China still has Chinatowns

Chinatown San Francisco Grant Avenue Stockton Street Portsmouth Square

Who does not know the well-known dragon gate at the entrance to Chinatown in San Francisco. This eye-catching structure on Bush Street and Grant Avenue was a gift from Taiwan to San Francisco in 1969 and marks the southeastern border of the district that has emerged here as a Chinese enclave in the American metropolis since the 1850s and has asserted itself to this day. Over 100,000 Chinese live here in a total of 18 blocks along Grant Avenue and Stockton Street from Bush Street to Columbus Avenue, making it the largest Chinese community outside of China. Only New York's Chinatown can compete with this city within the city.

Briefly a few sentences about the history of the quarter. Chinatown's origins began around 1850 when Chinese seafarers, mainly from the southern Chinese province of Canton, wanted to benefit from the onset of the gold rush and came to California via the safe sea route. Therefore, by the way, San Francisco in China still has the name "old Goldberg". In 1852 there were already 25,000 immigrants looking for gold in the sierras. Since they were competing with the Americans, however, they were subject to special taxes and work bans and withdrew to the San Francisco area. Here they ran laundries or worked as cooks and domestic servants. Few could afford to bring their wives to America; in general, the time of the gold rush was a man's world. The few Chinese women earned their living mainly as prostitutes (around 90% in 1877). For the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, after initial quarrels with the union, almost exclusively Chinese were used as rail workers (in 1868 about 12,000 out of 14,000) because the work was far too dangerous for the whites. The wealthy merchants of Chinatown formed the Canton Company, which from then on served as an intermediary between the labor-seeking industry in California and the Chinese immigrants, collecting the cost of the crossing ($ 40- $ 50). But the poor workers also joined together in associations that were separated according to their occupations (so-called tongs). With the recession after 1870 new problems arose. Every year around 15,000 Chinese came to California, and there was soon talk of a "yellow danger" because the Chinese accepted any work and also continued to depress the crisis wages. In 1882, for example, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which stopped immigration for the time being. The situation only improved with the Second World War, when China was subjugated by Japan and after Pearl Harbor they had a common enemy. As a result, President Roosevelt repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. From 1947, the Chinese were also allowed to acquire real estate and property outside of Chinatown, and one year later they were also allowed to enter into mixed marriages with whites. Today the Chinese have the reputation of a "model minority" thanks to their diligence and ambition; their level of education and income are above the national average.


Grant Avenue, looking north - a typical view of the area from a tourist's point of view (228kb).


Same place, other side of the street in 2003: View of the Old St. Mary's Cathedral (310kb).

Now back to the neighborhood. Although the buildings as such do not differ from those of the rest of the city at first glance, the visitor can immediately recognize that he is on Far Eastern terrain. As soon as you walk through the Dragon Gate you will see yourself surrounded by small shops that sell colorful Chinese articles such as countless exotic spices and cooking ingredients, porcelain, silk and jade jewelry in all sorts of variations, antiques and the usual tourist odds and ends. But there are also restaurants and trading companies. Grant Avenue, which initially climbs steeply, is almost flanked by these shops. Advertising and decorative signs with Chinese characters are omnipresent, decorate the walls of houses or stand around on the sidewalk. Although one is in the middle of America, the ear suddenly hardly perceives the usual American slang. You're in a different world, just a few meters from the rest of the city. To be fair, it has to be added that this impression is probably intended, after all, business people want to make money here, and what better way to do that than with an attraction that San Francisco already has so many of. If you leave Grant Avenue and head into the side streets of Chinatown, the touristy, bloated Chinese ambience gives way to a more sober atmosphere. For this reason, the citizens of San Francisco also consider the somewhat more unadorned, but therefore much more authentic Stockton Street to be the actual center of today's Chinatown.


Pagoda-shaped roofs (259kb).

If you take a closer look at the houses, which rarely happens with the numerous eye-catchers at eye level, you will eventually notice some differences. In addition to the decorative elements that are typical for our western image of Chinese architecture, it is above all the roofs that on some buildings have those curved shapes that you would not expect in America. There are also houses like the strange concrete example in Portsmouth Square, with round porthole windows and an appearance that one would expect in a developing country. Others look magnificent and splendid.

