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A gate to a busy neighborhood. Photo via Shutterstock

The history of Chinatown’s greatest landmarks

Block for block, no neighborhood has more history

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The first Chinese immigrants arrived in San Francisco in 1848, beating out the famed ’49ers with months to spare.

That makes Chinatown an older and more established San Francisco tradition than even the Gold Rush itself. Although in geographic terms it’s but a drop in the vast ocean of modern San Francisco, no neighborhood has left a larger mark on city history.

Some of these Chinatown landmarks have long since vanished, some have endured into the present day, and some are in flux, still extant but now quite changed from what first made them noteworthy.

Here’s just a glimpse of the neighborhood’s hallowed history, from 1850 to today.

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1. Alleyway Map Plaque

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Ross Alley
San Francisco, CA

Chinatown has long been SF’s most densely populated neighborhoods—largely due to racist anti-immigrant policies that crammed as many people into a few blocks as possible.

The historic alleyways are crucial to making sure it remains navigable, although that’s not necessarily the reason they were all built, as many important routes already existed when they were absorbed into Chinatown’s growing borders.

2. Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

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56 Ross Alley
San Francisco, CA 94108

Fortune cookies, of course, are an American rather than Chinese tradition. In fact, the Chinatown Merchants Association claims that in the ‘90s, fortune cookies were marketed in China as “genuine American” treats.

Japanese immigrant Makoto Hagiwara (designer of the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park) usually gets the credit for inventing the treats, and they proved a big hit at the 1915 Worlds Fair.

The Ross Alley Fortune Cookie Factory opened in 1962, and why it’s not the first place every Chinatown tourist goes we’ll never know.

3. Golden Dragon Restaurant

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822 Washington St
San Francisco, CA 94108

The stalwart Golden Dragon operated on Washington Street for decades, but unfortunately it’s still probably best remembered for the Golden Dragon Massacre, a gang hit in 1977 that left five people dead—none of them the intended targets of the attack.

In this day and age you’d at least be obliged to change the name of the place after that, but the Golden Dragon moniker endured.

4. Telephone Exchange

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743 Washington St
San Francisco, CA 94108

The Chinatown Telephone Exchange opened in 1901. For decades, tireless operators routed calls to every business and residence in the neighborhood, memorizing the entire directory and speaking multiple Chinese dialects so as to properly direct calls in the days before established phone numbers and dials. The pagoda building, now a bank, dates to 1909, a replacement for the original, destroyed structure.

5. Chinatown Methodist Mission

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916 Washington St
San Francisco, CA 94108

In July of 1877, anti-Chinese racism and resentment over labor issues boiled over into a riot that destroyed 20 Chinese laundries (one of the only businesses Chinese immigrants could legally own in the city) and broke the windows of the neighborhood Methodist Mission.

6. Empress of China

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838 Grant Ave
San Francisco, CA 94108

Kee Joon Lee, originally from China’s Canton district, sold the owners of the six-story Grant Street building finished in 1966 on the dream of rooftop fine dining with elegance and class overlooking Portsmouth Square.

Lee’s daughter Barbara Yee recalled in 2014, “"When it started, people couldn't even go up there to eat unless you wore a tie. If you didn't have a tie, they had a tie ready for you."

Empress of China’s 2015 closure still smarts, but the location and Empress name will not remain vacant.

7. Portsmouth Square

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733 Kearny St
San Francisco, CA 94108

In August of 1850, San Francisco Mayor John Geary invited Chinese immigrants to march in a funeral procession he’d organized in the memory of recently deceased US President Zachary Taylor, ending in Portsmouth Square.

During the oratory, a judge told the immigrants “You stand among us as equals.” The unexpected recognition so pleased community that it sent Geary a thank you note signed on behalf of all “China Boys.” It was the first time the city acknowledged Chinatown as a community.

