Chinatown, San Francisco

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Chinatown businesses line Jackson Street, with the Bay Bridge in the foreground.
Chinatown businesses line Jackson Street, with the Bay Bridge in the foreground.
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; -122.40722Coordinates: 37°47′41″N 122°24′26″W / 37.79472°N 122.40722°W / 37.79472; -122.40722
Country  United States
State  California
City-county San Francisco
 • Supervisor Aaron Peskin
 • Assemblymember David Chiu (D)[1]
 • State senator Scott Wiener (D)[1]
 • U. S. rep. Nancy Pelosi (D)[2]
 • Total 1.34 sq mi (3.5 km2)
 • Land 1.34 sq mi (3.5 km2)
Population (2000)[3]
 • Total 100,574
 • Density 75,055/sq mi (28,979/km2)
Time zone Pacific (UTC−8)
 • Summer (DST) PDT (UTC−7)
ZIP codes 94108, 94111, 94104, 94133
Area codes 415/628

The Chinatown centered on Grant Avenue and Stockton Street in San Francisco, California, (Chinese: 唐人街; pinyin: tángrénjiē; Jyutping: tong4 jan4 gaai1) is the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest Chinese enclave outside Asia. It is the oldest of the four notable Chinatowns in the city.[4][5][6][7][8][9][10] Since its establishment in 1848,[11] it has been highly important and influential in the history and culture of ethnic Chinese immigrants in North America. Chinatown is an enclave that continues to retain its own customs, languages, places of worship, social clubs, and identity. There are two hospitals, numerous parks and squares, a post office, and other infrastructure. While recent immigrants and the elderly choose to live here because of the availability of affordable housing and their familiarity with the culture,[12] the place is also a major tourist attraction, drawing more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge.[13]

Geography and location[edit]

Washington Street in Chinatown with Transamerica Pyramid in the background.

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.[14] Officially, Chinatown is located in downtown San Francisco, covers 24 square blocks,[15] and overlaps two postal ZIP codes (94108 and 94133). It is within an area of roughly a half mile long by a quarter mile wide with the current boundaries being Kearney Street in the east, Broadway in the north, Powell Street in the west, and Bush Street in the south.

Stockton Street

Within Chinatown there are two major thoroughfares. One is Grant Avenue (都板街), with the Dragon Gate ("Chinatown Gate" on some maps) at the intersection of Bush Street and Grant Avenue, Designed landscape archtiects Melvin Lee and Joseph Yee and Architect Clayton Lee; Saint Mary's Square with a statue of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen by Benjamin Bufano;[15] 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. It is dominated by mixed-use buildings that are three to four stories high, with shops on the ground floor and residential apartments upstairs.[16]

A major focal point in Chinatown is Portsmouth Square.[15] Since it is one of the few open spaces in Chinatown and sits above a large underground parking lot, Portsmouth Square bustles with activity such as T'ai Chi and old men playing Chinese chess.[15] 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).


According to the San Francisco Planning Department, Chinatown is "the most densely populated urban area west of Manhattan", with 15,000 residents living in 20 square blocks.[17] In the 1970s, the population density in Chinatown was seven times the San Francisco average.[18] The estimated total population in the 2000 Census was at 100,574 residents.[3]

During the time from 2009 to 2013, the median household income was $20,000 - compared to $76,000 citywide - with 29% of residents below the national poverty threshold. The median age was 50 years, the oldest of any neighborhood.[19] As of 2015, two thirds of the residents lived in one of Chinatown's 105 single room occupancy hotels (SRO), 96 of which had private owners and nine were owned by nonprofits.[20] There are two public housing projects in Chinatown, Ping Yuen and North Ping Yuen.[21]

Most residents are monolingual speakers of Mandarin or Cantonese;[19] in 2015, only 14% of households in the SROs were headed by a person that spoke English fluently.[20] The areas of Stockton and Washington Streets and Jackson and Kearny Streets in Chinatown are almost entirely Chinese or Asian, with blocks ranging from 93% to 100% Asian.[22]

Many of those Chinese immigrants who gain some wealth while living in Chinatown leave it for the Richmond District, the Sunset District or the suburbs.[19]

Demographic history[edit]

Grant Avenue during Chinese New Year.

Working-class Hong Kong Chinese immigrants began arriving in large numbers in the 1960s. Despite their status and professional qualifications in Hong Kong, many took low-paying employment in restaurants and garment factories in Chinatown because of limited English. An increase in Cantonese-speaking immigrants from Hong Kong and Mainland China has gradually led to the replacement in Chinatown of the Taishanese dialect by the standard Cantonese dialect.

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.[23]

Unlike in most Chinatowns in the United States, 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.


