San Francisco Chinatown alleyways tend to fall victim to tales from the past—and present. Opium dens, gambling, prostitution—whatever grabs the attention of tourists hungry for a lurid look at the bygone days. But there’s more to these small stretches of street than sensational tales exoticized in the pages of tourist guides.
The neighborhood has also turned into a ghost town recently due to racially-tinged and inaccurate fears of coronavirus. So much so that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi paid a visit to Chinatown this week in an effort to get tourists and locals alike to return. So you should do just that, head over to this great ’hood to check out its many, many alleyways.
Created as a way to help ease the density of the neighborhood—via racial discrimination or legislation, Chinese Americans were pushed out of most San Francisco neighborhoods during the Barbary Coast days—today these alleyways show that Chinatown is more than just restaurants and souvenir shops. They are the front doors of homes, the playgrounds of children, and the gathering spots for residents.
There are 41 alleys in all. Here are a few notable paths for you to follow.
Next to Ross Alley (initially christened Old Spanish Alley because it was originally occupied by Spanish settlers), this is the second-most-popular alley in Chinatown. While Brandon Jew’s popular restaurant Mister Jiu’s is Waverly’s most recent attraction, this small street is primarily known for its Chinese benevolent associations and temples. Nicknamed “The Street of Painted Balconies” for its colorful facades, it also played a big part in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Not only was it used as a location for the movie adaptation, but it’s also the name of one of the main characters, Waverly Jong.
Noted for being the oldest alley in San Francisco, Ross was infamous back in the Barbary Coast days as a hotspot for gambling and brothels. Today it’s used by many locals to cut through the neighborhood without having to trudge Grant or Stockton. Murals showcasing daily life of the Chinese-American community can be seen on the walls. Jun Yu’s barbershop is a local favorite.
For tourists, Ross is a draw for the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, which almost always has lines coming out of it; the bronze map plaque; and the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco. The alley was also featured in Steven Spielberg’s problematic Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a movie that due to racist caricatures has not held up well over time.
Named after Erastus Volney Joice, a prominent landowner during California’s early pre-union days, this alleyway stretches all the way to Nob Hill, sandwiched by Powell, Pine, Stockton, and Clay streets. This is where the brick Donaldina Cameron House (founded in 1874) is located, as well as a tucked-away basketball court popular for sporting types on warm summer days.
St. Louis Place
While St. Louis Place’s history remains less than desirable, today it’s one of the neighborhood’s best alleys in that it’s not filled with tourists. Walk down this alley, complete with emblems on handrails, to see a slice of real Chinatown with locals going about their daily business.
A small pink- and red-hued brick alleyway that, as of late, has served as a canvas for the city’s infamous crop of dazed Bart Simpson graffiti. Look carefully: It’s hidden behind an open-air newsstand/odds and ends shop.
Primarily used these days for storing items and refuse for Grant Avenue restaurants, Bedford also serves as a break area for area service-industry workers.
Tile aficionados shouldn’t miss this alley. The Ma Tsu temple, located at 30 Beckett, is adorned with red lanterns and gorgeous yellow and white tile.
Nicknamed Salted Fish Alley for the fish sold here, this alley features a wartime mural and exposed stone on the roadway.
Rose Pak's Way
A rather listless alley named after one of San Francisco’s most colorful and bold characters, the late Rose Pak. The quiet alley is adjacent to recently renovated Chinese Hospital. Pak was renowned as a power broker and the voice of Chinatown at City Hall.
“People give me more power than I really have,” she said in a 2013 San Francisco Chronicle interview, “and half of the crap I’m not even remotely interested in. All I’m interested in is advancing my community.”
Old Chinatown Lane
A peaceful alley with clothes hanging from the apartment fire escapes above, where street art mixes with Cantonese signage.
In 2013, the city added “Donaldina Cameron Alley" to the Old Chinatown Lane name in recognition of Donaldina Cameron, a missionary who rescued Chinese immigrant girls from prostitution and indentured servitude.
Right off Jackson Street, Duncombe Alley is also known as Fay Chie Hong, or “Fat Boy Alley,” named after a large young boy who used to live there.
Hang Ah Alley
In 2014, Chinatown CDC youth, artists, and property owners collaborated in producing the neighborhood’s only tile mosaic mural, “Blooming on Fragrance Alley.” Look for it on Clay between Stockton and Grant.
Hidden behind a fence and grocer, this narrow residential alleyway is highlighted with bright-yellow brickwork on both sides.
Right on the border of Chinatown, this little alley is bordered by St. Mary’s Square to one side and small retail businesses on the other. Most notably, at the end of Quincy, heading north, you will find one of San Francisco’s best buildings, 675 California Street, described by urban-design critic John King as “a small modernist jewel box on the edge of Chinatown.”