San Francisco, California | C.1850

Photo Credit: Erol Ahmed

San Francisco’s Chinatown is special for myriad reasons, including the fact that it’s the oldest Chinatown found anywhere in the US — established around the 1850s. It was, and remains, an incredibly influential character in the story of San Francisco and the United States generally. When China was hit with a cascade of natural catastrophes following the British victory in the first Opium War, many Chinese citizens decided to make the journey to Gum San, or “Golden Mountain,” a Chinese name for the US. The stories of cultural enclaves nestled in big cities provide one of the best avenues for learning about a city’s history: the good and the bad.

From its iconic gate at Grant and Bush streets, Chinatown comprises about 30 city blocks. The neighborhood is full of restaurants, bars, and specialty stores where tourists and locals can find unique fabrics, ceramics, and Chinese herbs. Unsurprisingly, it remains one of the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco, attracting the vast majority of San Francisco’s two to three million annual visitors. 

Chinatown showcases vibrancy and light, but important lessons can be gleaned from the darker parts of its history too. The 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires had a devastating effect on the neighborhood, completely destroying the neighborhood and killing many Chinese-Americans. In the face of both natural disasters and sociopolitical vitriol from many discriminatory Americans, Chinatown’s resilient community rebuilt their neighborhood — and in fact, its reconstruction was about a year ahead of the rest of San Francisco! 

Both the city of San Francisco and the United States as a whole owe a lot to Chinatown — and not just because it was the birthplace of Dim Sum in the US. The stories — both beautiful and dark —  that make up Chinatown’s past and its treatment by others throughout the last 150 years mirror in many ways larger narratives and attitudes Americans must learn from, if neighborhoods like this one are to be appropriately respected and cherished.

Written By: Ellie Hoffman

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