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San Francisco's Chinatown is one of North America's largest Chinatowns. It is also the oldest Chinatown. Established in the 1850s, it has been featured in popular culture, such as in film, music, photography, and literature.

Chinatown has been experiencing some decline over the years due to the cropping up of newer Chinatown communities in the Richmond and Sunset Districts of San Francisco, and possibly from the revitalization of Oakland's Chinatown only 10 miles away — 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 being one of the largest and most prominent centers of Chinese activity outside of China.

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Location and sub-areasEdit

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Chinatown is located in downtown San Francisco. 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 thoroughfares. One is Grant Avenue, with the famous Dragon gate on the corner of Bush Street and 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, restaurants and mini-malls that cater mainly to tourists. The other, Stockton Street, is frequented less often by tourists, and it presents an authentic Chinese look and feel, reminiscent of Hong Kong, with its produce and fish markets, stores, and restaurants. Chinatown boasts smaller side streets and alleyways that also provide an authentic character.


Another major focal point in Chinatown is Portsmouth Square. Due to its being one of the few open spaces in Chinatown, Portsmouth Square bustles with activity such as Tai Chi and old men playing Chinese chess. A replica of the Goddess of Democracy used in the Tiananmen Square protest was built in 1999 by Thomas Marsh, and stands in the square. It is made of bronze and weighs approximately 600 lb (270 kg).

In recent years, other 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 San Francisco Bay Area, especially in Silicon Valley, such as Cupertino, Fremont, and Milpitas, where Taiwanese Americans are dominant. Despite these developments, many continue to commute in from these outer neighborhoods and cities to shop in Chinatown, causing 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 via the new Central Subway.



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 majority of shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and hired workers in San Francisco Chinatown were predominantly Taishanese and male. They had come as laborers to build California's growing railway networks, most famously the Transcontinental Railroad or as mine workers or independent prospectors hoping to strike it rich during the 1849 Gold Rush. With massive national unemployment in the wake of the Panic of 1873, 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, which evolved out of the labor recruiting organizations for different areas of Guangdong. The xenophobia became law as the United States Government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 – the first immigration restriction law aimed at a single ethnic group. This law, along with other immigration restriction laws such as the Geary Act, greatly reduced the numbers of Chinese allowed into the country and the city, and in theory limited Chinese immigration to single males only. Exceptions were in fact granted to the families of wealthy merchants, but the law was still effective enough to reduce the population of the neighborhood to an all time low in the 1920s. The exclusion act was repealed during World War II under the Magnuson Act in recognition of the important role of China as an ally in the war, although tight quotas still applied.

The neighborhood was completely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake that leveled most of the city. During the city's rebuilding process, racist city planners and real-estate developers had hatched plans to move Chinatown to the Hunters Point neighborhood at the southern edge of the city, even further south in Daly City, or even back to China; and the neighborhood would then be absorbed into the financial district. Their plans failed as the Chinese, particularly with the efforts of Consolidated Chinese Box companies, the Chinese government, and American commercial interests reclaimed the neighborhood and convinced the city government to relent. Part of their efforts in doing so was to plan and rebuild the neighborhood as a western friendly tourist attraction. The rebuilt area that is seen today, resembles such plans.[1]

Many early Chinese immigrants to San Francisco and beyond were processed at Angel Island, now a state park, in the San Francisco Bay. Unlike Ellis Island in the East where prospective European immigrants might be held for up to a week, Angel Island typically detained Chinese immigrants for months while they were interrogated closely to determine if they were really who their papers said they were. Several monuments and memorials have been erected to those who made it through the questioning and those who did not and were deported; and the entire detention facility has been renovated in 2005 and 2006 under a special federal grant.

The repeal of the Exclusion act and the other immigration restriction laws and the War Brides Act, which allowed Chinese-American veterans to bring their families outside of national quotas, led to a major population boom in the area during the 1950s. In the 1960s, the shifting of underutilized national immigration quotas brought in another huge wave of immigrants mostly from Hong Kong, which changed San Francisco Chinatown from predominantly Taishan-speaking to Cantonese-speaking. The end of the Vietnam War brought a wave of Vietnamese refugees of Chinese descent, who put their own stamp on San Francisco Chinatown.

There were many Chinese in Northern California living outside of San Francisco Chinatown, but except for Oakland, they did not set up any special town with shopping and restaurants. With the growth of the Chinese-American population and the increasing difficulty of traveling into the congestion around downtown San Francisco, commercial developments began 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 Millbrae, Milpitas, and Mountain View – avoiding San Francisco as well as Oakland entirely. This suburbanization continues today.

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. Five persons were killed and 11 were wounded, and the incident has become infamously known as the Golden Dragon massacre. The restaurant still stands today and remains a popular dim sum restaurant for tourists.

While the neighborhood continues to receive newer immigrants and maintains a lively and active character, suburban flight has left the neighborhood relatively poor, decrepit in many parts, and largely elderly. Grant Avenue has changed completely into a tourist street.


In recent decades, Cantonese-speaking immigrants from Hong Kong and Mainland China has gradually led to the replacement of the Taishanese dialect with the Hong Kong Cantonese dialect as a lingua franca. Cantonese has over 70 million speakers worldwide, and its Hong Kong form become fashionable among teenagers in other parts of China because of the popularity of Hong Kong movies worldwide.

