There are over six million people in the San Francisco area, with 750,000 in the Bay Area itself. Nestled within that vast sea of individuals is a conclave known around the world as Chinatown. Most large U.S. cities (and many outside) have a ‘Chinatown’. But, including even New York, the most authentic is unquestionably that of San Francisco.
In an area near North Beach, bound roughly by Grant Avenue and Bush Street, Broadway and Larkin Street, lies a population of the ancestors of 19th century immigrants from China. They arrived literally by the boatload, seeking freedom and fortune during the post-1849 Gold Rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railroads.
Home to the largest Asian population outside China, the exact number is virtually impossible to state. As a consequence of legislation to limit Chinese immigration via the Chinese Exclusion Act, and other social factors, the residents often avoid census taking. Passed in 1882, and extended and revised several times, the Act wasn’t completely voided until 1965.
Today the area still holds many people, shops, temples and housing that would not look odd to a visitor from those bygone days. Even so, virtually everything was rebuilt from scratch after the great earthquake of 1906.
Along Grant Street there are souvenir shops and restaurants with English translations on the menu. Those not fully prepared for complete immersion may be more comfortable here. One block west on Stockton the visitor can find the Chinatown’s Chinatown – crowded, noisy and bursting at the seams with genuine Chinese food and wares. It’s delightful.
Among the many restaurants in the area there are those that serve primarily tourists, and others where completely authentic Chinese food can be had. New Asia may be one of the few that has managed to do both.
Here, too, is located the heavily visited Mee Mee Bakery (at 1328 Stockton between Broadway and Vallejo). Mee Mee’s is reputed to be the originator of the fortune cookie. Looking around, one can easily believe it. The wonderful smells and sights make it a front runner for that honor.
But Chinatown has much more than food and colorful trinkets. These dozen square blocks house a busy hospital, highly rated Chinese and American schools, newspaper publishers and even tennis courts.
On Waverly Street visitors can find a ‘joss’ (good luck) paper store or see authentic Chinese architectural designs. The street still bears signs of its former existence as home to opium dens and brothels, but only architecturally. Many were housed under pagoda style roofs of intricate design.
Socially, the residents mingle and trade stories about when you could get a haircut for 15 cents. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the outpourings of one of the neighborhood music clubs.
Be sure to visit the Buddha’s Universal Church. One of the younger structures (it was dedicated in 1962), the concrete and steel, marble and wood exterior holds many unusual sights.
The gold leaf and mosaic tiles on the interior lend a cool contrast to the teak paneled walls. Finally, the rooftop garden makes for a stellar completion to a visit to San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Bring your walking shoes and be prepared to take back lots of gifts and a full stomach. Chinatown is the real deal.