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The old and new San Francisco Chinatowns
Planning a trip to San Francisco? If your interests span the cultural and the culinary, an exploration of the city’s Chinese heritage is a must. Fortunately for us we have May Chong – a London-based food and travel blogger who writes at Eat Cook Explore – on hand as our guide. As a fearless foodie, she loves nothing more than tucking into local specialities in new destinations, and today she gives us the lowdown on San Francisco’s Old and New Chinatowns following her recent visit to the city.
The Old Chinatown
The original San Francisco Chinatown is located just a couple of blocks away from Union Square, the heart of the city’s shopping and entertainment district. A large Chinese gate marks the entrance to the oldest Chinatown in North America, which also happens to be the largest of its kind outside Asia.
Early Chinese settlers arrived on the US West Coast in search of gold, but many found themselves interned on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay – known as the ‘Ellis Island of the West’ – while they were forbidden from entering the country. In time the restrictions were lifted, resulting in the Chinatown community being established in the mid-1800s.
Today Old Chinatown is recognised as one of the most densely populated areas in the US, but don’t let that put you off, as the streets, sights and tastes make it a fascinating place to visit. Guided tours are available, but if you prefer to head off on your own then a meander along Grant Avenue is always a good starting point. The street is among the oldest in the district, with shops selling traditional Chinese artefacts and clothing; everything from embroidered slippers to pyjamas.
Of course, no Chinatown is complete without some traditional Chinese architecture, so head along to Washington Street for a few snaps of The Bank of Canton building. Up until 1949 it served as the only Chinese Telephone Exchange in the US, only to be closed down once the switchboard operating system ceased to exist. Today it’s a fully functioning bank branch and one of the most eye-catching buildings in the district.
From there, stroll along to 125 Waverly Place and pay a visit to the 150 year-old Tin How Temple, located on the fourth floor. Its dark interior evokes a mystical presence, with the smoke and scents from incense sticks hitting your nostrils as you make your way up the stairs. Those looking to gain some insights on their future can have their fortune told here too, or just take a few minutes to imagine life as an early settler in search of some spiritual solace.
Around the corner on Ross Alley, you’ll find the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie factory. Although synonymous with China, the fortune cookie idea was in fact conceived in America (by a Japanese man, apparently) and only introduced to China in the early 1990s. This factory has been in operation since the 1960s and you are free to pop in for a peek at the production line, which tends to be in full flow throughout the day.
As you stroll along the streets you’ll pick up a variety of aromas from the countless shops and restaurants, so don’t be surprised if your food cravings go into overdrive. Put your hunger to bed by visiting some of the area’s fantastic dim sum restaurants, such as Yank Sing, Sze Chuan food at Z&Y restaurant or a tea tasting at the delightful Ten Ren Tea Shop.
The New Chinatown
San Francisco is blessed with a second Chinatown, commonly referred to as ‘New Chinatown’, located on Clement Street in the city’s Richmond District. The area is said to have a cold micro climate due to its close proximity to the sea, which made it less popular in days gone by, attracting mainly Russian immigrants. But from the mid 20th century, the overcrowding of the original Chinatown forced Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong to move into the area, which is today a thriving community.
Its history may not match that of Old Chinatown, but a large variety of Asian shops and eateries make it an interesting place to spend an afternoon or evening. If second hand items are your thing, stop by Green Apple Books, a very well stocked second hand book shop – one of the few remaining in the city.
There’s no shortage of traditional Asian restaurants, such as the Hong Kong Lounge on Geary Street. It specialises in Dim Sum and is jam packed with Cantonese speaking diners, which usually indicates that the food on offer is both authentic and delicious. You’ll also find Thai and Vietnamese restaurants here, with the excellent Little Vietnam Café on 6th Avenue a particular highlight. Sink your teeth into a Banh Mi (Vietnamese Baguette); the best in town.
If you fancy the challenge of cooking your own Asian dishes, then stop by one of the Chinese supermarkets on Clement Street. The New May Wah, for instance, stocks everything from live fish to meat, offal and a range of spices. It’s as close to an Asian wet market as you’ll get on these shores.