8. “The Birthplace Of a Great City”

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823 Grant Ave
San Francisco, CA 94108

And here’s one Chinatown landmark that actually has almost nothing to do with Chinatown—on roughly this spot on Grant Street in 1835, the first private residential home in what would one day become San Francisco was raised.

Back then the spot was a trackless wilderness, and in a certain sense today it’s almost as obscure—the plaque marking the location is pretty much impossible to notice if you’re not looking for it.

9. Tianhou Temple

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125 Waverly Pl
San Francisco, CA 94108

Chinatown’s oldest Taoist temple has operated at this same address since 1852. Though closed several times over the years, it’s always reopened in the same spot. The 1906 earthquake destroyed the original building, but part of the altar survived, as did the temple bell (once it was dug from the ruins).

10. The Chinese School

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925 Stockton St
San Francisco, CA 94108

Mary’s was not the first church in Chinatown, however, as the Presbyterian congregation opened in 1853. Six years later it served an even more important function as the initial site for Chinatown’s first neighborhood school.

State law segregated primary schools, leaving Chinatown residents to petition the city for years before getting an educational space of their own. Later the “Chinese School” would change its name and open up the classroom to the children of immigrants from other Asian countries.

Incidentally, Portsmouth Square was home to the first public school in California, opened in 1847, one year before the first Chinese immigrants arrived in San Francisco.

The Presbyterian Church in Chinatown’s 100th anniversary in 1953.
Photo via PCC

11. YWCA

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940 Powell St
San Francisco, CA 94108

Chinatown’s first YMCA opened in 1911 and remains an institution to this day, but the stunning YWCA building on Powell Street (now the Chinese Historical Society of America HQ) is by rights the bigger icon thanks to the design by Julia Morgan.

But note that the Morgan building didn’t come along until the 1930s. When the YWCA first opened in 1916, it operated out of a reformed saloon on Stockton Street.

12. Cameron House

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920 Sacramento St
San Francisco, CA 94108

Founded in 1874 as the Occidental Mission Home For Girls, Cameron House’s original mission was liberating immigrant women from forced sex work.

Because the law prohibited Chinese immigration for decades, women had to be smuggled into the country, putting them at the mercy of exploitative rackets. These days Cameron House operates as a family services agency.

13. China Street

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855 Sacramento St
San Francisco, CA 94108

The testimony of 19th-century San Francisco police chief James Cook explains that residents conferred names of their own on the side streets and byways of Chinatown.

St Louis Alley, for example, was better known as “Fo Sue Hong,”or “Fire Alley,” owing to a memorable fire that once broke out there. Sacramento Street was instead “Tong Yen Guy,” or China Street, and Spofford Alley better known as “Sun Louie Sun Hong,” or New Spanish Alley.

Asking for directions using the official street names was useless, Cook claimed. “But if you gave him the Chinese name [a local] would know immediately” where you wanted to go.

Sacramento Street pre-1906; precise date unknown.
Photo via New York Public Library

14. Old St. Mary's Cathedral

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660 California St
San Francisco, CA 94108

Not just the oldest cathedral in Chinatown but also in the entire state of California, Father Henry Ignatius Stark oversaw Old St Mary’s construction in 1854 as a mission to spread Catholicism in Chinatown. The bricks and granite were all imports from China.

15. Sing Chong Building

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601 Grant Ave
San Francisco, CA 94108

After the 1906 earthquake City Hall smelled an opportunity to banish Chinatown to the fringes, planning to relocate the community to what is now Bayview. But the Chinese Family Associations and the Chinese Consulate refused to budge.

Chinatown merchant Look Tin Eli seized on the idea of hiring non-Chinese architects and contractors to rebuild the neighborhood in homage/pastiche styles of classical Chinese architecture, a bid to increase its appeal as a tourist destination and cultural redoubt.

The Sing Chong Building was one of the first of the “new Chinatown” structures to open, along with the Sing Fat building on the other side of the street.

