Cantonese American

Chinatown, San Francisco, California

San Francisco's Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in North America. It is also the largest Chinese Community outside of Asia, according to The New Encyclopaedia Britannica Micropaedia vol. 10, 2007 Ed. Established in the 1850s, it has featured significantly in popular culture venues such as film, music, photography and literature. It is one of the largest and most prominent centers of Chinese activity outside of China.

After nearly two decades of decline due to the emergence of other large Chinese communities in the Richmond and Sunset Districts of San Francisco, and possibly from the revitalization of Oakland's Chinatown only away — and from the development of Asian shopping centers throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, it has been experiencing an economic upturn in recent years. "Chinatown is now a major economic boon to the city as one of its top tourist attractions....". Lonely Planet San Francisco City Guide. Even during bad times, it has always remained a major tourist attraction — drawing more visitors than the Golden Gate Bridge. "San Francisco Chinatown Page at"

Location and sub-areas

Chinatown is located in downtown San Francisco, and overlaps five Postal ZIP Codes. Often mistaken for a smaller, pre-1950's boundary, the current demarcation is roughly Montgomery Street (蒙哥馬利街) and The City's Financial District in the East, Union Street (聯盟街) and North Beach in the North all the way to its Northernmost point from the intersection of Jones Street (瓊斯街) and Lombard Street (九曲花街) in Russian Hill to Lombard Street and Grant Avenue (都板街) in Telegraph Hill. It is here where important community fixtures are located, such as Yick Wo Elementary School, and City College of San Franciso's Chinatown-North Beach Campus. The Southeast is bounded by Bush Street (布希街) with Union Square. It stretches as far westward all the way to Larkin Street (拉金街) in Nob Hill. It is here on the Larkin-Hyde-Leavenworth corridors that businesses and organizations cater to the needs of many low-income Asian immigrants. This part of the neighborhood is centered around the Chinatown Community Development Center on Larkin and Pine Streets (1303 Larkin St.), and the Chinatown Youth Center on nearby Post and Larkin Streets (1038 Post St.). It is within this area that Chinatown's Southermost boundary is defined by a stretch of Eddy Street (渦流街) between Polk Street (波爾卡街) and Jones. More than just a tourist destination of over 500 restaurants and shops, San Francisco's Chinatown is also North America's most densely-populated neighborhood. It is home to some 180,000 people of Chinese descent, and continues to expand steadily in all directions. In a city where Chinese-Americans account for nearly 30 percent of its inhabitants, it is often difficult to tell where Chinatown ends and another district begins. "Chinatown, until recently contained from Bush to Broadway, and from Kearny to Powell, now crosses over into North Beach, and up Russian and Nob Hills." Frances Gendlin, Culture Shock! Living in the World's Great Cities: San Francisco At Your Door

It is within an area of roughly 1 mile long by 1.34 miles wide.
Total area: Approxiamately 1.65 square miles.

Within Chinatown there are two major thoroughfares. One is Grant Avenue (都板街), 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 (市德頓街), 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 famed 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 delays in 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 area was the one geographical region deeded by the city government and private property owners which allowed Chinese persons to inherit and inhabit dwellings within the city. The majority of these Chinese shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and hired workers in San Francisco Chinatown were predominantly Taishanese and male. Many Chinese found jobs working for large companies seeking a source of cheap labor, most famously as part of Central Pacific on the Transcontinental Railroad. Other early immigrants worked 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 the racial violence, the Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Association or the Chinese Six Companies, which evolved out of the labor recruiting organizations for different areas of Guangdong, was created as a means of providing the community with a unified voice. The heads of these companies were the leaders of the Chinese merchants, who represented the Chinese community in front of the business community as a whole and the city government.

The xenophobia, or fear of foreigners (in this case the Chinese), 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.

