Covering about 30 city blocks, San Francisco’s Chinatown is North America’s oldest Chinese community. Dating back to the mid-1800s, the area bustles with pagoda rooves, hanging lanterns, specialty shops, restaurants, nightclubs and bars. Old St. Mary’s Church, the continent’s first Asian church, was built in Chinatown in 1853. In 1859, the Chinese School welcomed Asian children, who were rejected by other San Francisco public schools.
In fact, the smoothest sailing the Chinese-American population experienced was most likely on their voyage across the ocean. The first of several Chinese Exclusion Acts was passed in 1882. These laws banned Chinese immigrants from being laborers in the U.S. and prohibited them from attaining citizenship.
Much of the prejudice stemmed from the Chinese workers’ willingness to work for whatever wages they could get, as many of them needed to send money back to families in the old country. American workers felt they were taking jobs and causing wages to be lowered. The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943. In 2011, Edwin Lee was elected mayor of San Francisco, becoming the first Chinese-American person to achieve that honor. It was a long time coming.
The San Francisco earthquake and resultant fires of 1906 did great destruction in Chinatown, destroying buildings and killing a number of its inhabitants. But the business leaders rebuilt and, over the years, overcame problems with vice and gangs. They cleaned up Chinatown and have since welcomed millions of tourists. The Chinese Historical Society of America Museum is worth visiting if you’re a history buff.
Otherwise, don’t miss the famous Dragon’s Gate on Grant Avenue or the opportunity to watch fortune cookies being made. If you’re interested in contemporary Chinese art, visit the culture center. And don’t dismiss Chinese wisdom when it comes to medical remedies—special herbs and healing tinctures. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. You really should put a trip to San Francisco’s Chinatown on your bucket list.