Photo via SF Historical Society

16. Sun Yat Sen Statue

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651 California St
San Francisco, CA 94108

The inscription reads in part: “Champion of Democracy, lover of mankind, proponent of friendship and peace among the nations based on equality, justice and goodwill.”

Sun Yat Sen, the Chinese political revolutionary who labored for years to create a democratic republic in China, came to Chinatown while in exile from his home country, seeking financial and political support for his cause. The Dragon Gate on Grant bears a quote by Sun on the archway.

The statue, installed in the late ‘30s, is the product not of one of Sun’s Chinatown devotees but of Italian-American artist Beniamano Bufino.

17. “Column Of Strength”

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415 Kearny St
San Francisco, CA 94108

Installed in 2017, Carmel artist Steven Whyte’s piece titled Women’s Column of Strength proved instantly controversial with some, as it prompted San Francisco’s sister city of Osaka to cut diplomatic ties with SF. But Whyte and the city stand by the figures, which represent the women who suffered sexual slavery in China during World War II.

18. Kong Chow Company

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520 Pine St
San Francisco, CA 94108

The first of Chinatown’s famous Six Companies, the Kong Chow Company opened on Pine Street in a locale that it would stick with for over 100 years before eventually relocating to its present spot on Stockton Street. The 520 Pine address is now a parking garage.

The neighborhood’s Benevolent Associations served as a kind of safety net, helping immigrants who were suddenly divorced from the social structure of their homeland and who couldn’t rely on city government for much of anything.

The original Kong Chow building on Pine Street after the 1906 quake.
Photo via Chinatown: History and Architecture

19. Dragon Gate

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564 Bush St
San Francisco, CA 94108

The face of Chinatown to tourists and photographers from around the world, the gate has been in place only since 1970. Taiwan gifted the materials used, but the design comes by way of Chinese-American architect Clayton Lee. As is traditional, the gate faces south, deemed the most favorable direction for the entrance to a building or community.

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1. Alleyway Map Plaque

Ross Alley, San Francisco, CA

Chinatown has long been SF’s most densely populated neighborhoods—largely due to racist anti-immigrant policies that crammed as many people into a few blocks as possible.

The historic alleyways are crucial to making sure it remains navigable, although that’s not necessarily the reason they were all built, as many important routes already existed when they were absorbed into Chinatown’s growing borders.

Ross Alley
San Francisco, CA

2. Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

56 Ross Alley, San Francisco, CA 94108

Fortune cookies, of course, are an American rather than Chinese tradition. In fact, the Chinatown Merchants Association claims that in the ‘90s, fortune cookies were marketed in China as “genuine American” treats.

Japanese immigrant Makoto Hagiwara (designer of the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park) usually gets the credit for inventing the treats, and they proved a big hit at the 1915 Worlds Fair.

The Ross Alley Fortune Cookie Factory opened in 1962, and why it’s not the first place every Chinatown tourist goes we’ll never know.

56 Ross Alley
San Francisco, CA 94108

3. Golden Dragon Restaurant

822 Washington St, San Francisco, CA 94108

The stalwart Golden Dragon operated on Washington Street for decades, but unfortunately it’s still probably best remembered for the Golden Dragon Massacre, a gang hit in 1977 that left five people dead—none of them the intended targets of the attack.

In this day and age you’d at least be obliged to change the name of the place after that, but the Golden Dragon moniker endured.

822 Washington St
San Francisco, CA 94108

4. Telephone Exchange

743 Washington St, San Francisco, CA 94108

The Chinatown Telephone Exchange opened in 1901. For decades, tireless operators routed calls to every business and residence in the neighborhood, memorizing the entire directory and speaking multiple Chinese dialects so as to properly direct calls in the days before established phone numbers and dials. The pagoda building, now a bank, dates to 1909, a replacement for the original, destroyed structure.