Not unlike much of San Francisco, a period of criminality ensued in some tongs on the produce of smuggling, gambling and prostitution, and by the early 1880s, the white population had adopted the term Tong war to describe periods violence in Chinatown, the San Francisco Police Department had established its so-called Chinatown Squad. One of the more successful sergeants, Jack Manion, was appointed in 1921 and served for two decades. The squad was finally disbanded in August 1955 by Police Chief George Healey, upon the request of the influential Chinese World newspaper, which had editorialized that the squad was an "affront to Americans of Chinese descent". 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 Six 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.

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. 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, in conjunction passage of the War Brides Act, 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.

Despite the fact that the majority of California's private property owners refused to sell or deed their land to Chinese, there were areas where many Chinese in Northern California living outside of San Francisco Chinatown, could maintain small communities or even individual business, but except for Oakland, they did not set up any special town with shopping and restaurants. Nonetheless, the historic rights of property owners to deed or sell their property to whom was exercised in sufficient numbers to keep the Chinese community from spreading outside of its early development. However, the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional for property owners to deed their rights so that certain groups were excluded. These rulings allowed the enlargement of Chinatown and an increase of the Chinese population of the city. At the same time, the declining white population of the city as a result of White Flight combined to change the demographics of the city. Neighborhoods that were once predominately white, such as Richmond District and Sunset District and in other suburbs across the San Francisco Bay Area became centers of new Chinese immigrant communities. This included new immigrant groups such as Mandarin-speaking immigrants from Taiwan who have tended to settled in suburban Millbrae, Cupertino, Milpitas, and Mountain View – avoiding San Francisco as well as Oakland entirely. This suburbanization continues today.

With these changes came paradoxically a weakening of the Tongs traditional grip on Chinese life. The newer Chinese groups often came from areas outside of the Tongs control. As a result, the influence of the Tongs and criminal groups associated with them, such as the Triads, grew weaker in Chinatown and the Chinese community in general. However, the presence of the Triads remained significant in the immigrant community, and in the summer of 1977, an ongoing rivalry between two Triads erupted in violence and bloodshed, culminating in a shooting spree at the Golden Dragon Restaurant on Washington Street (華盛頓街). 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. 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. After 1980, America has a growing population of Fujian-dialect speakers. Source: Website.

The 2000 census reported a total population 100,574 persons within the five postal zip codes that overlaps Chinatown and the Chinese community surrounding it. The breakdown of the statistics are as follow:

94108 (Bush-Washington Sts.): 13,716
94133 (Jackson, Pacific, Broadway, and northward): 26,827
94109 (Westward towards Larkin, heavily Chinese): 56,322
94111 (North-East, Financial District): 3,335
94104 (South-East, Financial District): 374

In 2008, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom held a press conference to announce that a census conducted by the city had revealed at least an additional 100,000 residents, mostly poor immigrants within the northeast section of the city, that were not included in the US Government's annual tally. Newsom went on to accuse the Bush administration of purposeful underpresentation as a means of reducing federal aid to the city. Source: San Francisco City Government Website.

List of parks in Chinatown


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 began 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 , include a 299-seat auditorium, a 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

Within the city of San Francisco

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 25th Avenue, and Noriega Street between 19th Avenue and 25th Avenue; between 30th Avenue and 33rd Avenue, both in the Sunset District. Another is sprouting up in the south end of the city on San Bruno Ave. between Silver Ave and Bacon Street

Unlike in most Chinatowns in North America, ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam have not established businesses in San Francisco's Chinatown district, 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 areas

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 southern 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). Similarly, in Millbrae, the city immediately west of the San Francisco International Airport, Chinese shops and restaurants line the El Camino Real and Broadway in Millbrae's downtown.

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 also



  • Chinn, Thomas W. Bridging the Pacific: San Francisco Chinatown and its People. Chinese Historical Society of America, 1989. ISBN 0-9614198-3-0, ISBN 0-9614198-4-9 PB

External links

Search another word or see Cantonese Americanon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature