San Francisco’s Chinatown

Hello.

Welcome to Adventure with Courtney. We’ll continue to adventure around and see more historically, dorky stuff in 2019. Hopefully, it’s enough to ensure we know way too much about architecture and history to make us all THE person to have on the local trivia team.

I’ve spent the first couple of months 2019 not posting anything. Surprising, I know. If you closely follow this blog, you’ll know that posts were few and far between in 2018 and have probably assumed that 2019 will be similar. There was a lot going on for me in 2018- a new job, moving from Northern New York to Sacramento, CA, and figuring out how to adjust to a new location that’s totally different than NNY. During that time, I didn’t necessarily quite adventuring, I actually saw a lot of cool, historic places: Solvang, tons of things in San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, downtown adventures in Sacramento, Disneyland, etc. you get the point. I saw things, I just sadly didn’t have as much time as I wish I had to share all of those awesome places and little know history on this blog.

So, for roughly the past few months, I’ve been pulling together notes, researching, and planning posts. In doing so, I’ve realized that I have one too many notebooks. It’s a problem that many of us have yet just won’t admit. The exciting news, other than having too many notebooks, is that I think I have pulled together, (I hope) is a good enough starting point to ensure there are enough new Adventures with Courtney to share.   

Starting the belated new year on Adventure with Courtney – not just the literal new year of 2019 but also the third year of this blog being a thing- Happy Belated Birthday to this Blog which celebrated its third year on April 1, 2019!-  we’ll explore/adventure to one of my favorite cities: San Francisco. I was last in the city near the end of of February to hang out in Chinatown during the Chinese New Year Festival and to see the New Year Parade. It was a lot of fun!

The festival occurred on both Saturday and Sunday along Grant Street in Chinatown, with other festival things happening throughout the neighborhood but I only attended the festival on Saturday. That happened to be the same day as the New Year Parade.

Year of the Pig ParadeYear of the Pig ParadeYear of the Pig ParadeYear of the Pig ParadeYear of the Pig ParadeThe Golden DragonThe Golden Dragon

This was the year of the Earth Pig (previous years of the pig include: 2007, 1995, 1983, 1971, 1956, 1947, 1935). People born in the year of the Pig think logically and are good at fixing whatever problem they’re in. I was actually born in one of the years of the snake. In planning my trip to Chinatown and San Francisco, I figured I would do some research to turn the adventure into a blog post. So, I did some research before my trip to find some cool places to check out while in Chinatown other than the festival and a parade and to learn more about the history of San Francisco’s Chinatown, which is the biggest Chinatown in the US.

A Very Brief History of San Francisco’s Chinatown:

A very brief history of Chinatown goes something like this….

The first Chinese immigrants that arrived in San Francisco were on February 2, 1848. They included two Chinese male servants and a Chinese maid, named Maria Seise. They were all brought to San Francisco by an American merchant, Charles Van Gillespie and his wife, Sarah Catherine. The two male servants have been lost to history because they went to work in the gold rush for Gillespie but Marie stayed with the family for 30 years. (Information from that book).[i] From there other Chinese immigrants settled along Sacramento Street and spread to Dupont Street (now Grant Street) in the mid-1800’s. The area slowly expanded from 6-8 blocks in 1876 to more than 12 blocks by 1885. It should also be noted that Chinatown’s location in San Francisco today was, in the early years of the city, the center of mainstream San Francisco…. being the center of the city also resulted in it being a location for gambling, prostitution, and all other things that might be frowned upon in a city. Even though the city expanded quite extensively, the questionable businesses remained in Chinatown giving the community not always a great name.

Chinese immigration also increased because of the need for laborers during the Gold Rush and the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Chinese immigrants to America faced many hardships that basically stemmed from racism. There’s no nice way to put it but that’s what it was. Periods of economic hardships in the USA resulted in unfair and unjust laws prohibiting and/or limiting Chinese immigrants; those that were here already had problems becoming US citizens as well. In addition, laws even limited opportunities of those Chinese immigrants already here in America, for example there was one law passed in San Francisco that specifically targeted laundry businesses of Chinatown. The biggest law of concern was the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was passed first in 1882 and then again in 1930, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers. On paper, the law exempted Chinese merchants and their families, teachers, diplomats, students, and travelers but in reality, the law gave authorities the ability to stop all Chinese immigrants. The law wasn’t repealed until 1943 (the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act), which also allowed Chinese aliens naturalization rights.

