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Places (POIs) visited during this tour

Place #1
Distance: 0.94mi , Attraction : Start of Tour
Map Pin
582 Market St Suite 1103, San Francisco, CA 94104, USA
POI 1 Tour Image
Chinatown's History
Welcome to Historic America & UCPlaces’ audio walking tour of Chinatown. We’re glad you could join us! I’m Rachel, Professional History Nerd. On today’s tour, I will guide you through one of San Francisco's most celebrated neighborhoods and introduce you to the many hallowed institutions and historic buildings that have served the local community for almost 200 years. We’re beginning here near the Bart station at Montgomery, but we’re making our way to the iconic gate that marks entry to Chinatown. Use the built in navigation to get to the gate, and I’ll narrate a bit of history along the way.
We’re about to step into a world of vibrant colors, sounds, sights, and smells that will immediately transport you a world away. While there are several distinct Chinese neighborhoods in San Francisco, the oldest, and largest Chinatown is right here in the heart of downtown.

The earliest Chinese immigrants to the Bay Area came in the 1840s, just before the Gold Rush. This young city on a hill was often referred to as “Gold Mountain,” and just as fortune seekers hurried west across the Great Plains, the Chinese crossed an ocean. Initially welcomed, by 1854, anti-Chinese sentiment pushed the local government to segregate the Chinese residents. Legislation soon restricted the Chinese to reside only in the area around Dupont Street, now Grant Street. At the time, the Chinese population was overwhelmingly male. 12,000 men and fewer than ten women lived in the city! In the 1850s, most of the immigrants worked as miners and prospectors in gold country. By the 1860s, many became laborers working to build the transcontinental railroad. These workers sent the little they earned back to their families in China. In those days, Chinatown was mostly self governing, relying on its own institutions to help settle immigrants and resolve disputes. The community built its own temples, churches, hospitals, and schools. Chinatown was also home to Chinese language newspapers that fought back against anti-Chinese sentiments.

Chinatown also had a darkside. At a time prostitution was rampant, the Chinatown-based Tong Gang trafficked hundreds of women from China to San Francisco as enslaved sex workers. Non-Chineese often traveled to Chinatown to patronize both brothels and gambling dens. The 1870s was a time of economic hardship throughout San Francisco, and the Chinese community emerged as scapegoats. Moral panic spread throughout San Francisco, alleging that prostitutes in Chinatown were responsible for spreading venereal disease. In 1877, a riot broke out in Chinatown that left four migrants dead. And in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act barred almost all new immigration from China. This cruel act permanently cut many of the immigrants in Chinatown off from their families. In 1900, Bubonic Plague broke out in Chinatown and the public health officials' ruthless response also took a toll on the Chinese community. When the 1906 Earthquake shook San Francisco, Chinatown was all but obliterated. The city government conspired to move Chinatown to the fringes of the city but the empress of China intervened and, fearing a loss of trade with China, the city council agreed to rebuild the rubble of Chinatown. On today’s tour, you will see what rose from those ashes. A neighborhood built by fortune seekers, sustained through unimaginable hardship, and endured to its modern role as a center for the Chinese diaspora, Chinatown’s history is both a tragic and triumphant tapestry. We will explore the ways in which the people of Chinatown built a new community, while maintaining connection to homeland.

Chinatown is both a thriving local neighborhood and a beloved destination for travelers. As the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest Chinese settlement outside of Asia, it receives more annual visitors than the Golden Gate Bridge! It’s the most densely populated area of the United States, outside of Manhattan, and about seven times more dense than the San Francisco neighborhood. Despite San Francisco’s rapid gentrification in recent decades, Chinatown’s population remains over 90% Chinese-American. Very few residents are fluent in English. Chinatown is not a wealthy neighborhood. Many families who live here live below the poverty line. Those who improve their circumstances often move out of Chinatown to other parts of San Francisco or the surrounding cities. The median age among Chinatown’s residents is 50, higher than in any other neighborhood in the city. As we walk through the hustle and bustle, you may feel as if you’d stepped off a plane and landed in Hong Kong. If it weren’t for the towering Transamerica Building to the east or views of Coit Tower farther north, you might forget that you’re in San Francisco at all.

Now that I’ve set the stage, let's enter the gate!

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Place #2
Distance: 0.22mi , Attraction : Famous Gate
Map Pin
500 Bush St, San Francisco, CA 94108, USA
POI 4 Tour Image
The Dragon Gate
The ornate gate before you marks your entrance to Chinatown. The gate was erected in 1969 as a gift from Taiwan in an effort to improve diplomatic relations with the US. Since then, it has come to epitomize the unique character of San Francisco's Chinatown. Built mainly in Taiwan and covered in beautiful Taiwanese tiles, the Dragon Gate stands as a beacon welcoming visitors under its archways. Designed by Clayton Lee and a team of Chinese American architects, the Dragon Gate is one of the most spectacular and certainly the most authentic of all American Chinatown gates, drawing inspiration from ceremonial gates common in Chinese villages. This gate is built of stone which, while traditional in China, is rare in American Chinatowns where the gates are often made from wood. Notice the supports are flanked by ceremonial guardian lions. The lion on the left is male and has its paw perched on a pearl, a traditional symbol of the Chinese Empire. The lion on the left is female and guards a baby lion symbolizing the people of Chinatown. The top of the gate is decorated with dragons representing power and fertility and the fish represent prosperity. Between the dragons is a ball which represents the earth. A sign written in Chinese hangs above each of the three portals of the gate. The middle sign reads “All under heaven is for the good of the people,” a motto of the Chinese freedom fighter Sun Yat-sen. We’ll learn more about him at a later stop. The left sign reads “respect and love” and the right reads “trust and peace.” The gate is one of the most photographed places in San Francisco, so make sure to snap a selfie before we embark on our exploration of this iconic neighborhood.

When you’re ready, pass through the Chinatown gate and take in Grant Avenue, formerly Dupont Street. This block, once the center of San Francisco’s red light district, is now a great place for tourists to grab kitschy souvenirs and inexpensive t-shirts. Peek into the shops as we continue up Grant for one block. I'll meet you at the intersection of Grant Ave. and Pine St. We’re headed to take in the statuary of St Mary’s Square.

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