Much ink has been spilled on the history of Chinatown and Grant Avenue, billed as San Francisco’s oldest street, which runs north to south starting at Market Street and ending at Francisco Street in North Beach. While surveying the entirety of Grant is an epic undertaking, a closer look at a few notable spots along Chinatown’s busiest thoroughfare offers a glimpse into this popular yet overlooked neighborhood.
"San Francisco's oldest street" is a major claim. Back in the early 19th century, the city was established as Yerba Buena by William Richardson, the town's first land grantee. He established a trading post settlement in 1835 with today’s Portsmouth Square as the plaza and the first street drawn as Calle de la Fundación (“street of the founding”).
Richardson built his family a hodgepodge tent-shack on the hillside along Grant Avenue between Clay and Washington streets, establishing the first residence in what would later become San Francisco.
In 1839 a survey of Yerba Buena was drawn by Jean Vioget, a surveyor and sea captain, including the current layout of Grant Avenue. While credited as the first surveyor of Yerba Buena, he didn’t name any of the streets.
When Commander John Montgomery of the USS Portsmouth took possession of Yerba Buena in 1846, his administration hired Jasper O’Farrell, first surveyor for San Francisco and mind behind Market Street, to enlarge the Vioget survey that serves as the early iteration of the downtown area.
O’Farrell, he of the eponymous street in the Tenderloin, named all the streets in his survey, and Calle de la Fundación was renamed Dupont Street in honor of the USS Portsmouth’s admiral.
By the late 1800s, the street had become home to Chinese immigrants who were escaping persecution or following the Gold Rush. “Du Pon Gai,” as many Chinese called it, already had a reputation for opium dens, sing-song girls (an English term for the courtesans in 19th-century China), the Tong wars, and criminal organizations.
The street was also flamed by a prejudice that plagued the residents from the earliest days of the city. In an attempt to upgrade the area, downtown merchants renamed a portion the street after President Ulysses S. Grant.
While the area proved to be one of the most thriving in the city, everything changed after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Chinatown was leveled, and reconstruction efforts facilitated a new facade for the historically Chinese neighborhood.
While the previous buildings looked contiguous with the rest of the city, despite their Chinese tenants, the newly constructed Chinatown featured designs reminiscent of China.
One of the first buildings to incorporate this new aesthetic was the Sing Fat Company building at the southwest corner of California and Grant. Built by (non-Chinese) architects Ross and Burgren, the pagoda-roofed building was billed as an “Oriental Bazaar” with additional branches in Los Angeles and New York.
The building is still standing today with retail shops, but has lost much of its original ornamentation.
Across the street from Sing Fat Company, at the northwest corner, the Sing Chong building (also designed by Ross and Burgren) opened at the same time as another bazaar. It was later converted to the Cathay House Restaurant in 1942.
Inspired by its standout look, many other buildings on the street started featuring similar architectural treatments. For instance, the Bank of America building at 701 Grant, originally the Nanking Fook Wo Inc., featured traditional dragon motifs.
The ubiquitous red lantern street lamps that line Grant Avenue, a popular attraction today for tourists and local photographers, were installed for the 1939 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
Local lore has it that chop suey, the popular American-Chinese dish, originated in Gold Rush-era San Francisco when hungry miners barged into an area Chinese restaurant, which was just about to close, demanding food.
The chef scraped leftovers off other plates, slapped some sauce on it, and served it to them as chop suey (a mixed-up version of Cantonese for “odds and ends”). Regardless of its origins, chop suey was a mainstay in mid-20th-century Chinatown.
The Shanghai Low sign at 532 Grant once shone bright on the building built in 1908. Though the sign technically still exists, the “Chop Suey” signage has been replaced with “Lotus Garden,” the original marquee was replaced by generic vinyl awnings along the street, and all the cornice ornamentation has been removed.
The 1913 Western States Importing Company at 400 Grant looks very much the same today as it did in 1951, though its setting has changed with the addition of the Chinatown entrance gates at Grant and Bush.
One of the most iconic (and photographed) spots on Grant Avenue is the Dragon Gate entrance at Bush Street. Dedicated in 1970, the gate features Chinese gateway standards using stone throughout.
With a design by Chinese-American architect Clayton Lee, who based it on Chinese ceremonial gates, it features motifs of fish and dragons with two lion statues on each side. Lee’s design won a contest in the late 1960s and includes a wooden plaque with a quote from Dr. Sun Yat-sen, which hangs from the main archway bearing gilded words that read, “All under heaven is for the good for the people.”
- William Richardson and Yerba Buena [Found SF]
- Was Chop Suey the Greatest Culinary Joke Ever Played? [Smithsonian Magazine]
- Chinatown [Curbed SF]