San Francisco is undoubtedly a multicultural city with a very liberal spirit. The city is home to around 900,000 residents from an incredible cultural diversity and a diverse mix of races, with approximately 34.4% of the population being of Asian origin.
San Francisco’s Chinatown District is one of the oldest and most established Chinatowns in the United States, and it is also one of the largest Chinese communities outside of Asia, with over 15,000 residents. Since its founding in 1848, it has played a significant and influential role in the history and culture of immigrant communities of Asian ethnicity in North America, maintaining their customs, languages, places of worship, and identity. Throughout the neighborhood, you can find various parks and squares, numerous churches, post offices, two hospitals, and other infrastructure.
A significant portion of the community living in Chinatown chose to settle in the area due to the availability of relatively affordable housing compared to other parts of the city ($20,000 compared to $76,000) and their familiarity with Chinese culture. Many Chinese immigrants who managed to accumulate wealth while living in Chinatown later moved to other parts of the city, primarily to the Richmond District.
While strolling through the Chinatown area, you’ll come across several typical tourist attractions of Chinese culture thanks to the vibrant colors and various types of ornamentation. The following map highlights six of the main tourist attractions in the Chinatown area of San Francisco.
1) Grant Avenue
Grant Avenue, San Francisco – CA 94133 ESTADOS UNIDOS
This avenue is one of the oldest streets in the Chinatown district and the city of San Francisco. In Chinese, it is known as ‘Du Pon Gan,’ but its original name was given in honor of the 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877). The street runs north-south, starting in the Market Street area, in the heart of downtown, and ending at Francisco Street in the North Beach district. It continues further as North Point Street for a block, reaching Embarcadero and Pier 39. Most of this street is one-way for vehicular traffic, except between Sutter and Geary Streets.
2) Columbus Tower
900 Kearny Street, San Francisco – CA 94133 ESTADOS UNIDOS
Also known as the Sentinel Building, the Columbus Tower is a mixed-use building whose construction was completed in 1907 by the architectural firm Salfield and Kohlberg. It is a distinctive green-copper Flatiron-style structure bordered by Columbus Avenue, Kearny Street, and Jackson Street, spanning the neighborhoods of North Beach, Chinatown, and the Financial District of San Francisco. A significant portion of the building is occupied by the American film studio Zoetrope of producer Francis Ford Coppola, and since 1999, the ground floor has housed a bistro café and wine shop bearing the company’s name.
3) Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
56 Ross Alley, San Francisco – CA 94108 ESTADOS UNIDOS
This Chinese fortune cookie company opened its doors in 1962 and is owned by Franklin Yee. In this store, there is a traditional fortune cookie factory as well as chocolate, almond, strawberry, and other sweet-flavored ones, and visitors can watch the workers making the various cookies. More than 10,000 fortune cookies are made here every day, baked on a rotating copper sheet wheel, and then gently twisted as the message is carefully placed inside.
Inside the store, you can see the employees making the traditional fortune cookies, but supposedly, during the peak summer tourist season, taking photos inside is allowed only with the payment of a fee. However, I visited the Chinatown area in mid-August and had complete freedom to take photos inside without paying anything.
We chose to buy a small bag with 12 of the traditional Chinese fortune cookies with messages inside, and we paid about $5. Since this is one of the main fortune cookie factories in San Francisco, it’s definitely worth visiting and taking the opportunity to taste them as well.
4) Old Chinese Telephone Exchange
743 Washington Street, San Francisco – CA 94108 ESTADOS UNIDOS
Also known as United Commercial Bank or Bank of Canton, it was originally built in 1909 to house the Chinese telephone exchange, which had its own telephone service. When it opened, the manager, Mr. Loo Kum Shu, employed only male operators, but around 1906, women became the main operators due to customer preference. These telephone operators who worked here could speak English and five Chinese dialects, in addition to knowing all customers by name and address. The building is an incredible landmark and a historic site in the Chinatown area, which operated until 1940 when telephone technology evolved.
5) Tin How Temple
125 Waverly Plaza, San Francisco – CA 94108 ESTADOS UNIDOS
This is the oldest Taoist temple in San Francisco’s Chinatown and one of the oldest functioning Chinese temples in the United States. Founded in 1842, this temple is dedicated to the Chinese sea goddess Mazu, known in Chinese as Tin How. The building was partially destroyed due to the 1906 earthquake, but the goddess’s image, the bell, and most of the altar survived the disaster. Years later, in 1955, the temple had to be closed but reopened in May 1975 after the approval of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which caused a revitalization of the Chinatown area.
6) Sing Chong Building
601 Grant Avenue, San Francisco – CA 94108 ESTADOS UNIDOS
After the devastating 1906 earthquake, the city government attempted to relocate the entire Chinatown to the outskirts, but Chinese associations and the Chinese Consulate refused to yield. A group of Chinese merchants had the idea of hiring American architects and contractors to design and rebuild the district in a modern but oriental style, complete with all the typical architectural details of Chinese culture, with the goal of boosting tourism in the region and preserving the cultural heritage. As a result of this project, several buildings were constructed, including Sing Chong, which features a pagoda-style rooftop and various other ornaments with traditional Chinese motifs, alluding to the dragon element.
The Chinatown district of San Francisco is truly fascinating, and thanks to its central location near other attractions, it’s well worth including a quick visit in your travel itinerary. Don’t forget to also include the Castro neighborhood, synonymous with freedom of expression and LGBT culture, in your travel plans.
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