The first Chinese immigrants arrived in San Francisco in 1848 aboard the USS Eagle. As the population grew — some 30,000 Chinese came to the city in pursuit of riches during the California Gold Rush — many immigrants established businesses in what became known as Chinatown. Located in the historic heart of San Francisco, the approximately 24-block area is a city within a city that constantly changes to reflect new waves of immigrants and their customs.
The urban area is densely populated. There are approximately 15,000 residents in Chinatown — it’s the second-largest Chinese-American community in the country. On a walking tour with Linda Lee of All About Chinatown, we stopped at Portsmouth Square, where Lee pointed out the clusters of predominantly men gathered together. She said there are more men than women in Chinatown, that the average age is 50, and that they came from China, Hong Kong, or Southeast Asia to Chinatown to live and work.
The culture is rich, and the neighborhood is colorful and beautiful. You’ll see flags and buildings, hear shoppers searching the markets for fresh meat and produce, and smell delicious dishes being prepared in local restaurants.
Here are 12 things to know about San Francisco’s Chinatown before you go.
1. The Chinese Historical Society Of America Museum Is Worth Your Time
The Chinese Historical Society of America Museum is a rich storehouse of Chinese-American history and culture in San Francisco. It’s the oldest organization in the country dedicated to the interpretation, promotion, and preservation of the social, cultural, and political history and contributions of the Chinese in America.
There were fewer than 250,000 people of Chinese descent living in the U.S. when the society was founded in 1963. Now there are nearly five million Chinese in the U.S., the society continues to preserve the remarkable history of this community by promoting the contributions and legacy of the Chinese through exhibitions, publications, and educational programs.
Visitors to Chinatown can tour the museum and the surrounding area to learn more about the community.
2. The Chinese Culture Center Showcases Contemporary Art
The mission of the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, located inside the Hilton across from Portsmouth Square, is to give voice to the Chinese-American community through education and contemporary art. The center shares innovative contemporary art through exhibitions, performances, tours, and online projects; facilitates community engagement at the Him Mark Lai Learning Center, which highlights Chinese-American history and culture; and strives to make Chinatown a museum without walls by using public spaces for festivals and art installations.
Since 1965, the group has hosted hundreds of exhibitions and public events to raise awareness of Chinese culture.
3. The Alleys Are Less Touristy
Step off the main streets of Chinatown to discover the daily life and rich history of this area. Chinatown Alleyway Tours offers guided tours focused on the struggles and triumphs of the Chinese-American community. The youth-run nonprofit program is sponsored by the Adopt-An-Alleyway Youth Empowerment Project by the Chinatown Community Development Center. The tours empower youth to take leadership roles in the community, and tour participants will learn about the history and culture of Chinatown from a local’s perspective.
4. Firecrackers Are Illegal In San Francisco
Traditionally, firecrackers were used to scare away evil spirits in Chinese culture. Legend had it that a monster called Nian would eat villagers and destroy their homes on New Year’s Eve, and the explosive sounds were thought to frighten them.
Since firecrackers are illegal in San Francisco, stores sell Pop Pop boxes that contain small packages you can throw on the floor to make a loud popping noise.
5. Don’t Miss The Dragon’s Gate
At the southern end of Chinatown along Grant Avenue is Dragon’s Gate, the famous gate designed by the Chinese-American architect Clayton Lee. Erected in 1970, and consisting of stone pillars, green-tiled pagodas, and dragon sculptures, the gate is the only authentic Chinatown gate in the U.S. Guarding the three entryways are three stone lion statues, believed to ward off evil. There is a sign in Chinese hanging over each passage.
6. You Can Watch Fortune Cookies Being Made
The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory has been making fortune cookies since 1962. It’s a small setup, with workers folding messages into cookies by hand and producing about 10,000 cookies each day. Watch as the cookies are created on the line, baked on a cast-iron rotating griddle wheel, and shaped by hand, and then taste one hot off the grill before purchasing bags of flavored cookies to take home.
7. You’ll Discover Ancient Herbal Remedies
Chinese medicine encompasses a variety of healing modalities, including acupuncture, massage, exercise, dietary therapy, and herbal medicine. Step inside one of the herbal pharmacies in Chinatown to learn about the many herbs and tinctures used for healing.
During our walking tour, we learned about unusual medicinal foods such as deer sinew and cockroaches, but the stores stock plenty of more familiar herbal remedies such as ginger, licorice root, and goji berry.
8. You Can Visit One Of The Oldest Taoist Temples In The Country
The Tin How Temple, founded in 1852, was dedicated to the Chinese sea goddess, Mazu, by the early Chinese migrants to the U.S. Mazu’s formal title is Tin How, which means “Empress of Heaven” in Cantonese. Located on a side street, the temple has a central shrine where a statue of Mazu sits. The room is filled with rows of lanterns donated by devotees. The names of the donors are written on slips of red paper attached to the lanterns.
9. It’s Home To The Oldest Catholic Cathedral In California
The oldest Catholic cathedral in California, the Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, was constructed in 1854. All of the bricks for this Gothic Revival church were imported from China. Across from the church is Saint Mary’s Square, a public park that has included since its 2017 renovation a 6,000-square-foot rooftop area with a landscaped seating section and an open plaza.
10. You Can Explore An Underground Gallery
Located in the basement of a dry-cleaning establishment is Et al., a 450-square-foot art gallery. Local artists are represented in the monthly exhibitions. The gallery serves as a site for experimental events and was founded in 2013.
11. There’s Something For Every Budget
Budget-conscious travelers should visit street vendors for affordable food options. If you’d like to stay nearby, the Grant Plaza Hotel is conveniently located at the entrance to Chinatown.
If you have more to spend, there are numerous fine-dining options in the area, and the newly renovated Clift Royal Sonesta is a luxe place to stay just a few blocks from Chinatown.
12. Visit During Chinese New Year For Extra Fun
To fully experience the culture of Chinatown, visit during the Chinese New Year Festival. The festival runs for two weeks and includes parades, a flower market, and a community fair. It’s one of the largest celebrations of its kind and was named one of the top 10 parades in the world by the International Festivals & Events Association. The Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco is one of only a few remaining night-illuminated parades in North America, and it’s the largest parade celebrating the Chinese New Year outside of Asia.
Pro Tip: Check out my article on the best places to eat in San Francisco’s Chinatown. To learn more, subscribe to Chinatown Scoop, a monthly newsletter with Chinatown-related interviews and articles.
More on the City by the Bay: