Officially, Chinatown is part of the Financial District – Barbary Coast neighborhood but its unique character and role in San Francisco history warrants a special mention.

A part of what is now known as Chinatown houses the famous Portsmouth Square, often called “the cradle of San Francisco” as it was here where the city was actually born. Portsmouth Square is bounded by Kearny Street on the east, Washington Street on the north, Clay Street on the South, and Walter Lum Place on the west. Permanent human habitation in this area dates back to 1835 when William Richardson built the first dwelling near the potato field. Mr. Richardson was then followed by another pioneer, Jacob Leese, who, like Richardson, obtained a land grant from the Mexican governor as California was then a Mexican dominion. Within a few years more dwellings were erected in the vicinity and in 1839 Jean-Jacques Vioget, a Swiss émigré with some surveying experience, laid out a few streets and drew a map of the growing town. What was formerly a potato field became a central “Plaza”.

Developments came fast and furious in 1840s. First, the war between the U.S. and Mexico brought California to the forefront. On July 9, 1846 Captain John Montgomery and a troop of sailors from U.S.S. Portsmouth raised the American flag at the Plaza which was then renamed Portsmouth Square and Yerba Buena (as San Francisco was then known) became U.S. territory. The discovery of gold in January, 1848 and the subsequent Gold Rush of 1849 dramatically changed Portsmouth Square which became the epicenter of a bustling town, densely surrounded by buildings, the vast majority of which were devoted to gambling. Subsequently, this square transitioned further and became a center of commercial and social activity. Today, Portsmouth Square little resembles what it once has been and essentially became more of a roof for the parking garage below (constructed in 1960).

Chinatown’s origins (as the neighborhood is known today) date back to the early 1850s when Chinese merchants began to congregate on Sacramento Street near Kearny and what is now known as Grant Street and nearby areas. This neighborhood is the oldest Chinatown in North America and is now home to the largest Chinese community outside Asia.

The vast majority of Chinatown’s early residents came when the 1849 Gold Rush was well under way with a large influx of immigrants arriving in 1860s to work on the western half of the transcontinental railroad. As more and more continued to arrive, particularly to work on the western half of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, they became targets for abuse and discrimination.

This neighborhood was leveled by the earthquake and fire of the 1906 along with all of downtown San Francisco but was rebuilt in the same location thanks to the resilience of its residents (there was an attempt by white businessman and politicians to move Chinatown out of its prime location to Hunters Point). The new Chinatown was given a more colorful “Oriental” look, the idea being that this would help erase its previous unsavory opium-den and slave-girl reputation and further enhance its appeal as a tourist destination.

The reality of Chinatown is that there are two Chinatowns: one belongs to the locals, the other charms the tourists. They overlap with each other, drawing more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge.

For deep immersion into Chinatown, be sure to examine the many produce and live markets that line Stockton Street (between Columbus and Broadway) on a Saturday afternoon. Exploring the pocket-size side streets at night is another great way to run into something unforeseen. Dive bars in Chinatown are small, dark and moody, with locals playing dice and visitors wandering in with curious looks on their faces.

This neighborhood has an impressive average Walk score of 100 and Transit score of 100.

The below link provides further details on this neighborhood and its attractions:

The content displayed above was partially derived from a book by Rand Richards “Historic Walks in San Francisco. 18 Trails Through the City’s Past”.


About Kate

As a long-term resident of San Francisco, Kate is well familiar with the city’s past and present. With her professional background and deep knowledge of the local housing market, Kate is in the position to best assist with your real estate needs. Should you be looking for a recommendation on the upcoming cultural or social events and/or if you need a trusted local real estate advisor, ask Kate – San Francisco is her HOME.

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1801 Lombard Street, San Francisco, CA 94123

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