Through Chinatown’s Dragon Gates
No visit to San Francisco is complete without a visit to Chinatown. Enter via the elaborate Gateway Dragon Arch at the beginning of Grant Avenue, just two blocks from Union Square at Bush Street. The dramatic gate is built facing south for good feng shui, adorned with sculptures of fish and dragons and flanked by two large lions meant to thwart evil-spirits. Step in under its central passage of three, traditionally reserved for dignitaries. It may come as no surprise that this is the both the oldest Chinatown in North America the largest outside of Asia. Between sips of brewed tea and bites of delicious Dim Sum dumplings, many visitors wonder how Chinatown got here. The story is an interesting one that’s been told many times in many ways...here’s our brief version.
Gold Nuggets and Railroad Spikes
It begins with the Gold Rush. Chinese seeking small fortunes traveled aboard steamers in large numbers to reach the California coast. Historians indicate that one out of every five men working the mines in the 1850s were Chinese immigrants. Others worked as cooks, launderers, merchants and herbalists. Chinatown was booming, mostly with men. In the 1860s, industrialists looking for labor to complete the back-breaking work of building the Central Pacific Railroad took on Chinese in even greater numbers. A second wave of 10,000 supplemented those already in California since Gold Rush Days. However, by the 1870s, an economic downturn stimulated competition and tensions mounted as cultures clashed. Those first Chinese immigrants to America deserve much credit for building the west, however the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 strictly limited further immigration until its repeal in 1943.
Disaster strikes in 1906
Chinatown was not spared by the events of April 18, 1906 and during the fires afterwards that consumed 80 percent of San Francisco in their path. Chinatown was totally destroyed, leaving its 15,000 residents homeless. Many fled to build new lives in Oakland, others re-built Chinatown in the heart of San Francisco with an architectural flair reminiscent of home. Densely populated by people still engaged in preserving Chinatown, this is the Chinatown that visitors enjoy today.
How Lucky Can You Get?
Franklin Lee opened the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company in 1962. The factory employs only three workers and the cookies are still made the old-fashioned way, by hand, complete with fortunes tucked inside while the dough is still hot. Come in and try your luck on a good fortune. The tiny factory and shop are tucked away at 56 Ross Alley, just off Jackson Street, open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Temples and Celebrations
Visitors are welcome inside Chinatown’s temples. First Chinese Baptist Church (15 Waverly Place) was organized in 1880. Brightly painted Tien How Temple (125 Waverly Place, 3rd floor), founded in 1852 was dedicated to the Empress of Heaven, Mazu, for blessing the early Chinese travelers to America. Ma-Tsu Temple (30 Beckett St., 1st floor), founded in 1986, also honors the spirit of Mazu. Kong Chow Temple (855 Stockton St., top floor) has the most colorful altar. Buddha’s Universal Church (720 Washington St.) is America’s largest Buddhist church and Norras Temple (109 Waverly St.) is the city’s oldest.
Worshipers may seek advice in some temples visit by gently shaking a container of divinity sticks until one drops. The number on that stick is matched to a slip of paper with the corresponding number to reveal the sought after advice.
Come during Chinese New Year’s festival to find throngs by the thousands observing the illuminated evening parade with a 268-foot-long lion dancing spectacle, elaborate floats, drummers, acrobats, stilts walkers, beauty queens, musical processions and fireworks to celebrate. The Autumn Moon Festival and other occasions arise on the Chinese calendar.
History is Alive
More on the historical Chinese-American experience and Chinatown’s rich history may be explored inside the landmark building that houses the Chinese Historical Society of America at 965 Clay Street. Admission is free. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. and on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Sunday, Monday and holidays.
Did You Know?
- Chinatown covers 24 square blocks and has five different zip codes in an area that is only about 1 mile by 1.3 miles.
- The fortune cookie was invented in San Francisco -- in Japantown!
- Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), founding father and first president of the Republic of China, lived in exile in San Francisco. A tribute to him stands in St. Mary’s Square. His quote inscribed on a wooden plaque hanging on Gateway Dragon Gate is translated as “All under heaven is for the good of the people.”
- Tai Chi Chuan, a graceful, meditative martial art, is often practiced by local residents in St. Mary’s Square. World Tai Chi Day is the last Saturday in April.
- Some claim that Chinatown is haunted. Tales passed down through generations revolve around a labyrinth of tunnels accessed by trapdoors in basements from before the Great Earthquake and Fires of 1906.