Chinatown, San Francisco

Chinatown, San Francisco
—  Neighborhood of San Francisco  —
A Gateway Arch (Dragon Gate) on Grant Avenue at Bush Street in Chinatown, the only authentic Chinatown Gate in North America. Unlike similar structures which usually stand on wooden pillars, this iconic symbol conforms to Chinese gateway standards using stone from base to top and green-tiled roofs in addition to wood as basic building materials. The Gateway was designed by Clayton Lee, Melvin H. Lee and Joe Yee in 1970.[1]
Chinatown is located in San Francisco
Location within Central San Francisco
Coordinates: 37°47′41″N 122°24′26″W / 37.79472°N 122.40722°W / 37.79472; -122.40722
 – Board of Supervisors David Chiu
 – State Assembly Tom Ammiano (D)
 – State Senate Mark Leno (D)
 – U.S. House Nancy Pelosi (D)
 – Total 3.5 km2 (1.34 sq mi)
 – Land 3.5 km2 (1.34 sq mi)
Population (2000)[2]
 – Total 100,574
 – Density 28,978.9/km2 (75,055/sq mi)
ZIP Code 94108, 94111, 94104, 94133
Area code(s) 415

San Francisco's Chinatown (Chinese: 唐人街; Mandarin Pinyin: tángrénjiē; Jyutping: tong4 jan4 gaai1) is the oldest Chinatown in North America and one of the largest Chinese neighborhoods outside Asia.[3][4][5][6][7][8] Since its establishment in the 1840s,[9] it has been highly important and influential in the history and culture of ethnic Chinese immigrants to the United States and North America. Chinatown is an active enclave that continues to retain its own customs, languages, places of worship, social clubs, and identity. Popularly known as a "city-within-a-city", it has developed its own government, traditions, over 300 restaurants, and as many shops. There are two hospitals, numerous parks and squares, a post office, and other infrastructure. Visitors can easily become immersed in a microcosmic Asian world, filled with herbal shops, temples, pagoda roofs and dragon parades. In addition to it being a starting point and home for thousands of Chinese immigrants, it is also a major tourist attraction — drawing more visitors annually to the neighborhood than the Golden Gate Bridge.[10]


Neighborhood and characteristics


Chinatown has been traditionally defined by the neighborhoods of North Beach, and Telegraph Hill areas as bound by Bush Street, Taylor Street, Bay Street, and the water.[11] Officially, Chinatown is located in downtown San Francisco, and overlaps five Postal ZIP Codes. It is within an area of roughly 1 mile long by 1.34 miles wide. The current boundary is roughly Montgomery Street, Columbus Avenue and The City's Financial District in the East, Union Street and North Beach in the North all the way to its Northernmost point from the intersection of Jones Street and Lombard Street in Russian Hill to Lombard Street and Grant Avenue (都板街) in Telegraph Hill. The Southeast is bounded by Bush Street with Union Square.

File:SF Chinatown Portsmouth Square.jpg
Portsmouth Square
This file is a candidate for speedy deletion. It may be deleted after Saturday, 24 September 2011.


Within Chinatown there are two major thoroughfares. One is Grant Avenue (都板街), with the Dragon Gate (aka "Chinatown Gate" on some maps; in Bush St & Grant Ave, San Francisco, California 94108) on the intersection of Bush Street and Grant Avenue; St. Mary's Square with a statue of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen; a war memorial to Chinese war veterans; and 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 has smaller side streets and alleyways providing character.

A 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 T'ai 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).



Chinatown is the most densely populated neighborhood in the city and one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the United States.[citation needed] Its estimated population in the 2000 census was at 100,574 residents.[2] It is also one of the more working-class sections of the city, with neighborhood median household incomes averaging out at $42,153,[12] though higher than the national average, is still lower than the citywide average income of $73,798.[13]

Grant Avenue during Chinese New Year.


Many working-class Hong Kong Chinese immigrants began arriving in large numbers in the 1960s and despite their status and professions in Hong Kong, had to find low-paying employment in restaurants and garment factories in Chinatown because of limited English fluency. An increase in Cantonese-speaking immigrants from Hong Kong and Mainland China has gradually led to the replacement of the Hoisanese/Taishanese dialect with the standard Cantonese dialect. Note: In China, Hoisanese/Taishenese is known as "say yip wah", or 4 counties dialect. The major Cantonese dialect is called "sam yip wah", or 3 counties dialect, and is used primarily as the lingua franca for the region. 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.

Recent changes

Due to such overcrowding and poverty, other Chinese areas have been established within the city of San Francisco proper, including one in its Richmond and three more in its Sunset districts, as well as a recently established one in the Visitacion Valley neighborhood. These outer neighborhoods 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 planning to extend the city's subway network to the neighborhood via the new Central Subway.[14]

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[citation needed] signifying its entrance, as well as directional street signs leading to the community.