During that time and even beyond 1943, the Chinese of San Francisco’s Chinatown worked hard to change the public’s bias and perception of the Chinese. The first opportunities arose from the Great 1906 Earthquake. The earthquake basically destroyed much of Chinatown, which happened to be the older section of the city to begin with. The destruction allowed the rebuilding of Chinatown to take not only an interesting turn but ultimately into the hands of the local Chinese population. Look Tin Eli, the secretary of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and other Chinese merchants such as Tong Bong and Lew Hing, saw this as an opportunity to rebuilding Chinatown into a “tourist mecca” that could help improve the image of Chinatown and relationship with the San Francisco community.[ii]

Some of the first buildings in Chinatown after the earthquake included Sing Fat Building on the southwest corner of Grant Street and the Sing Chong Building across the street on the northwest corner. The new buildings were eclectic combining Western European building elements, like columns, brackets, cornices, etc. with Oriental rooflines. (Images) Basically, the Chinatown you see today all stems from what was created after the 1906 Earthquake. Throughout this entire time the Chinese brought with them to the USA their heritage and celebrated extensively their culture through events like New Year’s. The first modern Chinese New Year parade in San Francisco occurred in the early 1950’s. The book, Making an American Festival goes into the fascinating history of the New Year festival and parade and how it was in response to Chinese-American leaders of San Francisco’s Chinatown to the political and economic difficulties of the Cold War. One of the interesting quotes from early in the book is as follows, “Chinese immigrants brought old world traditions and rituals- including Chinese New Year celebrations- to the host country. These old world rituals served as a link between immigrants and their home countries and created a sense of community in their adopted country.”[iii] The Chinese Chamber of Commerce was the main push behind the festival and parade. Henry Kwock Wong, a local businessman, and others such as, John Kan, and Paul Louie, saw the festival and parade as a way to change the public image of Chinese Americans and the celebration as an important manifestation of American freedom, “because China had fallen into Communist hands, it was American freedom that preserved Chinese traditions.”[iv]

Basically, the idea was that San Francisco’s Chinatown was “real” tradition China because of the communism in China and again Chinatown’s’ leaders accentuated Chinatown as an exotic and foreign place. “Organizers designed activities that catered to tourists’ orientalist expectations- in other words, their ideas of Chinese American cultures as exotic and different.”[v] Quick example, the fortune cookie was invented in the 1930’s in Chinatown to attract tourists. Though not exactly from the 1950’s it helps show that Chinatown has been catering to tourists for a very long time. Since the 1950’s, the New Year’s festival and parade have grown to be a huge event in San Francisco.

Quick Thoughts:

My knowledge of San Francisco’s Chinatown was pretty limited before researching for my recent visit to see the parade and festival. Researching about Chinatown was an eye opener on a period of history I’m not too familiar with to be honest. It was a lot to think of and also wonder if me visiting Chinatown during the Chinese New Year celebrations would just make me seem like one more person perpetuating all of the bad history surrounding San Francisco’s Chinatown. When thinking of visiting Chinatown to see the New Year Parade and Festival, I was planning on going not because I view Chinatown as exotic but because I think going to Chinatown is a great way to learn more about a culture different from my own. I guess my thoughts on going to Chinatown were not any different than if I had been planning on going to any other new city, town, or place for the first time. I guess being from a small town in Northern New York, any large city or community catches my interest because everything is so different from what I’m used to.

At the writing group I go to on Sundays (Shut Up and Write), I briefly discussed with a few of the regulars the blog post I was writing about Chinatown and how researching the New Year’s festival brought up a bunch of other issues related to cultural identity, cultural appropriation, and racism. How do you combine the history of San Francisco’s Chinatown, its New Year festivities, the fact that Chinatown’s community and people have had to worked hard to promote the community as “exotic” to make US people see them as American citizens, and does me visiting as a tourist or anyone else for that matter, continue the conception that Chinatown is exotic and the underlying history of racism? That’s not an easy combination of ideas to pull together, that’s for sure! It was an interesting conversation to have with other people who helped confirm that there’s a lot going on when acknowledging the history of San Francisco’s Chinatown.  Though it was helpful to talk with some of my co-writers and get their feedback, I’ve realized that there is no easy way to conclude this or even summarize my thoughts. But I guess as someone who likes history and learning about other cultures, all I can do is emphasize how important it is to do research and learn about other cultures, and don’t be surprised when you learn about really crappy things like the Chinese Exclusion Act. Hopefully, learning about those shitty periods in history make you want to be better and more respectful of the hodge-podge of cultures that make up the United States.

How Did My Visit Go:

Did I do the tourist thing in Chinatown? Yes, I think so. At least, I tried to do the things where I got to learn more about Chinese heritage and history. So, things I did included just walking around Chinatown. There’s a lot to see and take in, especially when there’s so many also walking around and enjoying the festivities!

I also went to the Chinese American Historic Society that had some cool events going on to add to Chinatown’s celebrations! I actually didn’t know their schedule but I arrived in time to see the Lion’s Dance!

Chinese Historical Society of America
The building was originally the Chinatown YWCA designed by Julia Morgan.
Lion Dance
The performance started at 11 am and was done by the Kei Lun Martial Arts

Lion Dance

Lion Dance
One of the lions came into performance area by dancing through the audience.

The museum has a number of exhibits related to different aspects of Chinatown’s History. On the lower level are a number of posters related to women’s history in Chinatown. On the main level is a very comprehensive history of the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to Chinatown. There’s also a lot of personal history and stories documented there.

