San Francisco’s Chinatown
San Francisco’s Chinatown is world famous, and a treasure of no small measure. It is among the four largest Chinese settlements outside China, and one of San Francisco’s oldest and most colorful neighborhoods, dating from the 1850s. It is also one of the most densely packed enclaves of the city, with a population of around 30,000, mainly ethnic Chinese, residing in a 24-block pocket bounded by Broadway, Montgomery, Powell and California streets.
Exploring San Francisco’s Chinatown
Chinatown is best explored on foot, with most of the activity centered on Grant Avenue and Stockton Street. Grant is of course the main tourist draw, with scores of shops overflowing with Chinese goods such as laughing Buddhas, colorful kites, masks and lanterns, rice paper drawings, red and gold fabric, and assorted trinkets and souvenirs. While on Stockton Street you can soak up the real flavor and atmosphere of Chinatown, with all its sights, sounds and smells: there are plucked ducks hanging from store fronts, herbal vapors rising from Chinese teashops, the aroma of deep-fried foods and piquant spices emanating from real-time Chinese eateries, alleyways running off between little businesses and fortune cookie factories, the clicking and clacking of mah-jong tiles mingling with a smattering of authentic Chinese dialects... This is the real thing.
As for visitor attractions, among your best bets are the United Commercial Bank, housed in a landmark three-tiered pagoda that was originally built in 1909 as the Chinese Telephone Exchange; the little Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company where you can see them baking those edible fortune tellers; the Chinese Historical Society of America, with its small but vital collection of artifacts and old photos of early-day Chinese Americans from the mid 1800s; and Portsmouth Square, regarded as Chinatown’s living room. There are also a couple of Taoist temples here to add to the interest.
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