Chinatown, San Francisco

An interesection of Chinatown in San Francisco.
An interesection of Chinatown in San Francisco.

San Francisco's Chinatown is one of North America's largest Chinatowns and the most historic and oldest of Chinatowns. For over a century it was itself the largest, only surpassed by Manhattan's Chinatown in the 1980s. Chinatown experiencing some decline over the years due to the cropping up of newer Chinatown communities in the Richmond and Sunset Districts of San Francisco, possibly from the revitalization of Oakland's Chinatown - only 10 miles away - in recent decades, and from the development of Asian shopping centers throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Despite this, it remains a major tourist attraction --drawing more visitors than the Golden Gate Bridge, and one of the largest and most prominent centers of Chinese activity outside of China.


Location and sub-areas

Missing image
A photo of a typical street.

San Francisco's Chinatown is located downtown. It is roughly bordered by Powell Street and the Nob Hill District on the West. On the east is Kearny Street and The City's Financial District. On the north is North Beach and Green Street and Columbus Street. On the south is Bush Street and the Union Square area. Despite its decline, it has been slowly expanding northward into the North Beach neighborhood north of Green and Columbus Street.

Within Chinatown there are two major throughfares: Grant Avenue, which has the famous Dragon gate on the corner of Bush Street & Grant Avenue, St. Mary's Park that boasts a statue of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, a war memorial to chinese war veterans, and a plethora of stores, resturants, and mini malls that cater strictly to tourists. The other major throughfare, Stockton Street, is less touristy, and presents a authetic Chinese look and feel with its produce and fish markets, stores, and resturants. Chinatown boasts of smaller side streets and alleyways that also provide an authentic character.

Also a major focal point in Chinatown is Portsmouth Square. Due to the fact that it is one of the few open spaces in Chinatown, Portsmouth Square bustles with activity to Tai Chi. A replica of the Goddess of Democracy used in the Tiananmen Square protest was built in 1999 by Thomas Marsh stands in the square. It is made of bronze and weighing approximately 600 pounds (272 kg)

In recent years, other newer Chinatown areas have been established within the city of San Francisco proper, including the Richmond and Sunset districts. These areas have been settled largely by Chinese from Southeast Asia. There are also many suburban Chinese communities in the Bay Area, especially in the Silicon Valley, such as Cupertino, Fremont, and Milpitas. Taiwanese Americans are dominant. Despite these developments, many continue to commute in from these outer neighborhoods and outer cities to shop in Chinatown causing massive gridlock on roads and public transit, especially on weekends. To address this problem, the local public transit agency MUNI is proposing to extend the city's subway network to the neighborhood.


The Street of Gamblers (Ross Alley) , .  The population was predominantly male because U.S. policies at the time made it difficult for Chinese women to enter the country.
The Street of Gamblers (Ross Alley) Arnold Genthe, 1898. The population was predominantly male because U.S. policies at the time made it difficult for Chinese women to enter the country.

San Francisco's Chinatown was the port of entry for early Taishanese and Zhongshanese Chinese immigrants from the southern Guangdong province of China from the 1850s to the 1900s. The Chinatown in particular was a stronghold for the Taishanese community. The majority of shopkeepers and restaurant owners in San Francisco were predominantly Taishanese and male. They came as laborers to build California's growing railway networks, most famously the Transcontinental Railroad or as miners either employed or independent miners hoping to strike it rich during the 1848 Gold Rush. As more and more immigrants arrived, racial tensions in the city boiled over into full blown race riots. In response to this, the chinese residents formed the Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Association or the Chinese Six Companies. The xenophobia became law as the United States Government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 the first immigration restriction law. This law, along with other immigration restriction laws such as the Geary Act, greatly reduced the amounts of Chinese allowed into the country and the city, and restricted Chinese immirgation to single males only. The law greatly reduced the population of the neighborhood to all time low in the 1920s. The exclusion act was repealed during World War Two under the Magnuson_Act.

The neighborhood was completely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake that leveled the city. During the city's rebuilding process, racist city planners and real-estate developers had hatched plans to move Chinatown to the southern borders of the city and even Daly City further south. Their plans failed as the Chinese particulary with the efforts of Consolidated Chinese Box companies reclaimed the rebuilt neighborhood. The new neighborhood resembled a more western look and feel that is seen today.

Many early Chinese immigrants to San Francisco and beyond were processed at Angel Island, now a state park, in the San Francisco Bay. Several monuments and memorials have been erected.

With the repeal of the Exclusion act and the other immigration restriction laws coupled with the rise of Communist China led to a major population boom in the area during the 1950s and 1960s. Further easing of discrimination and other restrictive policies, overcrowding, the general upward mobility of Chinese immigrants, led to many of the neighborhood's residents to move and setup up smaller Chinatowns in the outer neighborhoods of the Richmond District and Sunset District and in other suburbs across the San Francisco Bay Area as well as newer immigrants - such as Mandarin-speaking immigrants from Taiwan who have tended to settled in suburban Cupertino, Milpitas, Mountain View - avoiding the neighborhood entirely. This suburbanization is ongoing today, and is contributing to the neighborhood's decline.

In the summer of 1977, an ongoing rivalry between two Chinese American gangs erupted in violence and bloodshed culminating in a shooting spree at the Golden Dragon Restaurant on Washington Street. 5 persons were killed and 11 were wounded, and the incident has become infamously known as the Golden Dragon Massacre. The restaurant still stands today.

While the neighborhood continues to receive newer immigrants and maintains a lively and active character, the affromentioned suburbanization and the upward mobility of the Chinese leave the neighborhood relatively poor, decrepit (in some parts), and largely elderly.


In recent years, however, Cantonese-speaking immigrants from Hong Kong and Hakka and Mandarin (Putonghua)-speaking immigrants from Mainland China have gradually replaced the Taishanese dialect.


San Francisco's Chinatown is home to the well-known and historic Chinese Six Companies.

Author Amy Tan grew up in the neighborhood. Her book the Joy Luck Club is based on her experiences here as well as it chronicles the neighborhood's history.

The Chinatown has served as a backdrop for several movies and television shows. It has also been featured in several food television programs dealing with ethnic Chinese cuisine.



  • Chinn, Thomas W. Bridging the Pacific: San Francisco Chinatown and its People. Chinese Historical Society of America, 1989. ISBN 0961419830, ISBN 0961419849 PB

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