Early history

1903 Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue). The Chinese Funeral of Tom Kim Yung (1858-1903)
The headquarters of the Chinese Six Companies in San Francisco.

San Francisco's Chinatown was the port of entry for early Hoisanese and Zhongshanese .[citation needed] Chinese immigrants from the Guangdong province of southern China from the 1850s to the 1900s.[15] 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 Hoisanese and male. Many Chinese found jobs working for large companies seeking a source of labor, most famously as part of the 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.

1870s–1906 earthquakes

With 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 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 anti-immigrant sentiment 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 population had adopted the term Tong war to describe periods of 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".[16] The neighborhood was completely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake that leveled most of the city.

Highbinder Tong Wars

In 1875 at Waverly Place, a soldier of the Kwong Duck tong, Ming Long, attacked a rival, Low Sing with a hatchet in a feud over a slave girl. Low Sing survived this brutal assault and Suey Sing tong posted a chun hung challenge to the Kwong Ducks to either admit their wrongdoing, apologize and compensate for Low Sing's injuries, or face mortal combat in Waverly Place at midnight. Refusing to lose face, the Kwong Ducks dispatched their best hatchet men to the appointed site.

Just before midnight, Waverly Place was empty and silent as hundreds of hushed spectators packed the roofs and balconies above and placed bets on the battle's final outcome. Two groups of men formed on opposite sides of the street. These boo hoo dow doy (hatchet sons) were soldiers of Chinatown's criminal tongs, whose violence and cruelty were reputed to match those found in Billy the Kid's Wild West or Al Capone's Chicago gangland. U.S. newspapers called them highbinders (named for the manner in which their braided queues were tied under their caps in order to avoid capture), and sensationalized their accounts of back-street turf battles, vandettas, and bold assassinations. The Suey Sings then attacked with the war cry "Loy gee, hai dai!" (Come on, you cowards!). In the ensuing 15-minute melee, knives and hatchets clashed until the police arrived. Three Kwong Ducks and one Suey Sing were among the dead. The rest, which included six wounded, escaped by rooftop and alleyway. The defeated Kwong Ducks compensated the Suey Sings as required, and apologized to Low Sing, who was to later marry his love, Kum How. Ming Long left for China, never to return.

Most tong wars began not from love triangles, but over turf battles concerning criminal enterprises. At the height of the criminal tongs during the 1880s and 1890s, roughly 20 to 30 tongs ran highly profitable gambling houses, brothels, opium dens, and slave trade enterprises in Chinatown. Overcrowding, segregation, graft, and the lack of governmental control contributed to conditions that sustained the criminal tongs from the 1870s to the early 1920s.

The highbinder tongs had considerable support structures and resources at their disposal, including small mazes of alleyways and connecting basements that created a labyrinthine network of passage ways and escape routes. Hatchet men who were being pursued could disappear into a building on one side of Chinatown and reappear on the other end, traveling entirely underground. Prior to the 1906 earthquake, various anti-vice laws were enacted in San Francisco, but through its system of graft, red-light districts rampant with prostitution, gambling, and drugs flourished.

Chinatown's isolation and compact geography intensified the criminal behavior that terrorized the community for decades despite efforts by the Six Companies and police to stem the tide. When the 1906 earthquake destroyed Chinatown's wooden tenements, it also dealt a death blow to the powerful tongs. Criminal tongs continued on until the 1920s, but after the earthquake legitimate Chinese merchants and a more capable police force under Capt. Jack Manion gained the upper hand. Stiffer legislation against prostitution and drugs that followed was the final nail in the coffin for the tongs, bringing an end to the darkest period in Chinatown's history.[17]

20th century

During the city's rebuilding process, certain 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. Their plans failed as the Chinese, particularly with the efforts of Consolidated Chinese Six companies, the Chinese government, and American commercial interests reclaimed would then be absorbed into the financial district 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.[18] 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 validate their papers. The detention facility has been renovated in 2005 and 2006 under a 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 Say Yip Wah(Cantonese sub-dialect of Hoisan and 3 other towns)-speaking to Sam Yip Wah(major 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 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 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 people were killed and eleven wounded. The incident has become infamously known as the Golden Dragon massacre.[19] The Golden Dragon closed in January 2006 because of a failed inspection of the restaurant, and is now the Imperial Palace Restaurant.[20]


Cultural institutions

Chinatown's cultural character has also been a major focal point in Chinese American and Asian American culture. Noted Chinese American writers grew up there such as Russell Leong, to The Joy Luck Club author Amy Tan whose experiences growing up in the neighborhood formed the basis of the famous book and film.

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.