743 Washington St
San Francisco, CA 94108

5. Chinatown Methodist Mission

916 Washington St, San Francisco, CA 94108

In July of 1877, anti-Chinese racism and resentment over labor issues boiled over into a riot that destroyed 20 Chinese laundries (one of the only businesses Chinese immigrants could legally own in the city) and broke the windows of the neighborhood Methodist Mission.

916 Washington St
San Francisco, CA 94108

6. Empress of China

838 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94108

Kee Joon Lee, originally from China’s Canton district, sold the owners of the six-story Grant Street building finished in 1966 on the dream of rooftop fine dining with elegance and class overlooking Portsmouth Square.

Lee’s daughter Barbara Yee recalled in 2014, “"When it started, people couldn't even go up there to eat unless you wore a tie. If you didn't have a tie, they had a tie ready for you."

Empress of China’s 2015 closure still smarts, but the location and Empress name will not remain vacant.

838 Grant Ave
San Francisco, CA 94108

7. Portsmouth Square

733 Kearny St, San Francisco, CA 94108

In August of 1850, San Francisco Mayor John Geary invited Chinese immigrants to march in a funeral procession he’d organized in the memory of recently deceased US President Zachary Taylor, ending in Portsmouth Square.

During the oratory, a judge told the immigrants “You stand among us as equals.” The unexpected recognition so pleased community that it sent Geary a thank you note signed on behalf of all “China Boys.” It was the first time the city acknowledged Chinatown as a community.

733 Kearny St
San Francisco, CA 94108

8. “The Birthplace Of a Great City”

823 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94108

And here’s one Chinatown landmark that actually has almost nothing to do with Chinatown—on roughly this spot on Grant Street in 1835, the first private residential home in what would one day become San Francisco was raised.

Back then the spot was a trackless wilderness, and in a certain sense today it’s almost as obscure—the plaque marking the location is pretty much impossible to notice if you’re not looking for it.

823 Grant Ave
San Francisco, CA 94108

9. Tianhou Temple

125 Waverly Pl, San Francisco, CA 94108

Chinatown’s oldest Taoist temple has operated at this same address since 1852. Though closed several times over the years, it’s always reopened in the same spot. The 1906 earthquake destroyed the original building, but part of the altar survived, as did the temple bell (once it was dug from the ruins).

125 Waverly Pl
San Francisco, CA 94108

10. The Chinese School

925 Stockton St, San Francisco, CA 94108
The Presbyterian Church in Chinatown’s 100th anniversary in 1953.
Photo via PCC

Mary’s was not the first church in Chinatown, however, as the Presbyterian congregation opened in 1853. Six years later it served an even more important function as the initial site for Chinatown’s first neighborhood school.

State law segregated primary schools, leaving Chinatown residents to petition the city for years before getting an educational space of their own. Later the “Chinese School” would change its name and open up the classroom to the children of immigrants from other Asian countries.

Incidentally, Portsmouth Square was home to the first public school in California, opened in 1847, one year before the first Chinese immigrants arrived in San Francisco.

925 Stockton St
San Francisco, CA 94108

11. YWCA

940 Powell St, San Francisco, CA 94108

Chinatown’s first YMCA opened in 1911 and remains an institution to this day, but the stunning YWCA building on Powell Street (now the Chinese Historical Society of America HQ) is by rights the bigger icon thanks to the design by Julia Morgan.

But note that the Morgan building didn’t come along until the 1930s. When the YWCA first opened in 1916, it operated out of a reformed saloon on Stockton Street.

940 Powell St
San Francisco, CA 94108

12. Cameron House

920 Sacramento St, San Francisco, CA 94108

Founded in 1874 as the Occidental Mission Home For Girls, Cameron House’s original mission was liberating immigrant women from forced sex work.

Because the law prohibited Chinese immigration for decades, women had to be smuggled into the country, putting them at the mercy of exploitative rackets. These days Cameron House operates as a family services agency.

