating and drinking, but I am saving that for Part 2, so come back Thursday to check that out!
再見 for now!
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