Chinatown Walking Tour, San Francisco

Chinatown Walking Tour (Self Guided), San Francisco

The San Francisco Chinatown is home to one of the largest Chinese communities outside Asia. It is also renowned as a major tourist attraction in the city, drawing annually more visitors than the Golden Gate Bridge. Since its establishment, in 1848, this enclave has been instrumental in the preservation of the history, culture, language, religion, and identity of the ethnic Chinese in the United States.

Throughout the 1850s, Chinese pioneers came to San Francisco in large numbers, drawn initially by the California Gold Rush and the building of the first transcontinental railroad. Seeking refuge from hostilities in the West and the ravages of the 1880s, those early migrants settled near Portsmouth Square and around Dupont Street (now called Grant Ave), creating haven for the later waves of their fellow-countrymen who followed in their footsteps in the 20th century.

Within Chinatown there are two major thoroughfares. One is Grant Avenue, with the prominent Dragon Gate (aka "Chinatown Gate"), a major photo op, marking its southern entrance. Another key focal point in Chinatown is Portsmouth Square, the oldest public space in San Francisco; it bustles with activity all day long, including T'ai Chi and old men playing Chinese chess.

Cable Car 56, ascending Nob Hill from Chinatown along California Street, passes by Sing Chong Bazaar with its distinctive pagoda-topped building and Old Saint Mary's Cathedral. The latter rubs shoulders in the eponymous square with a statue of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen; a war memorial to Chinese war veterans; and multiple stores, restaurants and mini-malls catering mainly to tourists.

Inside the district, alongside Chinese places of worship, such as the Kong Chow Temple, founded in 1849, and the Tin How Temple, founded in 1852 and dedicated to the Queen of Heaven and Goddess of the Seven Seas, there are shrines of various Christian denominations, such as the First Chinese Baptist Church, established in 1880.

To find your way through the oldest Chinatown in North America and to experience its delights first-hand, take this self-guided walk and enjoy yourself!
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Chinatown Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Chinatown Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » San Francisco (See other walking tours in San Francisco)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 8
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.2 Km or 0.7 Miles
Author: doris
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Chinatown Gate (Dragon's Gate)
  • Old St. Mary's Cathedral and Square
  • Sing Chong Building
  • First Chinese Baptist Church
  • Kong Chow Temple
  • Tin How Temple
  • Portsmouth Square
  • Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
Chinatown Gate (Dragon's Gate)

1) Chinatown Gate (Dragon's Gate)

Facing south, as per the principles of Feng Shui, this large dragon-clad arch is a popular (yet somewhat dramatic) entry to San Francisco Chinatown. The gate, opened in 1970, was made from materials gifted by Taiwan, but the actual design came from Chinese-American architect Clayton Lee inspired by ceremonial entrances to Chinese villages. In keeping with tradition, whereby such gateways are often commissioned by the wealthy who wish to enhance their status by having their names inscribed on the gates, the Chinatown portal carries a four-character inscription that translates to "All under heaven is for the good of the people."

Among other notable features, it has two large guardian lions (or lion dogs) looking over the pedestrian entrances. The one on the west side is male, and that on the east is female. You can always tell which is which since the lioness holds a cub under her paw while the male holds a ball. Both the gate and the lions symbolize protection from evil spirits.

Beyond the gate, the pagoda-topped architecture was innovated by Chinatown merchants in the 1920s – a pioneering initiative to lure tourists with a distinctive modern look. Indeed, this had worked, as the dragon streetlights soon chased away the red-light-heyday shady ladies. Today, they light the way to the elegant shops where you can buy antiques, silks, teas, gems, and more.
Old St. Mary's Cathedral and Square

2) Old St. Mary's Cathedral and Square

A couple blocks past Chinatown Gate is Old Saint Mary's, San Francisco's first Catholic cathedral, which predates nearly everything around it. Owing to the shortage of suitable building materials in California, the bricks for the old church were imported in the 1850s from the East Coast, while the granite foundation stones came by boat from China. The clock tower bears the inscription, "Son, observe the time and fly from evil," said to have been directed at the brothels that stood across the street at the time it was built. As if by some miracle, the 1906 earthquake spared the church's walls and tower but destroyed a bordello, making room for Saint Mary's Square.

The church was rebuilt and began ministering to the local Chinese population, as it still does today. Just inside the main doorway behind the banks of pews, a fine photo display details the 1906 damage to the city and the church, while sculptures and stained glass windows run along the sides of the wall. Out of doors, the square shines a pink-granite-and-steel statue of Dr Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Chinese Republic in 1911, created by noted sculptor Benjamin Bufano. You'll also find a small park to sit for a bit and get your bearings while taking in fine views of the Financial District.
Sing Chong Building

3) Sing Chong Building

After the devastating earthquake of 1906, San Francisco's city government smelled the opportunity to drive Chinatown to the fringes, planning to resettle the community to what is now the Bayview neighborhood. But the Chinese Family Associations and the Chinese Consulate refused to budge.

A group of Chinese merchants, including Mendocino-born Look Tin Eli, seized on the idea of hiring American (non-Chinese) architects and contractors to design and rebuild the neighborhood in Chinese-motif "Oriental" style. The plan was to increase the area's appeal as a tourist destination and cultural stronghold.

