As an outsider, my perception of Chinatown was flawed. As a kid, I did not even know people lived in Chinatown! My understanding was that it was an area of space made up of small Chinese businesses and street vendors. I initially thought Chinatown served as an aesthetic replication of mainland China and was developed as a tourist attraction to generate revenue for the city. I was oblivious to the residents of the community and never once thought what the social and living conditions were like. Overtime and with more exposure, I came to understand the storied history of San Francisco Chinatown and the struggles of this community. I no longer perceive Chinatown as a business or tourist attraction. Chinatown is an ethnic enclave that has endured decades of injustices and poverty. It is a community whose foundation lies within the residents of its space.
San Francisco Chinatown has conquered tragedies and obstacles that would have destroyed any other community. The residents in Chinatown have learned to find a common ground and work together to improve their community. Although this community has done a lot to improve its social and living conditions, this picture serves as a reminder that there is always more we can do and that we have a duty to help others.
To introduce any new person to Chinatown, I will first usher them to the neighborhood through the Chinatown Gate on Grant Street. Although it is a tourist attraction, the gate sits on a sharp border between neighborhoods and serves as an iconic entryway into the unique neighborhood. Beyond the gate lies Grant Street filled with jewelry and souvenir shops that. This however is only one part of Chinatown; it is a façade built for tourists. To show the newcomer the locals’ Chinatown, I will make sure to go off Grant Street into Stockton Street and show him or her the local produce and meat market bustling with locals. I believe these markets filled with Chinese fruits and snacks and herbs truly make Chinatown a unique place. Why? Because I believe food plays a large role in shaping every culture. Just the look, taste, and smell of certain foods have the power to evoke a sense of home and familiarity for Chinese immigrants in San Francisco. This is part of the reason why this Chinatown is so unique as a hub for Chinese immigrants.
Both of these images are class assignments in where I describe my weekend. The first image is a journal entry that I wrote when I was seven years old. If you ignore my bad grammar and illogical flow of thought, you can see that I was beaming with excitement about the Lunar New Year celebrations in Chinatown. The second image is a drawing that I drew as a five year old for my class. Chinatown has grown to be a place that has allowed me to connect with and learn more about my cultural heritage. However, Chinatown has also grown to a place where I slowly started to realize the stark inequalities of the city. In this 7 by 7 mile city, the socioeconomic differences between each neighborhood are even more greatly emphasized. I wanted to understand why the Financial District was glamorous and well kept, but there are decrepitated SROs literally across the street. These weekend trips to Chinatown have not only helped me built my cultural identity-- but have helped me develop important question that have guided my curiosity. I hope that anybody that visits Chinatown not only experience its cultural richness but are stimulated to ask such similar questions.
Whenever I'm asked to describe Chinatown, these murals come into my mind. These murals describe not only the everyday life of Chinatown residents; they also show the family dynamics of Chinese immigrants. These murals were in Ross Alleyway, but they're not there anymore due to vandalism.
San Francisco's Chinatown is a unique neighbor to me because it will always be home. Even though I never lived in Chinatown, my family would always go to Chinatown for everything. Now that I'm older, I still go to Chinatown for everything.
Recently, I went to find a dim sum shop that I went to when I was young. I found the shop, but the shop was locked up and very dark inside. A elderly man was sitting near by, so I went up to ask him what happened to the shop. The elderly man then told me the story of why the shop was closed.
The elderly man reminded me of my grandfather because my grandfather would always tell me stories when I was little. Chinatown will always be home to me not only because of the memories, but also because of the people within Chinatown.
I grew up in my grandparent’s 房 仔 on Clay St.
I remember consuming the sights and sounds as my poa carried me on her back.
The red square cloth that created the feeling of safety and security.
The peering out from behind her shoulders.
I saw everything from her perspective and because of that, I was a part of her.
As I continued to grow up in Chinatown I’d eventually learn to navigate the crowds on my own. Weaving in and out, the feeling of pride swelling in my chest as I eyed confused tourists and non-regulars. It was a rite of passage, a skill developed over time that was repeatedly refined through traveling between your grandma’s favorite market and your favorite snack shop.
Navigating Grant was never a problem. The only delays there were getting stopped by the lost tourists searching for answers.
They’d hold out the map and with their eyes they would say,
You’d shake your head to yourself, ‘impossible’ you’d whisper under your breath.
Wandering the streets and uncovering hidden beauties, benches, and stores had a heavy impact on you. You internalized the community. It became such a strong identification for you that you can’t imagine life without it. It has defined you.
You loved the hustle.
You loved the bustle.
You loved it all because they became your everyday.
What Chinatown means to me is sacred and individual but not uncommon. It's hard to ignore the atmosphere and call for community that Chinatown demands and because of this, each visitor has their own personal connection. To each his own.
The photo above depicts routine multi-generational connections, a mixing of cultures, and daily bustle.
The photo is nothing special but it is what makes it unique.
Where else can these things be seen and expected on a daily basis?
It is normal- it is Chinatown everyday.