I also went to the Hang Ah Tea Room for lunch. It’s the oldest dim sum restaurant in San Francisco- again, if there’s historic restaurants to hit up, I’m there! The restaurant is located at 1 Pagoda Place; best way to explain that thought is it’s technically in an alley on the backside of buildings located on the corner of Stockton and Sacramento streets. My best advice is to follow the signage to get to the restaurant, which is going to start at the corner of Stockton and Sacramento and point you down Sacramento Street and then point you again into the alley. Google Maps kind of confused me and I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to go until I saw those signs pointing me in the right direction. Trust me, Google Maps will say you’re there but LOL you’re not. Look for the signs!

The Hang Ah Tea Room

The Hang Ah Tea Room
It is the oldest dim sum restaurant in Chinatown.
The Hang Ah Tea Room
Interior when you first walk in.
Dim Sum: Round 2
These were the xiao long bao, also known as the soup dumplings.
Dim Sum: Round 1
These were the ha gow, which are shrimp dumplings. They were very good.

The place, when you find it, will most likely be packed. Being by myself meant it was easy for the servers to seat me. YEA! To Solo Dining. I had no idea where to start on the menu and when my server showed up less than 5 minutes after sitting down, I just asked her what she would suggest to get. Her choices were great and are what I would suggest to you!

Resources:

General information on the Chinese New Year can be found here: https://chinesenewyear.net/zodiac/ .

Additionally, the following books were not at my local library but I found on Google Books and had a lot of interesting information on Chinese celebrations:

Good Luck Life: The Essential Guide to Chinese American Celebrations and Culture, Rosemary Gong, 2005, Published by HarperCollins.

Mooncakes and Hungry Ghosts: Festivals of China, Carol Stephanchuck and Charles Choy Wong, 1991, Published by China Books and Periodicals, Inc.

Chinatown’s Website that gives a timeline of the community: http://www.sanfranciscochinatown.com/history/index.html

This website also has a lot of information on the history of the Chinese in San Francisco. Scroll about half-way down to the page to the find the section on Chinese topics: http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist1/index0.html

PBS also has a fantastic website with more information about Chinatown: https://www.pbs.org/kqed/chinatown/resourceguide/story.html

This website not only gives a brief history of Chinatown but also highlights some of the really awesome things to do and see while visiting Chinatown:  https://www.inside-guide-to-san-francisco-tourism.com/chinatown-history.html

Some news articles Related to San Francisco’s Chinatown:

“Chinatown’s Grant Avenue: A look back at one of San Francisco’s oldest streets,” Alex Bevk, July 24, 2017, https://sf.curbed.com/2017/7/24/15995166/chinatown-grant-san-francisco-sf-history

“San Francisco Chinatown: A Guide to Its History and Architecture: An Excerpt, Philip P. Choy, December 6, 2017,  https://www.huffingtonpost.com/philip-p-choy/san-francisco-chinatown-_b_1728529.html

The Chinese Historical Society of America: https://chsa.org/exhibits/online-exhibits/ .The website has a lot of information about their current exhibits that include: Chinese American Exclusion/Inclusion and there’s a lot of resources about Chinatown and the Chinese experience.

The books I reference below can be found hopefully at your local library but there are portions that can be previewed at Google Books:

San Francisco Chinatown: A Guide to its History and Architecture: https://books.google.com/books?id=mWAI-F80RW8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=chinatown+san+francisco+history&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwipv9_jx4XiAhWqrFQKHcH7AlkQ6AEIKjAA#v=onepage&q=tourist%20mecca&f=false

Making an American Festival: Chinese New Year in San Francisco’s Chinatown: https://books.google.com/books?id=7RwBDcc4CM8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=chinatown+san+francisco+history&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjskYeozrHgAhU2HDQIHbm4DmcQ6AEIQDAE#v=onepage&q=chinatown%20san%20francisco%20history&f=false

End Notes:

[i] Choy, Philip P., San Francisco Chinatown: A Guide to its History and Architecture, (San Francisco: City Light Books, 2012), 30-31. And information from the San Francisco Chinatown website timeline.

[ii] Choy, 45.

[iii] Yeh, Chiou-ling, Making an American Festival: Chinese New Year in San Francisco’s Chinatown, (Berkeley and Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 2008), 15.

[iv] Yeh, 33.

[v] Yeh, 39.

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2 thoughts on “San Francisco’s Chinatown

  1. Eric Bimmler

    I’m so glad your back ,,I’ve really missed your posts,,, thankyou looking forward to your next adventure

    On Mon, May 6, 2019, 12:09 PM adventure with courtney wrote:

    > adventurewithcourtney posted: “Hello. Welcome to Adventure with Courtney. > We’ll continue to adventure around and see more historically, dorky stuff > in 2019. Hopefully, it’s enough to ensure we know way too much about > architecture and history to make us all THE person to have on the lo” >

    Liked by 1 person

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