The entrance to Chinatown at Grant Avenue and Bush Street is called the “Dragon’s Gate.”
Chinatown’s shops are crammed with wares that are rare, fine and facsimile: art objects from old China; porcelains, furniture, fabrics, foodstuffs and herbs from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People’s Republic; curios and trinkets, many of them of Japanese and U.S. origin. It behooves sightseers to lift their eyes from the store windows from time to time, however. The roofscape of arched eaves, carved cornices and filigreed balconies is one of the quarter’s most exotic sights.
Eating is one of its favorite delights. There are at least 30 restaurants and bars along the Chinese segment of Grant Avenue. They range from award-garnering gourmet centers with white-linened tables set in traditional Chinese elegance to bakeries selling moon cakes and sesame cookies. Teahouses specializing in dim sum are the perfect place to enjoy a delicious meal or a lavish snack. Two blocks beyond the Bush Street border, a stodily un-Chinese structure dominates the Grant-California corner. Old St. Mary’s church was built largely by Chinese laborers in 1854 of brick brought around Cape Horn and granite cut in China. Diagonally across California from this Catholic landmark is St. Mary’s square, a tranquil, tree-shaded retreat presided over by an imposing, 12-foot statue of Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Chinese Republic (1911-1913). If, as they say, dragons are benevolent, the Bank of America branch at 701 Grant fairly glows with goodwill. Gold dragons ornament its front columns and doors, and 60 dragon medallions line its facade. Just around the corner at 743 Washington Street is the oldest (1909) oriental-style edifice in the quarter, which went up in flames after the 1906 earthquake. Now the Bank of Canton, this three-tiered “temple” formerly housed the Chinatown Telephone Exchange. “China-5,” as it was known until 1949 when the dial system took over, was staffed by 20 operators whose fluency in five dialects and phenomenal memories enabled them to accommodate the hundreds of Chinese subscribers who disregarded phone numbers and demanded their parties name.
Chinese history is capsulized at one point along the route. The pocket-size Chinese Historical Society of America at 650 Commercial Street documents the important role of Chinese immigrants in the development of the West’s mining, rail and fishing industries. Its collection includes artifacts, photos and Gold Rush relics.
The museum and the China Trade Center at 243 Kearny both boast Hong-Kong-born siblings of the mighty Golden Dragon which reigns over San Francisco’s famed Chinese New Year parade.
Below Jackson, Grant is dotted with food markets. In recent years, however, the main Chinese market district has shifted a block west. It stretches along Stockton Street’s 1000-1200 blocks, a glorious conglomeration of ginger roots and bamboo shoots, golden glazed ducks and whole drawn pigs, lichee nuts, sharks’ fins, tanks full of fish and crates of cackling chickens. Chinatown officially ends at Broadway, San Francisco’s irrepressible, neon-emblazoned nightlife strip. More Chinese live here than in any other place in the world exept China.
Bounded by Broadway, Bush, Kearny and Stockton Streets, Chinatown covers about 16 sq. blocks.
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