I always like to wander through the Chinatown area of large cities, enjoying the vibrancy, the bright colours, small shops and, of course, the food. So the Chinatown in San Francisco was not to be missed. This is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, and the oldest in the United States.
The Chinatown Alleys
One of the most famous parts of San Francisco Chinatown is the Alleys. These are a maze of more than 40 tiny paths and alleyways dating back to the late 19th century. At this time the Chinese population of the city was growing but local laws prevented them from building outside of their allotted area. So they created extra room by building upwards and by squeezing new passages between the existing roads.
Today the Chinatown alleys are home to all manner of small businesses including hairdressers, massage parlours and fortunetellers. I could hear the sounds of industry coming from tiny workshops, and I stopped to listen to buskers on the street corners.
Shopping In Chinatown
In the past Chinatown has suffered from poverty, overcrowding, plague and earthquake. But it has been extensively rebuilt and is now one of San Francisco’s main tourist attractions. The whole area covers 22 blocks, which means that you could spend the whole day exploring.
After I left the alleyways I walked for a while along the main roads. They were festooned with banners and red lanterns, and full of places to buy jewellery, jade and statues of Buddha. However, this is very much a place where people live, so you could also find shops selling just about anything you might need.
Eating And Drinking
As you might expect, there are lots of cafés and restaurants. I opted for the Pot Sticker on Waverly Place, where I had traditional Chinese food including my favourite green onion pancakes. Opposite the restaurant was a music school and I spent some time listening to the students practising Chinese songs. And I climbed three sets of stairs to the Tin How Temple, a small peaceful area crammed with colourful artefacts and laden with the smell of incense.
One place not to miss is the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley. Here you can watch fortune cookies being made, and of course buy a bag to take away.
I left by the Dragon Gate, a huge archway at the end of Grant Street. This was once the red light district but as I looked back at the bustling street, full of tourists and shoppers, it was hard to imagine the area’s impoverished past.