Viewing San Francisco from Chinatown

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By Simon J. Lau

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As a child growing up in Sacramento, we visited San Francisco several times a year. It was the largest city to us, at a time when Sacramento was still a sleepy town, and it was an accessible trip that the family could enjoy together. At the same time, there were at least two hurdles that constrained our adventures: My parents limited working knowledge of the city and their fear of driving through the hills of San Francisco.

Regarding the former point, my parents were unfamiliar with the city and relied on the recommendations of friends and family, many who were just as clueless as us about San Francisco and what it had to offer. Most of these family and friends were also recent immigrants who spent most of their time in San Francisco in Chinatown. It should be no surprise then that Chinatown became the cornerstone to our trips as well. We often parked in the lot below Portsmouth Square and enjoying lunch on Jackson Street before wandering to my mother’s favorite bakeries. We always went a bit nuts on the Chinese baked goods, buying dozens of “dan tat” (egg tarts), “bo lo bao” (pineapple buns), and any other pastries that caught our eye. This experience had such a lasting impact on me that I still find myself practicing this ritual now: I still bring dozens of baked goods for my parents when I visit them in Sacramento today. Although eating here and picking desserts was always a treat for me (no pun intended), anyone familiar with San Francisco can tell you that Chinatown is not representative of the city at large. Still, much of my early experience of San Francisco grew out of my time spent in Chinatown. No matter how unusual it may sound to others, Chinatown and all its quirks — the smallness of the neighborhood and the high density foot traffic of the streets — represented the whole of San Francisco to me then.

Regarding the latter point, the difficult urban driving conditions further limited our reach. It was hard enough for my parents to get to Chinatown where there was ample parking in the public garage, I couldn’t imagine just how much more difficult it would have been for them to parallel park our 1989 Ford Taurus on a hill. That car was a beast: My parents drove it as if it deserved two lanes of traffic and was so heavy that it would roll back on hills on a stop and go. Given these odds, we often stayed within walking distance of Portsmouth Square.

All things considered, it makes sense now why I had such a skewed impression of San Francisco then. Still, I loved these little excursions that my family took together. Although I never gained a balanced view of San Francisco then, it provided me with great childhood memories and an opportunity to rediscover and explore the rest of the city on my own as an adult.




(Abbreviated) tour of San Francisco by way of Grant Avenue

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To view our full gallery or to purchase prints, please visit our album here.
By Simon J. Lau

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If there were one street that connected San Francisco’s past to its present, it would be Grant Avenue. Grant Avenue cuts through many of San Francisco’s most vibrant neighborhoods, from Financial District and Chinatown to Little Italy. With so much history in one space, one could learn a tremendous deal of San Francisco by exploring just this street alone. I personally spent several years living in North Beach and frequented Grant Avenue on my days to work and weekend trips into Chinatown and I can attest to the liveliness and diversity here. So without further ado, below is our (abbreviated) tour of San Francisco, past and present, by way of Grant Avenue.

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The Phelan Building, the former Savings Union Bank office, and the former Union Trust Company (left to right), were rebuilt after the 1906 Earthquake with San Francisco’s City Beautification Movement in mind. At its core, the Beautification Movement challenged city planners to combine timeless and beautiful architecture to what was then a ragtag urban infrastructure. Much of San Francisco, especially the now coveted areas along Embarcadero, Financial District, and SoMa, were industrial zones with many warehouses and manufacturing facilities. It was gritty, grimy, and at times dangerous. The 1906 Earthquake changed much of that. It allowed the city to reimagine and reinvent itself into a proper first class city with a healthy stock of well-built and beautiful architecture. The Beatification Movement led to a proliferation of high-end office spaces throughout San Francisco and Financial District specifically. Many of these buildings, including the three mentioned here, were eventually designated San Francisco Landmarks. The Phelan Building is arguably the most distinguished of the trio: It was one of the most coveted office spaces in the city at that time and remains one of the most prominent buildings along Market Street today.

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It is impossible to mention Grant Avenue without mentioning Chinatown. Grant Avenue acts as Main Street to Chinatown, and at its entrance lays Dragon Gate. As the titleholder of the oldest Chinatown outside of Asia, San Francisco’s Chinatown has for nearly two centuries served as the home away from home for many Chinese immigrants. In its early days, this area was overcrowded, rundown, and home to countless opium dens, gambling houses, and brothels. Ironically, it was only after the 1906 Earthquake that the area was rebuilt and transformed into the tourist destination that it is known for today.

One little known fact is that many of the early Chinese immigrants were male laborers. Few visas were issued to non-laborers, which led to a large gender disparity in Chinatown. Fortunately for these immigrants, the 1906 Earthquake caused a fire in City Hall that destroyed many immigration papers. Without immigration papers, these Chinese immigrants secured US citizenship by claiming birth on US soil. They further leveraged their newfound status to sponsor family and friends to America. This created a new class of immigrants informally known as “paper sons” and “paper daughters,” children who were unrelated to these male laborers, but earned US citizenship by claiming family legacy.

The Jazz Mural and the Language of the Birds installation are long-standing art features found at the intersection of Chinatown, North Beach, and Telegraph Hill. The Jazz Mural depicts North Beach’s rich jazz history and includes images of prominent musicians such as Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman, as well as local figures such as Emperor Norton. Adjacent to the mural lies The Language of the Birds installation, a collection of 23 sculpted “birds” (shaped in the form of books) that pay tribute to the neighborhood’s prominent literary heritage. Several notable literary figures closely linked to North Beach include Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet and author of Howl, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of City Lights Bookstore on Columbus. These “books” light up in timed intervals and give the appearance of flight. Combined, these art features act as a constant reminder of the neighborhood’s diverse history.

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This final stretch of Grant Avenue lays adjacent to many of the quintessential Little Italy establishments including Washington Square Park and Saints Peter and Paul Church. Besides these distinguished landmarks, this area also plays an important role in the social fabric of North Beach. Within several short blocks you will find local favorites that include Tony’s Pizza, Nik’s Cafe, and Comstock, to name only a few. It’s a wonderful spot to end a walking tour of San Francisco and begin a nightlife tour of North Beach.