It was business as usual at Starbucks on Sunday morning. In the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District (FiDi), the coffee shop was buzzing with locals and tourists wanting their morning cuppa. Downing my own latte, I headed out towards Dragon’s Gate across the street, keeping my eyes peeled for the orange shirt that would identify my guide for the morning’s walking tour.
The shops and boutiques along the street remained resolutely shut, as if in deference to the early hour. And even the skyscrapers of the FiDi seemed to have a languid air about them, the usual sparkle of their glassy façades now muted. Only a few tourists were out on the streets, clutching their maps, as if they were talismans that would open up magical worlds within the city.
As I crossed the green arch of Dragon’s Gate, the official entry into Chinatown, a different world stretched out in front of me. Starting from the gate itself, with its stone statues of lions and slithering dragons, the narrow lanes were filled with shops selling everything from cutesy iPad covers to oversized kites. Red lanterns were strung across the lanes and the walls were covered with paintings.
This Chinatown, the oldest in the United States and the largest outside Asia, owes its origins to the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century. In fact, the expansion of many ethnic neighbourhoods (North Beach for Italians, and Mission for Latinos) in San Francisco can be traced back to the gold fever.
Chinese immigrants poured into America, first as gold prospectors and then as labourers for the Transcontinental Railways. The government at the time allowed them to settle down in this area; they had no way of knowing that this would become such prime land in the middle of the city.
As we explored the streets on foot, our guide Britt McEachern’s commentary gave a larger sociological and cultural context to this district. In many ways, the story of Chinatown reflects the ebb and flow of San Francisco’s evolution into its current liberal avatar. For a long time, there was antipathy towards the Chinese among locals, not least because they were believed to bring with them vices like gambling, opium and prostitution.
The Catholic church’s reaction was to build the St Mary’s Cathedral bang inside Chinatown as a succour for such sinners. The cathedral is not the only incongruous element in this neighbourhood though. This microcosm of 24 densely packed blocks is bound by steely skyscrapers on all sides. Nowhere was this more evident than at Portsmouth Square, known as the “living room of Chinatown”, a social hub for the dozens who shared one-room tenements. As we stood listening to Britt, the square was pulsating with quiet activity. Children were turning somersaults, watched over by indulgent mothers; groups of old men and women were playing cards in the shade; someone was practising tai chi on his own, while someone else stretched his limbs, warming up before a run.
As I heard more about the history of this place, it seemed to me that the skyscrapers peered right into the square and its people, as if waiting for them to make one wrong move, before swooping up the land for commercial use. Given that Chinatown lives in the shadow of the FiDi, and the wealthy mansions of Russian Hill and Nob Hill, it is indeed a miracle that it has managed to survive for so long. It is simply a testament to the tightknit social ties and collective bargaining power of this community.
In fact, attempts to make the Chinese move out of this area go back to 1906 (though many claim it was way before that), when it was destroyed by the fire after the major earthquake. It was a chance for locals to reclaim this land and include it in their vision of San Francisco as a city of the future. But the Chinese then, as now, had other plans, and the city council was forced to blink first. Buoyed by this victory, the local community decided to play up their “Chineseness” and make the area attractive to tourists. Today, Chinatown, once the target of much racist resentment, is one of the major tourist attractions in San Francisco.
As the walk progressed, I realised that Chinatown’s real charm lay in its narrow side alleys. We passed by shops where a dozen varieties of dry mushrooms were displayed on pavement tables side by side with dragon fruit and durian. Inside, old women bargained furiously with the staff, brandishing a bundle of bok choy or a packet of dried fish. While the main roads had fancy restaurants with names like Empress of China and Golden Dragon for eager tourists, these lanes had tiny dimsum shops, where locals thronged.
Further along in the walk, we entered Waverly Place, with its ornate “tongs” neatly lined on one side. These organisations historically acted as support groups for new immigrants, to ease their transition into the country. From helping them find jobs and apartments, to providing lessons about the country and culture, tongs have been a major factor in the continued existence of Chinatown.
There was a pit stop at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley, to taste the local Chinese fortune cookie, as well as hear the story behind it. The fortune cookie, now an integral part of dining out in Chinese cuisine in America, was actually created by a Japanese man at the tea garden at Golden Gate Park to entertain his customers. The Chinese had nothing to do with its origin, but picked up the idea and ran with it on demand from tourists.
Another consistent theme to the streets and lanes here are the bright and colourful murals on the walls. According to Britt, as these murals fade, a new one is painted over it every few years. It seemed to be reflective of the neighbourhood’s attitude to life: pick up and move on.
The writer is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist and photographer.