Taishanese is spoken less and less, even in China, and will probably be gone in a generation from America. There is a degree of mutual intelligibility between Taishanese and Cantonese, but the vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation have major differences. Taishanese speakers born in China can usually understand Cantonese; American-born Taishanese speakers can typically understand only about 10 percent of what they hear in Cantonese and have great difficulty remembering the right tones when trying to speak it.

Many working-class Hong Kong Chinese immigrants began arriving in large numbers in the 1960s and despite their status and professions in Hong Kong, immigrants had to find low-pay employment in restaurants and garment factories in Chinatown because of limited English ability.


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San Francisco's Chinatown is home to the annual Double Tenth Day Parade, celebrating the National Day of the Republic of China on Taiwan. The majority of overseas Chinese strongly identify with the Republic of China as opposed to the Communist People's Republic of China. The celebration has been held every year since Sun Yat-sen led the deposition of the Ching Dynasty in 1911. In 2006, the National Day parade took place on October 7. It began with a Republic of China (R.O.C.) flag raising ceremony at the famous Portsmouth Square in Chinatown at exactly 10:10 AM. At 11:00 AM, a parade proceeding will begin at the nearby Union Square.

San Francisco's Chinatown is home to the well-known and historic Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (known as the Chinese Six Companies), which is the umbrella organization for local Chinese family and regional associations in Chinatown. It has spawned lodges in other Chinatowns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Chinatown, Los Angeles and Chinatown, Portland.

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 many food television programs dealing with ethnic Chinese cuisine.

The Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco is a major community-based, non-profit organization established in 1965 to foster the understanding and appreciation of Chinese and Chinese American art, history, and culture in the United States. The facilities of the Center, totaling 20,000 square feet, include a 299-seat auditorium, a 2,935 square-foot gallery, book shop, classroom, and offices. Centrally located between Chinatown and the Financial District, the Center attracts a broad spectrum of audiences from the Chinese community, the city at large, and the greater Bay Area, as well as visitors from all over the country.

New "Chinatowns" in the Bay Area Edit

Within the city of San FranciscoEdit

Because of aforementioned conditions in Chinatown, several Chinese enclaves or "new Chinatowns" have sprung up across the city. Most notable are a section of Clement Street between Arguello Boulevard & Park Presidio in the Richmond District, Irving Street between 19th Avenue and 24th Avenue, and Noriega Street between 19th Avenue and 25th Avenue, both in the Sunset District.

Unlike in most Chinatowns in North America, ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam have not established businesses in San Francisco's Chinatown district – undisputedly the largest of its kind in North America – due to high property values and rents. Instead, many Chinese-Vietnamese – as opposed to ethnic Vietnamese who tended to congregate in larger numbers in San Jose – have established a separate Vietnamese enclave on Larkin Street in the heavily working-class Tenderloin district of San Francisco, where it is now known as the city's "Little Saigon" and not as a "Chinatown" per se. As with historic Chinatown, Little Saigon plans to construct an arch signifying its entrance, as well as directional street signs leading to the community.

Surrounding areasEdit

Countless suburban strip mall alternatives to the original Chinatown in the city of San Francisco proper have been developed throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and these are considered the most notable and provide comparative ease and conveniences to immigrant shoppers thus reducing the incentive and necessity for immigrants to go into traffic-plagued Chinatown. This is partly to be attributed to the aggressive growth of the highly popular 99 Ranch Market chain of south California in recent years and putting them in direct competition with the older established Chinatown enclaves, which have more mom-and-pop operations. Often, unlike the traditional Cantonese-speaking Chinatowns in San Francisco or Oakland as populated by mostly old-timers, Mandarin Chinese is the lingua franca of these communities.

Outside the San Francisco area, suburban Cupertino in the San Jose area has emerged the major Taiwanese cultural and retail center in the Bay Area, especially with a major shopping center titled Cupertino Village anchored by the supermarket chain 99 Ranch Market. A similar, but larger shopping center by the name of Milpitas Square, also featuring 99 Ranch Market, can be found in Milpitas, adjacent to the northeast corner of San Jose. These plazas contain variety of regional Chinese cuisine and other varied Asian cuisine restaurants (namely Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, and so on), book stores, boba tea shops, bakeries, and upscale boutiques.

A smaller Chinese commercial district lines Castro Street in the suburb of Mountain View where immigrant businesses now occupy once abandoned 1950s-era downtown storefronts. (Source: San Francisco Chronicle)

Other suburban communities in the San Francisco Bay Area with a large Chinese presence include Foster City and Daly City (also home to a large Filipino population) in San Mateo County and Fremont in Alameda County. All of these cities have Chinese-themed shopping centers anchored by 99 Ranch Market. In addition, the Warm Springs district of Fremont includes a shopping center known as "Little Taipei" anchored by Lion Supermarket. More Asian-oriented strip malls can be found in the San Francisco and Oakland working-class suburbs of Richmond, California ('Pacific East Mall anchored by 99 Ranch Market) and San Pablo (San Pablo Marketplace anchored by Shun Fat Supermarket).



See alsoEdit

External linksEdit


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