Chinatown has a settlement density ten times higher than the city average, which led to a noticeable narrowness early on. A renovation in the 1970s solved this problem without changing the characteristic colorful appearance too much from a tourist point of view. As far as the ambience is concerned, it must be mentioned that the visual design of the houses with the striking mini pagodas is anything but Chinese. After the great earthquake of 1906, these style elements were added during the reconstruction by the non-Chinese master builders in order to create an oriental flair - certainly with a view to making it more attractive to tourists. Most viewers shouldn't really notice this small stylistic error ...

Ross Alley between Grant Avenue and Stockton Street from Jackson Street to Washington Street was once home to opium shops and has been the backdrop for films like Indiana Jones and the temple of Doom, Karate Kid II and Big Trouble in little China. The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company is located at 56 Ross Alley. Here you can watch the production of the world-famous fortune cookies. Portsmouth Square on Kearny Street between Clay Street and Washington Street made history in 1848 when Sam Brannan announced that gold had been found at Sutters Mill (see Gold Rush). Old St. Mary's Cathedral on the corner of California Street and Grant Avenue is one of the few buildings that survived the great fire of 1906.


View through Dragon Gate onto Bush Street (220kb).


What you can buy here ... (231kb)

We started our short visit, of course, at the Dragon Gate (also known as the Chinatown Gateway). After visiting Market Street we didn't want to miss this nearby attraction. The gate, built in 1970, is decorated with countless green glazed tiles, dragons, dolphins and other animals; Lucky symbols on the three-part roof. The gate is based on the ceremonial gates of Chinese cities. On the small sign above the passage there is a saying by the Chinese statesman Sun Yat-sen, which roughly translates as: "Everything under heaven is fairly distributed". Fortunately, I didn't know this translation at the time, otherwise I would have taken my cell phone and called Bill Gates ... So, as poor tourists, we walked through the gate and on the left side of Grant Avenue into it unknown quarters. Incidentally, Grant Avenue is one of the oldest streets in San Francisco. It was originally founded in 1845 in what was then Yerba Bueno as Calle de la Fundacion. Just a year later, after California joined the Union, the street was renamed Dupont Street in memory of an admiral of the USS Portsmouth. Towards the end of the 19th century, Dupont Street gained dubious fame as part of the Barbary Coast, with brothels, arcades and opium dens. However, after the earthquake of 1906 it was redesigned and named after the 18th President of the USA, Ulysses S. Grant. But even today some Chinese still call the street "Du Pon Gai" (Gai = street). The street lamps are decorated with small dragons, and below the street signs their names are also written in Chinese characters.


The first block of Grant Avenue in Chinatown - Dragon Gate on the right (310kb).

Even the first few deals made us curious and we took a closer look at what was on offer - without buying anything, of course. What do you want with chicken feet, oddly colored powder for whitewash or jade clumps. Nevertheless, it was interesting to take a closer look at this range of goods, which was completely unknown to our experience. While my friends were a bit more curious than I was, I tried in vain to unscrew the polarizing filter from my camera in a quiet corner. The tiny part was unfortunately so firmly attached to the camera that I had to leave it on (which is why the wide-angle images were unfortunately a bit blurred in the corners because the distance from the lens to the camera was a bit longer than usual). At home I got it off with pliers, but it suffered dramatic paint damage. No more polarizing filters on a Nikon Coolpix! But that's only in passing and to explain that some pictures are not available as full-screen versions ... We continued up Grant Avenue, again and again marveling at the shop windows and shops.


Old St. Mary's Cathedral (296kb).