Autumn Moon Festival

San Francisco Chinatown's annual Autumn Moon Festival celebrates seasonal change and the opportunity to give thanks to a bountiful summer harvest. The Moon Festival is popularly celebrated throughout China and surrounding countries each year, with local bazaars, entertainment, and mooncakes, the pastry filled with sweet bean paste and egg. The festival is held each year during mid-September, and is free to the public.

Fame of Chinatown

Chinatown restaurants are considered to be the birthplace of Westernized Chinese cuisine such as food items like Chop Suey while introducing and popularizing Dim Sum to Western and American tastes, as its Dim Sum tea houses are a major tourist attraction. Many of its restaurants have been featured in many food television programs dealing with ethnic Chinese cuisine such as Martin Yan's Martin Yan - Quick & Easy.

The Chinatown has served as a backdrop for several movies, television shows, plays and documentaries including such hits as The Maltese Falcon, Big Trouble in Little China, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Presidio, Flower Drum Song and The Dead Pool.

Chinese Culture Center

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 Chinese Culture Center (CCC) opened in 1973 as CCF’s primary program site. The facilities of the Center, totaling 20,000 square feet (2,000 m2), include a 299-seat auditorium, a 2,935-square-foot (273 m2) gallery, book shop, classroom, and offices. Centrally located at the Hilton hotel on the third floor 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.

In its 45 years, CCC has played a pioneering role in introducing Chinese culture to the American public through exhibitions and public programming of a broad spectrum of Chinese traditional and contemporary artistic works in multiple disciplines: Visual Arts, Literature, Music and Theater.

Visual Arts- The CCC has produced over 100 groundbreaking exhibits that have evolved over time using various modalities, artists, and styles to capture a contemporary pulse. Today, the CCC features its annual “Xian Rui” (Fresh and Sharp) exhibition, and the “Present Tense” biennial series as well as regular exhibits and seminars open to the public throughout the year.

Public Programs – The CCC’s major annual public program is the Spring Festival Celebration, coinciding with the Lunar New Year. This 2-day event consists of music and dance performances, martial arts demonstrations and arts and crafts vendors. CCC also serves as a performing arts presenter, and in its recent history has instated annual musical events, including the Chinatown Music Festival and Winter Concert.

Education - The CCC holds regular language and culture classes on a quarterly basis, and continues to prioritize cultural exchange with China as part of its yearly curriculum. At the center, students can enroll in Mandarin language, music, and art classes, and the center also provides the wider community with opportunities to study martial arts and language in China several times throughout the year.

See also


  1. ^ Le Bas, Tom ed. by: "Insight Guides China, 10th ed.", page 104, APA Publications, 2008.
  2. ^ a b Ward, Brant (December 29, 2009). "Chinatown family life - what tourists don't see". The San Francisco Chronicle. 
  3. ^ City-Data California Ethnic Group Breakdown Page
  4. ^ Hoiberg, Dale: The New Encyclopaedia Britannica MicroPaedia vol. 10, Page 388., Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc, 2007.
  5. ^ Wanning, Esther: Culture Shock! USA, Color Plateno. 2, after Page 180., Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2008
  6. ^ "USA". Retrieved 2011-10-08. 
  7. ^ United Parcel Service Community Site
  8. ^ TED Case Studies/Illegal Immigration Studies Website
  9. ^ The Official San Francisco Chinatown Website
  10. ^ San Francisco Chinatown Page at
  11. ^ "North Beach / Chinatown / Telegraph Hill." San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved on February 1, 2009.
  12. ^ "94108 Zip Code (San Francisco, California) Profile - homes, apartments, schools, population, income, averages, housing, demographics, location, statistics, sex offenders, residents and real estate info". Retrieved 2011-10-08. 
  13. ^ "San Francisco County, California detailed profile - houses, real estate, cost of living, wages, work, agriculture, ancestries, and more". Retrieved 2011-10-08. 
  14. ^ "Central Subway Overview". Retrieved 2011-10-08. 
  15. ^ View a KPIX-TV 1963 documentary film about the early history of San Francisco's Chinatown:
  16. ^ Davies, Lawerence E. (August 7, 1955). "Coast Chinatown loses tie to past; San Francisco Police Detail, Started in Days of Tong, Passes Tomorrow". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-10-30. 
  17. ^ Bacon, Daniel: Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail 2nd. Ed., Pages 59-62., Quicksilver Press, 1997
  18. ^ Hua, Vanessa (April 13, 2006). "The Great Quake: 1906-2006 Out of chaos came new Chinese America". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-10-30. 
  19. ^ Inside Chinatown's Gangs
  20. ^ Golden Dragon Closes and owes a million...

Further reading

External links

Coordinates: 37°47′41″N 122°24′26″W / 37.79472°N 122.40722°W / 37.79472; -122.40722

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