Early history[edit]

The Street of Gamblers (Ross Alley), Arnold Genthe, 1898. The population was predominantly male because U.S. policies at the time made it difficult for Chinese women to enter the country.
The headquarters of the Chinese Six Companies

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.[24] 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[15] on the Transcontinental Railroad. Other early immigrants worked as mine workers or independent prospectors hoping to strike it rich during the 1849 Gold Rush.

During the late period of the California Gold Rush, a few Chinese female prostitutes began their sexual businesses in Chinatown. In addition, the major prostitution enterprises had been raised by criminal gang group "Tong", importing unmarried Chinese women to San Francisco.[25] During the 1870s to 1880s, the Chinese sex workers population in Chinatown grew rapidly to more than 1,800, accounting for 70% of the total Chinese female population.[25]

In the mid-19th century, police harassment reshaped the urban geography and the social life of Chinese prostitutes. Consequently, hundreds of Chinese prostitutes were expelled to side streets and alleys hidden from public traffic.[26] From 1870 to 1874, the California legislature formally criminalized the immigrant Asian women who were transported into California. In 1875, the U.S. Congress followed California's action and passed the Page Law, which was the first major legal restriction to prohibit the immigration of Chinese, Japanese, and Mongolian women into America.[27] In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act declared that no more skilled or unskilled immigrants would be allowed to enter the country, which meant that many Chinese and Chinese Americans could not have families in America, because their wives and children were prohibited to immigrate.[28] Simultaneously, the public discourse began to accuse Chinese prostitutes of transmitting venereal diseases. In the 1876s, Dr. Hugh Huger Toland, a member of the San Francisco Board of Health, reported that white men contracted diseases when they visited "Chinese houses of prostitution" in Chinatown, in order to warn white citizens to stay away the Chinatown.[citation needed]

Ah Toy[edit]

Ah Toy (c.1828 - 1928) was a Cantonese[29] prostitute and madam in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush, and purportedly the first Chinese prostitute in San Francisco.[30] Arriving from Hong Kong in 1849,[31] she quickly became the most well-known Asian woman in the Old West.[32] She reportedly was a tall, attractive woman with bound feet.[33] When Ah Toy left China for the United States, she originally traveled with her husband, who died during the voyage. Toy became the mistress of the ship's captain, who showered gold upon her, so much so that by the time she arrived in San Francisco in the 1840s,[34] Toy had a fair bit of money. Noticing the looks she drew from the men in her new town, she figured they would pay for a closer look. Her peep shows became quite successful, and she eventually became a high-priced prostitute. In 1850, Toy opened a chain of brothels at 34 and 36 Waverly Place[34] (then called Pike Street), importing girls from China as young as eleven years old to work in them. Her neighbors on Pike Street--conveniently linked to San Francisco's business district by Commercial Street--included the elegant new "parlour house" of madame Belle Cora, and the cottage of Fanny Perrier, mistress of Judge Edward (Ned) McGowan. Towards the end of her life Ah Toy supposedly returned to China a wealthy woman to live the rest of her days in comfort,[35] but came back to California not long afterward. From 1868 until her death in 1928, she lived a quiet life in Santa Clara County, returning to public attention only upon dying three months short of her hundredth birthday in San Jose.[36][37]

1870s to the 1906 earthquake[edit]

With nationwide 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 Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, also known as the Chinese Six Companies, which evolved out of the labor recruiting organizations for different areas of Guangdong, was created to provide the community with a unified voice. The heads of these companies advocated for the Chinese community to the wider business community as a whole and to the city government.

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 enough to reduce the population of the neighborhood to an all-time low in the 1920s. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed during World War II by the Magnuson Act in recognition of the important role of China as an ally in the war, but tight quotas still applied.

As in much of San Francisco, a period of criminality ensued in some tongs based on smuggling, gambling and prostitution. By the early 1880s, the population had adopted the term Tong war to describe periods of violence in Chinatown and 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".[38]

Tong wars[edit]

From the mid-1870s, Tong wars sprang up over turf battles concerning criminal enterprises. At the height of the criminal tongs during the 1880s and 1890s, twenty to thirty 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 until the early 1920s. Chinatown's isolation and compact geography intensified the criminal behavior that terrorized the community for decades despite efforts by the Six Companies and police/city officials[39] to stem the tide.

Bubonic plague[edit]

In March 1900, a Chinese-born man who was a long-time resident of Chinatown was found dead of bubonic plague. The next morning, all of Chinatown was quarantined, with policemen preventing "Asiatics" (people of Asian heritage) from either entering or leaving. The San Francisco Board of Health began looking for more cases of plague and began burning personal property and sanitizing buildings, streets and sewers within Chinatown. Chinese Americans protested and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association threatened lawsuits.

