San Francisco’s Chinatown was the first ever born in the United States. Now a short term resident here in the neighborhood, I felt compelled to cover some of its history as well as some great local spots. Tracing its roots back to the mid-19th century, Chinese immigrants arrived in large numbers during the California Gold Rush.
Facing discriminatory laws and widespread prejudice, the Chinese community sought refuge and formed a tightly-knit enclave within the city. Around the 1850s, as more immigrants arrived, they settled near present-day Portsmouth Square, creating the foundation for what would become the first Chinatown in North America.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is divided into neighborhoods each with its unique characteristics and offerings. Grant Avenue is the main thoroughfare, lined with shops, markets, and restaurants. Stockton Street, running parallel to Grant Avenue, is known for its markets with fresh daily produce, herbs, seafood, and specialty ingredients. It is *the* source of ingredients for residents and local restaurants.
Beyond the main commercial streets, Chinatown reveals hidden alleys and side streets, referred to as “tong laus.” Chinatown’s streets are gleaming with colorful, ornate buildings, traditional Chinese architectural elements, and iconic landmarks like the Dragon Gate. Chinatown is remarkable at night in its glow, though admittedly not as many spots are open.
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My favorite joint on Grant is easily Vital Tea. I cannot recommend it more: a remarkably cozy tea shop boasting loose-leafed Chinese tea and its immense health benefits. Family operated namely with a kind soul beaming with nothing but jokes and genuine enthusiasm, Uncle Gee. The counter is filled with laughter, warmth, and appreciation of taste. With complimentary tastings, there is no reason not to stop in for a visit. I cannot even begin to describe the circumambient aroma.
In recent years, Chinatown has expanded beyond its traditional boundaries, spilling into adjacent neighborhoods such as North Beach and the Financial District. This expansion has brought about a fusion of cultures and influences, creating a dynamic and evolving landscape while still maintaining the essence of Chinatown’s heritage. All at your feet steps from our ship, our hostel.
[Images by Dawson]