What makes San Francisco? Is it the Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars, or the hills? Perhaps the LGBTQ communities, the tech start-ups, or the art scene? For me, it’s the story of this city and the people who built it. To experience one part of San Francisco’s history, I took a walking tour around historic Chinatown.
Our tour guide Nancy Rios was full of energy. She didn’t have a microphone, but her enthusiasm carried her words loud and clear. We started out at Portsmouth Square, at the corner of Walter P. Lum Pl. and Washington St. Being a few minutes late, I joined at the back of the group and hope I haven’t missed anything too important.
I begin this story with the Mexican-American war, although the history of this region goes back further. In 1846, Captain John Montgomery landed the ship USS Portsmouth in San Francisco (SF), which was then known as Yerba Buena. He planted a US flag in what is now Portsmouth Square and declared it US territory. Only the base of the original flagpole remains, although if memory serves me right, another US flag flies nearby.
Present day, I see lots of senior women and men sitting on benches in the park, chatting in various dialects of Chinese. Card games take place between friends and acquaintances on small, portable tables. Loud traditional Chinese music blares from stereos, competing with traffic noises from the streets nearby. I am transported back to my paternal grandparents’ city in China.
Back on the tour, Nancy asks if we know why the SF football team is called the 49ers. They were named after the 1849 gold rush, the catalyst for SF’s growth. The town’s population exploded from 1000 to 25 000 in one year as people rushed to Sacramento to pan for gold. The Chinese arrived in SF before the gold rush, in fact, they built the first public school in 1848. Due to segregation laws at the time, it was a Chinese-only school. The school was in operation for about 2 months before it shut down– the gold rush had begun by then and parents withdrew their kids from school to look for gold instead.
One remnant of the gold rush that surround the square are single-room occupancy hotels, also known as SROs. Built to accommodate Chinese men who came to mine for gold, they now serve as low-income housing. In the past, these residences didn’t have kitchens, private bathrooms, or laundry rooms (I’m not sure if they do now either). Sensing the miners’ need for food, bathing space and laundry facilities, Chinese merchants set up restaurants for a quick bite. barber shops for washing up, and laundromats to clean clothing. Walking around Chinatown today, one can’t help but to notice these shops’ presence around every corner.
“Okay, good?” Nancy asks before leading us away from Portsmouth Square. “Follow me quickly!” and we begin to walk around the streets of Chinatown. One of our first stops was Salt Fish Alley, officially called Wentworth Alley, Chinese name: 德和街 (roughly translated to integrity and harmony road). Can you guess why this is called Salt Fish Alley? Before 1906, there was a vibrant fishing community which used to hold its fish markets on this street. Perhaps as a result of the earthquake, or for other reasons, the fishing industry changed after 1906. Salt Fish Alley then housed herbalists which distribute Traditional Chinese Medicines, but the name stuck. After giving people an opportunity to check out the oldest herbalist shop (photo below), Nancy asks about people’s impressions of the store. “Very fragrant”, someone said. I secretly laughed to myself. Although I didn’t go into this particular shop, I’ve been to enough similar places to know they smell stronger than “fragrant”. Nancy picks another person, who said there were lots of different things in the shop. Then Nancy explained how a Chinese medicine shop wasn’t so different from a Western pharmacy: the doctor writes a prescription for the ailment, the patient takes the prescription to the drugstore, someone behind a counter reads the prescription and gives the drug to you in a brown paper package. Hearing this, I smiled and thought “ahh, I hadn’t thought about it this way before.” What a great way to help others understand the similarities between cultures!
A part of US history includes the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented Chinese labourers from entering the US and effectively reduced the number of Chinese immigrants. This reflected anti-Chinese sentiments of the time, as immigration of persons of other races were unlimited (Chin, 1998). Despite racial tensions, Chinatown in SF was a tourist attraction even during this time. Nancy shows us a tourist brochure of Chinatown dating from 1893, which outlined some of the very streets we walked through.
In 1906, much of Chinatown were destroyed due to the earthquake and subsequent fire. Fearing a relocation to the south of the city, the Chinese community quickly rebuilt in its original location. In three years, much of the buildings were reconstructed in an oriental style unique to SF, which includes the red-green pagoda-like roofs seen in the photo below. This was also purposefully done to improve the public image of the Chinese community.
We walk through a few more alleyways and learn more about daily life in Chinatown. There was St. Louis Place, also known as Love Lane, which auctioned women up until the 1920s.
We passed by Fortune Alley, officially called Ross Alley. Formerly the gambling street, now it houses the only fortune cookie factory in the US where fortune cookies are still shaped by hand. There’s a passage in one of Amy Tan’s novels where a newly landed Chinese immigrant describes her first experience inside a fortune cookie factory: the novelty of the machine which plops a bit of batter on a very small pan, the metal conveyor belt which carries the pan through an oven, the heat-desensitized hands which peel the hot pancake from the pan and fold the still-soft cookie around a strip of glossy paper. All this I saw with my own eyes in the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. The dim room where the three ladies worked was mostly taken up by the oven and conveyor belt. A lot of cookies were being discarded as they came out of the oven. I asked the lady who was working closest to the entrance, she said that there are lots of cookies, so she doesn’t use ones that aren’t perfect.
My attention drifted from listening to the stories to taking photos as the tour drew to a close. I thanked Nancy for a great tour and walked around the area, soaking in the sights and sounds of this neighbourhood.