The result of that design strategy was the pagoda-topped buildings of the Sing Chong and Sing Fat bazaars. These were among the first "new Chinatown" to open and have since become landmark sites. Inspired by Sing Chong's standout look, many other buildings in the area began featuring similar architectural elements. One such was the Bank of America building at 701 Grant Avenue, first occupied by the Nanking Fook Wo Inc., which got decorated in traditional dragon motifs.
First Chinese Baptist Church

4) First Chinese Baptist Church

Situated in the heart of SF's Chinatown, the First Chinese Baptist Church was established in 1880 as a bilingual and bicultural congregation. When Chinese students were not permitted to attend the city's public schools, it offered day school for children and night school for adults; nowadays, it offers two distinct worship experiences to meet the specific interests of people. The 10am Cantonese Worship proclaims the Good News of the Living Christ to a multi-generational congregation. Similarly populated by a wide variety of generations, the 11:20 English Worship proclaims the Gospel in an experience that uses praise band, organ, piano and voice choirs.

Like many others in town, the church's first building was destroyed in the devastating earthquake and fire of 1906. After clearing up the ruins, the new building, completed in 1908, was designed with a peaceful sanctuary and a reading room on the ground floor. The 1st and 2nd floors consist of classrooms, while the 3rd houses a fellowship hall and a few office rooms for the pastors. Major renovations were taken up in 1980 for the centennial celebrations, in which the sanctuary was greatly modified. In the year 2000, the building was further modernized by the addition of elevators and modular classrooms on the 2nd and 4th floors.
Kong Chow Temple

5) Kong Chow Temple

Founded in 1851 by Chinatown's Cantonese community, the Kong Chow Temple is dedicated to Guan Yu, who is worshipped by many different strands of Chinese society (in mainland China, Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and beyond) as an defender of the code of brotherhood and a symbol of fraternal loyalty. The sculpture of the mighty Guan Yu, which serves as the main altar, is very rare to find; in fact, this is one of the very few places in the U.S. where you can see the robust image of this Chinese God.

Due to the original building having been destroyed in the 1906 quake, the temple was relocated to its present site in 1977. Legend has it that the wife of Harry Truman once visited here to pray for positive results to her husband's presidential run and also asked for a prediction about the results. While there, she held a container of Kau cim sticks, and shook them until one of the sticks fell to the ground. This stick was then exchanged for a piece of paper, which told a story, offering insight to her question. The prediction was favorable, and Truman would go on to win the presidential election. The prediction slip that was given to her is still displayed in the temple.

For your visit, be prepared to climb the stairs and make a small donation; a lady will then take you around to place incense at each station. It's a nice 10- or 15-minute excursion that you can mention to your friends when you get home.
Tin How Temple

6) Tin How Temple

Get a peek into the cultural and spiritual aspect of the Far East by visiting the unusual Tin How Temple – the longest-operating Chinese temple in San Francisco and the entire U.S., which fittingly honors of one of the most popular Chinese deities, Mazu – popularly known as Tin How (Tien Hau), Queen of Heaven and Goddess of Seven Seas, said to have powers to protect those traveling long distances.

The temple dates back to the mid-19th century when it was founded by early Cantonese settlers – among the first immigrants to the country. Situated at the top of three steep, wooden flights of stairs, not much has changed here with the passage of time. One can still see old women preparing offerings for the deities, smell the sweet burning of incense and tune into the quiet chants meant to appease the Buddhist deities. Sitting gracefully in the center of it all is Tin How with her assistants by her side.

Although rather small, the temple is generously daubed in gold, vermilion, and hundreds of lanterns and tassels suspended from the ceiling, which are tied by devotees. Some of the items scattered throughout are over a century old. Note also the pyramids of oranges, considered lucky as the Cantonese pronunciation of "orange" sounds similar to the word for wealth. Although the temple doesn't charge admission, it's respectful to leave a small donation and to refrain from using cameras inside.
Portsmouth Square

7) Portsmouth Square

San Francisco's first real city center, Portsmouth Square was born in the mid-1800s and now, to all intents and purposes, serves as Chinatown's living room/social club. When Captain John B. Montgomery came ashore in 1846 to seize the land – then called Yerba Buena – for the U.S., he raised his flag here and named the square after his warship; the spot where he first raised the Stars and Stripes is marked by the one often flying in the square today. Two years later, in 1848, the cry of "Gold! Gold at the American River!" here sent property prices and development skyrocketing as countless prospectors and entrepreneurs poured in.

The plaza is primarily worth visiting to simply absorb everyday life, with spirited games of Mahjong and Chinese Checkers played atop makeshift tables, and neighborhood children letting off steam in the playground (on weekends there can be classical music played on one-string violins, dances, and singing performances). A graceful addition is the Goddess of Democracy, a bronze replica of the statue made by protesters in Tiananmen Square, while nearby stands a small red pagoda-like structure set on the original site of the California Star newspaper's office, which carried the news of the earliest ore discoveries, and thus played a major role in the Gold Rush.

All in all, Portsmouth Square is a lively and important part of this great neighborhood, and an interesting piece of San Francisco's colorful heritage. For revisiting history, resting your feet, getting a snack or doing some light shopping, it is surely a sight to see.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

8) Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

Where else in the state of California, let alone the rest of the U.S., will you find a place that makes fortune cookies by hand in a family-owned bakery? Located in Chinatown, past the clothing shops, the little markets, the knick-knack, and antique shops, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie factory is as good as it gets.

To begin with, you'll have never seen so many fortune cookies in your life! They have chocolate-dipped, sprinkled, giant, and unfolded varieties, and you can even create your own personalized messages to be placed within. You can also see the fresh cookies being made and folded in front of you by hand, at a rate of 20,000 a day, just as they were in 1909, when they were invented for San Francisco's Japanese Tea Garden (other places churn hundreds of thousands out a day, mechanically).

Fresh and warm fortune cookies beat every other fortune cookie you've had before. The ones made here are thin enough that they give a good crisp bite, but also thick enough that they don't just shatter (unlike the thick and crunchy kinds served at restaurants). Plus, each bag and container is insanely cheap for its worth.

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