920 Sacramento St
San Francisco, CA 94108

13. China Street

855 Sacramento St, San Francisco, CA 94108
Sacramento Street pre-1906; precise date unknown.
Photo via New York Public Library

The testimony of 19th-century San Francisco police chief James Cook explains that residents conferred names of their own on the side streets and byways of Chinatown.

St Louis Alley, for example, was better known as “Fo Sue Hong,”or “Fire Alley,” owing to a memorable fire that once broke out there. Sacramento Street was instead “Tong Yen Guy,” or China Street, and Spofford Alley better known as “Sun Louie Sun Hong,” or New Spanish Alley.

Asking for directions using the official street names was useless, Cook claimed. “But if you gave him the Chinese name [a local] would know immediately” where you wanted to go.

855 Sacramento St
San Francisco, CA 94108

14. Old St. Mary's Cathedral

660 California St, San Francisco, CA 94108

Not just the oldest cathedral in Chinatown but also in the entire state of California, Father Henry Ignatius Stark oversaw Old St Mary’s construction in 1854 as a mission to spread Catholicism in Chinatown. The bricks and granite were all imports from China.

660 California St
San Francisco, CA 94108

15. Sing Chong Building

601 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94108
Photo via SF Historical Society

After the 1906 earthquake City Hall smelled an opportunity to banish Chinatown to the fringes, planning to relocate the community to what is now Bayview. But the Chinese Family Associations and the Chinese Consulate refused to budge.

Chinatown merchant Look Tin Eli seized on the idea of hiring non-Chinese architects and contractors to rebuild the neighborhood in homage/pastiche styles of classical Chinese architecture, a bid to increase its appeal as a tourist destination and cultural redoubt.

The Sing Chong Building was one of the first of the “new Chinatown” structures to open, along with the Sing Fat building on the other side of the street.

601 Grant Ave
San Francisco, CA 94108

16. Sun Yat Sen Statue

651 California St, San Francisco, CA 94108

The inscription reads in part: “Champion of Democracy, lover of mankind, proponent of friendship and peace among the nations based on equality, justice and goodwill.”

Sun Yat Sen, the Chinese political revolutionary who labored for years to create a democratic republic in China, came to Chinatown while in exile from his home country, seeking financial and political support for his cause. The Dragon Gate on Grant bears a quote by Sun on the archway.

The statue, installed in the late ‘30s, is the product not of one of Sun’s Chinatown devotees but of Italian-American artist Beniamano Bufino.

651 California St
San Francisco, CA 94108

17. “Column Of Strength”

415 Kearny St, San Francisco, CA 94108

Installed in 2017, Carmel artist Steven Whyte’s piece titled Women’s Column of Strength proved instantly controversial with some, as it prompted San Francisco’s sister city of Osaka to cut diplomatic ties with SF. But Whyte and the city stand by the figures, which represent the women who suffered sexual slavery in China during World War II.

415 Kearny St
San Francisco, CA 94108

18. Kong Chow Company

520 Pine St, San Francisco, CA 94108
The original Kong Chow building on Pine Street after the 1906 quake.
Photo via Chinatown: History and Architecture

The first of Chinatown’s famous Six Companies, the Kong Chow Company opened on Pine Street in a locale that it would stick with for over 100 years before eventually relocating to its present spot on Stockton Street. The 520 Pine address is now a parking garage.

The neighborhood’s Benevolent Associations served as a kind of safety net, helping immigrants who were suddenly divorced from the social structure of their homeland and who couldn’t rely on city government for much of anything.

520 Pine St
San Francisco, CA 94108

19. Dragon Gate

564 Bush St, San Francisco, CA 94108

The face of Chinatown to tourists and photographers from around the world, the gate has been in place only since 1970. Taiwan gifted the materials used, but the design comes by way of Chinese-American architect Clayton Lee. As is traditional, the gate faces south, deemed the most favorable direction for the entrance to a building or community.

564 Bush St
San Francisco, CA 94108