Two blocks past Dragon Gate, on the right corner of California Street, is Old St. Mary's Cathedral. The building immediately catches the eye, as it is one of the few churches in the city that looks like one by our standards. The large brick building with a church tower, which looks tiny next to the skyscrapers, caught my attention because a somewhat strange saying was carved into the wall under the church tower clock: "Son, observe the time and fly from evil". What denomination might be behind that, was my thought. Today I know: it is a Catholic Church, and also the oldest cathedral in California. Most of the stones with which it was built were transported by sailing ships from China around Cape Horn. The cathedral was founded (construction period 1853-1854) by Father Henry Ignatius Stark as a mission to convey the Catholic faith to the Chinese community. It was damaged in the 1906 earthquake, but rebuilt by 1909. Today the cathedral appears in the form it had after it was built. At this intersection, we turned back in 2003, because the district apparently did not appear that different in the further course and Market Street, which was subsequently on our program, had much more interesting shops to offer for our taste. So we went back down Grant Avenue to Dragon Gate and missed z. B. Portsmouth Square.


Bank of America (280kb).

We should see this in 2007. We went further north this time at Old St. Mary's Cathedral. Bank of America appears on the left-hand side of the street at the corner of Sacramento Street. This building is a very good example of traditional Chinese architecture with numerous dragon motifs. Behind the Bank of America is the Chinatown Kite Shop. Here you can buy all kinds of flying objects, from attractive kite fliers in the shape of a fish to nylon or cotton wind kites, hand-painted Chinese paper kites, double-deckers made of wood and paper to double-deckers and pentagonal kites.


Sushi in Chinatown? On the left the kite shop (289kb).

Opposite the kite shop is the wok shop (718 Subventions-Ave). Here you can buy everything you need for cooking the Chinese way: knives, frying pans, cookbooks or vessels. By the way, if you follow Commercial Street past the wok shop, you will come to the former home of Emperor Norton I in the next block behind Kearny Street.

However, we continued up Grant Avenue and turned right on Sacramento Street at the corner of Clay Street. So we came to the square on the east side of the block on the left (north). Portsmouth Square is divided into two levels. From the western, higher level, a bridge over Kearny Street leads to the Transamerica Pyramid, which can be seen very well from here. A much-used children's playground is located at the southern end of the square. Otherwise, the square consists of paths and small squares framed with trees, bushes and benches.

Portsmouth Square was once the central square of Yerba Buena, the first settlement on the site. It was named after the USS Portsmouth, the landing craft of the first soldiers to land here under the command of Captain John B. Montgomery after California was incorporated into the United States in 1846. In 1847, when the site was renamed San Francisco, the first public school was built and public meetings were held. At that time, the place was at the foot of the eastern coast of the peninsula.

Before we took a closer look at the square, we bought extremely delicious sandwiches in the subway on the corner of Clay Street and Kearny Street, which we then ate in the presence of hand-tame pigeons on a bench across from the children's playground.

A detour to the upper square revealed that it was firmly in Chinese hands. As Portsmouth Square is one of the few undeveloped areas in Chinatown, there is always lively activity here. In several places numerous men stood huddled together and busily pursued an occupation that was entirely beyond our view. Some were holding wads of money, so it must have been some game. In another place, cards were not played quite as face down, but a game I did not know. Tai Chi is also practiced here in the early morning hours. Somehow I felt a bit out of place as a tourist with a camera. In the middle of the upper level there is a statue of a woman. It is a replica of the Goddess of Democracy made by Thomas Marsh in 1999. The original is in memory of the Tiananmen Square (Tiananmen) protests.

From Portsmouth Square we continued on Clay Street to the Transamerica Pyramid. From there we finally followed Columbus Ave, which runs diagonally through the blocks, back to Fisherman's Wharf.

Chinatown is not an attraction that amazes you like z. B. the Golden Gate Bridge. It's just a part of the city like from a completely different world; something you just don't expect at this point. The strange and sometimes bizarre offerings in the shops alone are worth a visit. The many small, partly hidden architectural references to China make this district the most clearly optically self-defining of the many country-specific districts of San Francisco. After all, Chinatown has more visitors a year than the mentioned and much better known Golden Gate Bridge. Friends of Chinese food shouldn't miss the well-known dim sum, which is dumplings filled with meat, fish or vegetables.

(c) Stefan Kremer - All rights reserved

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