At first glance, the laypeople, particularly tourists do not see beyond the facades of the Chinatown neighborhood; what’s beneath the oriental motifs, pagoda rooftops, and other “Chinese” architectural style that decorates Chinatown into a tourist attraction is a close-knit place, home to more than 20,000 people. For this huge residential population and as well for the urbanites who come in and out of Chinatown every day, a well-established, resourceful neighborhood with everything including affordable SRO housing, department stores that stock basic necessities, restaurants, churches, and family associations is at their convenience and service. It is the accessibility to these resources and the availability of facilities such as its own post office, police station, and fire department that makes Chinatown a self-sustaining neighborhood. This is what makes San Francisco’s Chinatown so special. How it developed its uniqueness in this way emanated from its decades of struggle against racism and discrimination in the country; the Chinese were confined within the borders of Chinatown for protection and thus led to its independent nature. With this history of struggle for civil rights, a level of social activism ensued within the Chinatown community that is still evident today. We as part of the cohort of Urban Institute are evidence to this truth; but not only are the youth active participants in the Chinatown community whether it’s in advocating for local or citywide issues or just vocalizing their perspectives, the elderly senior population, which comprise the majority of Chinatown, are also well involved and up to date with current events.
It is these facets that make Chinatown a community that distinguish itself from other communities in the world and there is no other place that is quite like it.
Chinatown is a neighborhood of the young and old, but mostly old. However, age can be seen as a good thing. San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in the United States. Over the decades, Chinese immigrants decided to settle here. Because of its tight-knit, safe, and social environment to grow up and live in, Chinatown is a favorable place to call home. Chinatown provides language services, health services, grocery stores, and plenty of resources. Chinatown is self-sufficient, but it is not at all disconnected. A popular tourist destination that helps generates city revenue and a former Manilatown to Manongs, Chinatown is definitely an international site.
Unfortunately, Chinatown also has its own struggles. Community organizers have been working on issues such as improving the hidden living conditions in SROs and neglected workers’ rights in restaurants. Chinatown also defied surrounding districts like Financial District and North Beach to physically maintain its community. Right now, finding space to expand Chinatown to accommodate its growing population still continues today.
Taking a walk through Chinatown is to walk through space and time. Now, I know that concept sounds like something out of the Twilight Zone, but let me explain. Walking down Chinatown feels like walking through a timeline of the "Chinese-in-America Experience." Chinatown's urban fabric covers the full spectrum of this experience - from the things that are so obviously Chinese (family associations) to the things that are almost fully Western yet are still somehow inevitably ethnically distinct (Ten Ren). The former is often, though not always, older, and the latter is often, though also not always, more recent.
But as time passes by relentlessly, Chinatown somehow manages to capture every single frame of its history so that very little is lost. You can see it not only in old and new buildings, but in the preservation of alleyways, the oral transfer of history from Chinese elders to their children and grandchildren, the work of countless community organizations, etc. Look for these signals, and as you move through the space of Chinatown, so will you also move through its time, or, its past, present, and its future.
That's why I chose this picture to exemplify what, to me, makes SF's Chinatown unique. It's a mural depicting Chinese history in America on a building which will serve as the future site of the Central T Subway. Even as Chinatown moves forward, it refuses to let go of its past.
Unfortunately, if I didn't tell you this, or if you didn't go on a tour with one of the locals as your guide, you might've missed all the clues that point to this unique quality of SF's Chinatown. Instead, you might just think, "Oh, this is Chinatown. It's very...Chinese." And tragically, all those details of history would be lost to the shallow understanding that Chinatown is simply an ordinary, generic expression of ethnicity. But it's not.
It's a living, breathing history not recorded in books (though I'm sure there are many you can read) but embodied in space. You just have to learn how to read it. So talk to somebody about it. Ask somebody about it. I'm sure you'll find plenty of people who'd love to tell you about it.
The enclave of San Francisco's Chinatown is a unique place unlike no other place in the world due to its abundance of family owned shops and boutiques. It is one of the last places where large corporations have not infiltrated into. On the same block, one will not see another store's layout exactly like another. Through family owned stores, there is a sense of community that feels responsible for the well being of Chinatown.
The stores in Chinatown have a rich diversity which ranges from grocery stores to hair salons to poultry butcher shops. With most stores being family owned, it is nice to know that money spent will go back to the family and community. It is amazing that there are so many little shops within a street and what they have to offer to the community, whether it be through services or sales. Without its family owned stores, San Francisco's Chinatown will not be the world famous enclave that it is known to be.
People often describe San Francisco as a melting pot with different nationalities and cultures. I see Chinatown as a very big part of this melting pot. The first impression of Chinatown to most people may be over crowded, unsanitary and very noisy. This is only part of what Chinatown is. As being a immigrant child who lived in Chinatown for almost three years, I can tell, Chinatown is a very great neighborhood with its unique characteristic and history.
Unlike other neighborhoods, Chinatown has many alleyways and most Single Room Occupancies are located nearby them. SROs are residential hotels, a special kind of one-room apartment. Residents have to share kitchen, bathroom and even mailbox with others. There were many historical events happened in SROs too. For example, the I-hotel Eviction in 1977 and the Jasper Eviction in 2008 were all very well known events in Chinatown. When talking about evictions, the first word I can think of is organize. It is very important for leaders to organize residents to hold on together to fight for their homes. Also, it is very important for Chinatown to organize its people to build and beautify the neighborhood.
My friend, you’ll fall in love with Chinatown if you come to know it.