The quarantine was lifted but the burning and fumigating continued. A federal court ruled that public health officials could not close off Chinatown without any proof that Chinese Americans were any more susceptible to plague than Anglo Americans.[40][41][42][43][44]

Sexual tourism[edit]

By the end of the 19th century, Chinatown's assumed reputation as a place of vice caused it to become a tourist destination, attracting numerous working class white people, who sought the oriental mystery of Chinese culture, and sought to fulfill their expectations and fantasies about the filth and depravity. The white customers' patronization of Chinatown prostitutes was more extensive than gambling. After catering for three decades to white people as well as Chinese bachelors, Chinatown's prostitution sector developed into a powerful vested interest, favoring the vice industry.[45] As the tourist industry grew up, the visitors came to include members of the white middle class, which pushed the vice businesses to transform into an entertainment industry as a more respectable form in which to serve white customers.

1906 to the 1960s[edit]

Looking north along Grant from the intersection of Grant and Pine. The distinctive pagoda-topped roofs of the Sing Fat and Sing Chong buildings are on the left side of each picture.

The Chinatown neighborhood was completely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake that leveled most of the city.

As the city rebuilt afterwards, certain city officials and real-estate developers hatched plans to move Chinatown to the Hunters Point neighborhood at the southern edge of the city, or even further south to Daly City. Abe Ruef, the political boss widely considered to be the power behind Mayor Eugene Schmitz, invited himself to become part of the Committee of Fifty and formed an additional Subcommittee on Relocating the Chinese, because he felt the land was too valuable for Chinese. Opposition arose, however, from politicians who feared that the removal of the Chinese would affect San Francisco's lucrative oriental trade. Moreover, the government of China was also opposed, and soon after the earthquake, the first secretary of the Chinese legation in Washington, DC, arrived in San Francisco, conveying to California governor George Pardee, the opposition of China's Empress Dowager Cixi to the plan.[46] Ironically, these plans failed in the end because restrictive housing covenants in other areas of the city prohibited Chinese from settling.[47]

When the earthquake destroyed Chinatown's wooden tenements, it also dealt a death blow to the tongs. Criminal tongs continued on until the 1920s, but after the earthquake legitimate Chinese merchants and a more capable police force under Jack Manion gained the upper hand. Stiffer legislation against prostitution and drugs ended the tongs.[48]

The famous Sam Wo restaurant opened in 1912.

During the Great Depression, a bunch of nightclubs and cocktail bars started business located in Chinatown.[49] The nightclub Forbidden City, located at 369 Sutter Street in Chinatown and run by Charlie Low, became one of the most famous entertainment places in San Francisco.[50] During its time in business from the late 1930s to the late 1950s, the Forbidden City gained an international reputation with its unique showcase of exotic oriental performance from Chinese American performers.[51] Another popular club for tourists and LGBT clients was Li Po, which, like Forbidden City, combined western entertainment with "Oriental" culture. It was advertised in a 1939 tourism guide book as a "jovial and informal Chinatown cocktail lounge" where one could find "love, passion, and nighttime".[16] As of 2015, it was still in operation at 916 Grant Avenue.[50]

Many early Chinese immigrants to San Francisco and beyond were processed at Angel Island, in the San Francisco Bay, which is now a state park. Unlike Ellis Island on the east coast 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 was renovated in 2005 and 2006 under a federal grant.

The repeal of the Exclusion Act and the other immigration restriction laws, in conjunction with passage of the War Brides Act, allowed Chinese-American veterans to bring their families outside of national quotas and led to a major population boom in the area during the 1950s.

Frank Wong dioramas[edit]

San Francisco artist Frank Wong created miniature dioramas that depict Chinatown during the 1930s and 1940s.[52] In 2004, Wong donated seven miniatures of scenes of Chinatown, titled "The Chinatown Miniatures Collection," to the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA).[53] The dioramas are on permanent display in CHSA’s Main Gallery.[52][53][54]


In the 1960s, the shifting of underutilized national immigration quotas brought in another huge wave of immigrants, mostly from Hong Kong. This changed San Francisco Chinatown from predominantly Hlay Yip Wah (Sze Yup or Hoisan Wah)-speaking to Sam Yup Wah (standard Cantonese)-speaking. During the same decade, many stores moved from Grant Avenue to Stockton Street, drawn by lower rents and the better transportation enabled by the 30-Stockton Muni trolleybus line.[55]

There were areas where many Chinese in Northern California living outside of San Francisco Chinatown could maintain small communities or individual businesses, but except for in Oakland, they did not set up any special town with shopping and restaurants.[citation needed] Nonetheless, the historic rights of property owners to deed or sell their property to whomever they pleased was exercised enough to keep the Chinese community from spreading. However, in Shelley v. Kraemer, the Supreme Court had ruled it unconstitutional for property owners to exclude certain groups when deeding their rights. This ruling allowed the enlargement of Chinatown and an increase in 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 settle in suburban Millbrae, Cupertino, Milpitas, and Mountain View – avoiding San Francisco as well as Oakland entirely. This suburbanization continues today.[citation needed]

