We met a really nice couple from San Francisco while we were in Little Cayman and my California cousin mentioned she was meeting us for a day while we are here and managed to finagle an offer of a Chinatown tour. Of course we took her up on it! After my cousin managed to take a wrong turn out of the parking garage across the street from our meeting place and wandered a few extra blocks before she found us, we met right by the Dragon Gate and began learning all sorts of cool things! “Things you think are old are often recent, and things that you think are recent are some of the oldest places here.” Case in point, the Dragon Gate, designed by an architecture student and built in the 1970s.
We then started traversing the busy streets of Chinatown and discussing history, shopping and food as we looked at buildings, peeked in shop windows and even stopped in the Catholic Church to look at some historic photos (and talk to the priest as they were lining up to begin Mass). The church overlooks a lovely square that once housed a variety of brothels that the church successfully lobbied to be demolished. In the church were a collection of photos taken of the devastation following the 1906 earthquake and fire. It was remarkable to see the photos of the area and then step outside and look out on the modern skyline. The church also sustained significant damage during the 1989 earthquake, but was restored both times and is a nice church. On a side note, the Priest heard we were from Columbus and mentioned that his order also has the parish at Ohio State, he was so pleased to have that connection!
Another example of a building that looks old, but was built after the 1906 earthquake was this building. It looks like it might have been built of salvaged bricks, but we saw several other buildings that looked the same, so it could have been a style choice as well. The building started out as a home for wayward women (and their newborns) run by a woman who was likely one of the first Social Workers in the country as this place pre-dates Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago.
The wayward women, who were wayward because they were pregnant out of wedlock, likely worked in buildings just down the street. There were very few women in San Francisco in the early days and most were prostitutes working in brothels. The brothels were usually 3 story buildings and the prostitutes were arranged by color – actual color, not necessarily race – with those who would pass as “White” working on the lowest floor, those looking “Asian” on the next level and those considered “Black” on the top floor. I am certain there are excellent histories that talk about the role of women and the impact of sex work in San Francisco, but I have not done any research on the issue, so you will not learn any more on this subject in this blog post.
As we moved on through the neighborhood we explored several alleys which once housed opium dens but now have restaurants, barber shops, news stands. We came across a group of you people practicing martial arts. The alleys in Chinatown are active real estate and an important part of the history of the area.
Down another, we stood in line to enter the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company where they were making fortune cookies, even on a Sunday. One free sample was enough to make me buy a box, and we saw the process of filling and folding the cookies – alas, Dan handed me the camera, so the photographic evidence is not the best. But the place smelled great and the cookies were a nice snack!
A few blocks away and we were climbing 3 flights of stairs on our way to the Tin How Temple on the top floor of a building that had apartments and a business below. The temple was busy as we are approaching Chinese New Year (Year of the Pig) soon. It was full of incense, offerings of oranges and other fruit, and people getting their fortunes. Because it was busy we were not able to learn much, so going back here will be on the “when we come back” list. The Temple had a balcony that overlooks the Financial District, so you walk out of a traditional Chinese place of worship and look out onto the top of the TransAmerica Tower and several other skyscrapers over the top of the shorter buildings.
After the temple, we continued on to Stockton Street where vendors were selling clothing, fruit, dried fish, mushrooms and so many things we could not easily identify or come up with the right use. Chinatown in San Francisco is a busy and vibrant neighborhood with a lot of history and a lot going on. As we headed on to find lunch we passed through a park full of people playing various games of card and mahjong (and likely gambling), kids running around and even a concert put on by a local organization to raise money.
We found a nice place for lunch and shared delicious Chinese food and a bottle of wine from one of the wineries my cousin works for, so it was a great day! We are so thankful for our local guide who shared so much information, her time and gave us a chance to feel like we had the inside scoop on wonderful place.
“Whenever you go on a trip to visit foreign lands or distant places, remember that they are all someone’s home and backyard.”
― Vera Nazarian,