Your Destination Guide to San Francisco

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Chinatown

Chinatown
Chinatown

© Christian Mehlführer

Tucked in the middle of North Beach, Nob Hill, and the Financial District sits one of San Francisco's most precious gems. San Francisco's Chinatown is the oldest in North America and the largest outside Asia. During the Gold Rush in 1880, as many as 123,000 opportunity-seekers from southern China poured in to see the "Little Shanghai" of San Francisco. Some opened small businesses while most worked as railroad laborers, but high unemployment fueled animosity against the Chinese, contributing to crime and corruption. The early years of Chinatown were rough, with city residents considering the neighborhood a red-light district—a place for gambling, prostitution, and opium use. The scandalous rumors and propaganda served mainly to maintain negative stereotypes of the perceived outsiders. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, which legally restricted immigration to the U.S. by the Chinese, the largest immigration group in California at the time. The new law also prevented the Chinese already residing in the U.S. from assimilation and upward mobility. It wasn't until much later—in 1943—that the Chinese Exclusion Act was replaced by the Magnuson Act, finally allowing Chinese-born residents to become naturalized citizens.

After the 1906 earthquake, the city worked to rebuild the district's reputation as a popular tourist attraction. Chinese residents viewed San Francisco's Chinatown as their new home, complete with Hong Kong nostalgia. Gradually, a more positive image of the Chinese emerged, enriching the city with the food, language, and traditions of the culture.

To get a feel for Chinatown, all you need are walking shoes and a sense of adventure. If you'd like to take on the traditional tourist route, you can formally enter the dragon—the famous gate, that is, on Grant & Bush Street. Experience the kitschy but colorful novelty shops, like the China Bazaar, where every inch stores fun collectibles from bamboo hats to ninja porcelain dolls. Careful, though. You break it—you bought it. On the other hand, to hang with the locals, cruise over to Jackson Street for Dim Sum brunch at Great Eastern Restaurant. Don't worry if there's a language barrier; just use your sense of smell and employ the universal language of pointing and nodding. Take Jackson toward Stockton Street and stop when the aroma of delectable baked goods tickles your nose at Garden Bakery. Feast your eyes on the assortment of coconut cocktail buns, creamy egg custard, and zesty barbecue pork buns, choosing something that will dazzle your taste buds. As day turns to dusk, head over to Sam Wo Restaurant on Grant and Washington. But keep your eyes open—blink and you'll miss this modest marvel. Order a sizzling plate of Mongolian Beef or golden-fried Chinese Doughnuts to dip in your rice soup, letting it warm you on a crisp, San Francisco night.

Just wandering through the crowded streets of Chinatown is an adventure in itself. The best time to go is when the sun is still out and all the shops are open. From exotic herbal shops to palatable teahouse tastings, you'll find yourself stumbling upon hidden treasures that may surprise you.

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