Gang violence[edit]

With these changes came a weakening of the Tongs' traditional grip on Chinese life. Newer Chinese groups often came from areas outside of the Tongs' control, so the influence of the Tongs and criminal groups associated with them, such as the Triads, grew weaker in Chinatown and the Chinese community. However, the presence of the Asian gangs remained significant in the immigrant community, and in the summer of 1977, an ongoing rivalry between two street gangs 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, none of whom were gang members. The incident has become infamously known as the Golden Dragon massacre. Five perpetrators, who were members of the Joe Boys gang, were convicted of murder and assault charges and were sentenced to prison.[56] The Golden Dragon closed in January 2006 because of health violations, and later reopened as the Imperial Palace Restaurant.[57]

Other notorious acts of violence have taken place in Chinatown. In May 1990, San Francisco residents who had just left the Purple Onion nightclub at the edge of Chinatown at 2 a.m. were fired upon as they entered their cars. 35-year-old Michael Bit Chen Wu was killed and six other people were injured, one of them a pregnant woman who was critically injured.[58] In June 1998, shots were fired at Chinese Playground, wounding six teenagers, three of them critically. A 16-year-old boy was arrested for the shooting, which was believed to be gang-related.[59]



San Francisco's Chinatown is home to the 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.

The Chinese Culture Center is a community based non-profit organization located on the third floor of a Holiday Inn. The Center promotes exhibitions about Chinese life in the United States and organizes tours of the area. The Chinese Historical Society of America is located on Clay.


Since the 1950s,[citation needed] a number of Chinese-American leaders organized the San Francisco Chinese New Year Festival and Parade, including art shows, street dances, martial arts, music, and a fashion show. In 1954, the parade added beauty queens to this annual ritual, which by 1958 had been formally expanded into the pageant of "Miss Chinatown U.S.A".[60] In 1994, around 120 queer Asian Americans joined the annual parade, which was the first time that Asian American queer community had appeared in public and gained acceptance from Chinese-American society.[61]

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.

Chinatown is frequently the venue of traditional Chinese funeral processions, where a marching band (playing Western songs such as Nearer, My God, to Thee) takes the street with a motorcycle escort.[62] The band is followed by a car displaying an image of the deceased (akin to the Chinese custom of parading a scroll with his or her name through the village), and the hearse and the mourners, who then usually travel to Colma south of San Francisco for the actual funeral.[63] By union regulation, the procession route starts at the Green Street Mortuary proceeding on Stockton Street for six blocks and back on Grant Avenue, taking about one hour.[62]

Chinatown Community Development Center[edit]

Chinatown Community Development Center is an organization formed in 1977 after the merger of the Chinatown Resource center and the Chinese Community Housing Corporation.[64] The organization was started by Gordon Chin, who served as Executive Director since 1977 until he was succeeded by the organization's Deputy Director Rev. Norman Fong on October 1, 2011. The organization advocates and provides services to San Francisco's Chinatown. They have also started many groups, Adopt-An-Alleyway Youth Empowerment Project being the most notable,[65] and have been involved with many tenant programs.[66]

Media and politics[edit]

In the citywide Board of Supervisors elections, Chinatown forms part of District Three and in 2014 accounted for 44% of both registered voters and ballots cast.[19] The two main newspapers read among residents are Sing Tao Daily and World Journal.[19]

SF Mayor Willie Brown attends a Chinese New Year Celebration in Chinatown.


San Francisco 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. Johnny Kan was the proprietor of one of the first modern style Chinese restaurants, which opened in 1953. Many of the district's restaurants have been featured in food television programs on Chinese cuisine such as Martin Yan's Martin Yan - Quick & Easy.

Chinatown has served as a backdrop for several movies, television shows, plays and documentaries including The Maltese Falcon, What's Up, Doc?, Big Trouble in Little China, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Presidio, Flower Drum Song, The Dead Pool, and Godzilla.

Noted Chinese American writers grew up there such as Russell Leong. Contrary to popular belief, while the Chinese-American writer Amy Tan was inspired by Chinatown and its culture for the basis of her book The Joy Luck Club and the subsequent movie, she did not grow up in this area; she was born and grew up in Oakland.[67] Notable 1940s basketball player Willie "Woo Woo" Wong, who excelled in local schools, college and professional teams, was born in, and grew up playing basketball in, Chinatown; a local playground bears his name.[68][69][70] Actor Bruce Lee, who was born at San Francisco Chinese Hospital before moving back to Hong Kong three months later, returned to the United States at the age of eighteen, residing in San Francisco's Chinatown for the first few months before moving to Seattle.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]