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Tourist in My Town – San Francisco’s Chinatown Part 1

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 started 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!

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San Francisco Chinatown Gate
Photo credit: Riacale

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.

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.

Photo credit: Jeff Keller of DCRP

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.

Family run Chinese laundry in San Francisco
Photo Credit: Encyclopedia of Immigration

The ratio of men to women was 27:1 so there were 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 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 were 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 are 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 remembers 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:

San Francisco Chinatown Opium Den Alley

Other alleys host temples like the Ma Tsu Temple which announces itself with beautiful red lanterns (I am a sucker for red!).

San Francisco Chinatown Ma Tsu Temple

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:

San Francisco's Chinatown Fammily Associations

 The tour did include eating and drinking, but I am saving that for Part 2, so come back Thursday to check that out!

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San Francisco Wok Wiz Chinatown Walking Tour California USA

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  1. Andi of My Beautiful Adventures says:

    I can’t wait for Part 2! What awesome shots!!!

    1. Andi Fisher says:

      @Andi, I barely had time to take any (you know how it goes on tours!) so I am planning on going back!

  2. Fascinating stuff… I love the line about the truth behind Chinese laundry stereotypes! San fransisco is high on my ‘must visit’ list! X

    1. Andi Fisher says:

      @Delia, I hope you get here, it has something to offer for everyone!

  3. I loved this post. I really love that picture in the alley and the red lanterns, too. Ever since I read the Joy Luck Club in the early 90s, I’ve been enamored with Chinese culture and San Francisco. Thanks for the personal tour, Andi, and thanks for the Cause for Comment for Oklahomans for the Arts. I appreciate you so much, and hope someday when my own life settles down I can bring you to Oklahoman on my dime!

    1. Andi Fisher says:

      @Jen, Chinatown may be small but there is so much to explore, and I only got a taste! We will make that trip happen some day!

  4. Annie of TravelShus says:

    I LOVE playing tourist at home. I do it both in NYC where I live now and in SF where I’m from. One of my favorite tourist things in SF is chinatown, in addition to Golden Gate Park. I miss it!

    1. Andi Fisher says:

      @Annie, big cities have endless possibilities!

  5. ellen beck says:

    I passed through San Fransisco in the 70s and wished I could have seen moree since there is alot of history there considering it is California ! We have explored the East Coast mostly battlefields and I love learning what has happened in the places we go. Great pics!