The massive Chinese migration to California began almost as soon as the news of easy gold in the mountain streams made it to East Asia. And despite rampant prejudice and increasingly desperate attempts on the part of “good” Americans to rid their pristine country of these immigrants, the Chinese not only stayed, they persevered and eventually prospered.
Many never made it to the gold fields, preferring instead to remain in bustling San Francisco to open shops and begin the business of commerce in their new home. They were basically segregated to a small area beneath Nob Hill, where they created a motley collection of wooden shacks that served as homes, restaurants, shops, and more.
This neighborhood quickly became known as Chinatown. Chinatown, along with much of San Francisco, was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Despite xenophobic attempts to relocate Chinatown as far away from downtown San Francisco as possible (back to China was a suggestion), the Chinese prevailed and the neighborhood was rebuilt where it originally stood.
Today, visitors see the post-1906 tourist-friendly Chinatown that was built after the quake. Beautiful Asian architecture mixes with the more pedestrian blocky city buildings to create a unique skyscape. Small alleyways wend between the broad touristy avenues, creating an atmosphere that speaks of the secrecy and much closed culture of the Chinese in San Francisco.
Visible from the streets leading into Union Square, the Chinatown Gate (Grant Ave. at Bush St.) perches at the southern “entrance” to Chinatown. The gate, built in 1970, is a relatively recent addition to this history-filled neighborhood. The design features Chinese dragons, pagodas, and other charming details. The inscription reads “All under heaven is for the good of the people,” originally said by Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Its gaudy colorful splendor draws droves of tourists with cameras each day. On weekends it can be tough to find a quick moment to get your own picture taken at the gate!
Chinatown truly is a sight in and of itself. Visitors stroll the streets, exploring the tiny alleys and peeking into the temples, admiring the wonderful Asian architecture on occasionally unlikely buildings. Among the best known of these is the Bank of America Building (555 California St.)—an impressive edifice with a Chinese tiled roof and 60 dragon medallions decorating the facade.
The Bank of Canton (743 Washington St.) is even more traditional in its look. The ultra-Chinese style of this small beautiful building that acted as the Chinatown Telephone Exchange came to be just after the 1906, when the Great Earthquake demolished the original structure. The Bank purchased the bereft building in 1960 and rehabilitated it.
The Sing Chong Building (Grant Ave. at California St.) was another 1906 quick-rebuild, the reconstruction beginning shortly after the ground stopped shuddering and the smoke cleared.
The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company (56 Ross Alley, 415/781-3956, daily 8 a.m.–8 p.m.) makes for a great stop, especially if you’ve brought the kids along. Heck, even if you’re alone, the delicious aromas wafting from the building as you pass the alley on Jackson Street may draw you inside. Expect to have a tray of sample cookies pressed upon you as soon as you enter.
Inside the factory, you’ll see the cookies being folded into their traditional shapes by workers, but the best part of coming to the factory is checking out all the different types of fortune cookies therein. Yes, there are lots of kinds you’ll never see on the tablecloth at a restaurant: chocolate and strawberry flavors, funky shapes, various sizes, and who can leave out the cookies with the X-rated fortunes.
Perfect to bring home and share with friends! Bags of cookies cost only $3–4, making them attractive souvenirs to pick up, though with their lovely scent, they might not make it all the way home with you!
© Liz Hamill Scott from Moon California, 2nd Edition