Chinatown: The Pretty and the Gritty

Off the main tourist routes are the alleys of Chinatown San Francisco that offer a different, old world perspective of life in this famous area of the city. Beyond Grant Avenue’s dragon-adorned street lamps and pagoda façades are these small streets where the residents go about their daily lives. These are a few of the sights I saw on Rick Evans’ Chinatown Walking Tour.

The Pretty

Waverly Place, Chinatown San Francisco

Waverly Place, San Francisco

Waverly Place, a street with many temples and Chinese benevolent associations, is aptly called “The Street of Painted Balconies” for its colorful and decorative buildings. You may recall Waverly being a notable location the in The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.

Waverly Place, Chinatown San Francisco

Waverly Place, San Francisco

Waverly Place, Chinatown San Francisco

Tien Hou on Waverly Place, San Francisco

The oldest Buddhist temple in the United States, Tien Hou, was built in 1852 and survived San Francisco’s devastating 1906 earthquake and fire. Up three flights of stairs at 125 Waverly Place, the smell of incense is almost overwhelming as you enter the temple where offerings of fruit are made to the Goddess of Heaven.

The Gritty

Spofford Street, Chinatown San Francisco

Spofford Street, Chinatown

Spofford Street presents an edgy, gritty side of Chinatown. Outsiders may not feel quite as welcome here as the locals are protective of their privacy. Walking along the alley, the clicking of mah jong tiles can be heard from behind the covered windows and doorways. Significantly, the secret offices of Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat Sen were located on Spofford. He is considered the father of China’s 1911 revolution and there is a statue in his honor several blocks in St. Mary’s Square.

Old Chinatown Lane, San Francisco

Old Chinatown Lane, San Francisco

I was quite surprised when we turned off busy Washington Street and entered Old Chinatown Lane, a quiet alley with clothes hanging from the apartment fire escapes above us.

Old Chinatown Lane

Old Chinatown Lane, San Francisco

At the alley’s dead-end was a boarded-up passageway once used by gang members to escape to other alleys.

Boarded Passageway in Old Chinatown Lane

Boarded Passageway in Old Chinatown Lane

Although once infamous for its brothels and gambling, Ross Alley is now much more subdued and known primarily for the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. You can watch the cookies being made and sample them fresh off the hot press.

Golden Gate Cookie Factory

Golden Gate Cookie Factory

The street has also served as a filming location for movies such as Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Alley in Chinatown

Ross Alley, San Francisco

For more information about the Rick Evans’ walking tour: Chinatown Walking Tour

54 thoughts on “Chinatown: The Pretty and the Gritty

  1. walkingon travels

    oddly enough, Chinatown is the only thing I’ve really seen in San Francisco. I had to fly in for 1.5 days for a photo shoot and we stayed in a hotel right near by. With my jetlag coming from New York I was up with all the ladies doing their morning shopping. It was pretty cool!

  2. Vera Marie Badertscher

    If you want to see a picture-perfect Chinatown, visit Singapore. Of course everything in Singapore is picture perfect–its the Disneyfied country. I like the way you chose to contrast the good and the not-so attractive in this post.

  3. Leigh

    I love the idea of a walking tour – I think you get so much more out of it. I always meant to do a market tour in Vancouver’s Chinatown but somehow never got around do it. There is some very interesting history that’s happened in those few blocks.!!

  4. Mary @ The World Is A Book

    This sounds like an interesting tour. I like how you showed the touristy part and the ones not shown on the tourist brochures. Now I kno which area to stay away from on our next visit. I’ve always liked the noise and aroma of food in SF’s Chinatown. There’s such an authentic vibe to it compared to the other US Chinatowns.

    1. Cathy Post author

      I think SF’s Chinatown is the most interesting of the ones I’ve been to. It’s such a large area and the history runs so deep.

  5. jenny@atasteoftravel

    Walking tours are a great way to get in behind the facade of an area and you certainly saw all aspects in this one! You often wonder what goes on behind those closed doors apart from mah jong!

    1. Cathy Post author

      Those covered windows and doorways are quite mysterious,but I’d be a little afraid to try to get inside and find out what’s going on.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Exactly. I wouldn’t have known about these alleys, much less walked down them, if I wasn’t with Rick’s tour. He’s developed a rapport with the locals that made me feel comfortable.

  6. Barbara

    I LOVE this walking tour. I grew up outside of San Francisco and went to Chinatown an abundant number of times. But I never took this walking tour and I never knew many of the things you mention! I do know that San Francisco’s Chinatown is home to the largest population of Chinese outside of China. It also has had a very seedy reputation, with gang violence a troubling problem. The layers of experience here are very rich and my wish has always been to learn the language so that I could break in and understand the community better. Thanks for this!

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thank YOU! Chinatown is certainly a multi-faceted community with its share of the good and the bad. I’m glad that I was able to introduce you to a few new aspects of the area that you can check out next time in S.F.

    1. Cathy Post author

      I like walking tours also. This one, in particular, was nice since Rick has been recognized for his deep knowledge of the area.

  7. Sabrina

    Pretty and gritty 🙂 Perfect! So many corners you’d never find without an insider. Great background information too! The decorations are really pretty.

    1. Cathy Post author

      All the time that I had been in Chinatown over many years, I really never made it past the main touristy streets. This was such an eye-opener.

  8. Angela

    It does carry some flavors of China! I loved dining in Chinatown in London, apart from very good food there were also markets with strictly Chinese products, and I use quite a few in my diet!

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Angela. I’ve never been to China but I like to think that I’m getting some of the experience in place like Chinatown in SF, NY, Toronto, etc.

  9. Pola (@jettingaround)

    I agree with your opening statement – there definitely is a lot to see in the little alleys of Chinatown. This isn’t my favorite area of San Francisco – it’s always crowded, and the stores offer the same stuff you can find in any Chinatown. But when you go to the alleys, you can observe the daily life of the inhabitants – tiny stores, laundry cleaners, bakeries etc. That’s where the charm is, I think.

    1. Cathy Post author

      You said it perfectly. When you know where to look, you find the unique aspects of a place, even such a popular, busy place like Chinatown SF.

  10. Sophie

    Very nice walk down memory lane for me, this, Cathy. I was in San Francisco quite a bit back when I was at uni – gosh, that’s long ago – and enjoyed stumbling about in Chinatown. Some places look familiar, some not. Imagine it can’t stay completely the same…

    1. Cathy Post author

      My first visits to Chinatown were as a 9 year old — LONG time ago. As you said, some still looks the same, but he alleys and streets off the beaten path were very new for me on this walking tour.

  11. Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista

    I love walking tours and may just have to go enjoy this one! Chinatown is a very unique part of San Francisco. The first time I went to the Fortune Cookie Factory I was surprised by its size. I was expecting a large factory not the skinny cram packed factory that it is! Good times though 🙂

    1. Cathy Post author

      I was surprised that such a small place produced so many fortune cookies. Very interesting to watch the making of the cookies.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Hey thanks! I really like to explore diverse neighborhoods and the Chinatowns I’ve visited in different cities have always been interesting.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Good tip about shopping in Chinatown for great bargains. I really haven’t done any shopping there — I sense another trip coming up… 🙂

  12. Marie

    San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of my favorites! I love all of the photos you posted. I live in Victoria, BC – we have one of Canada’s oldest Chinatowns! But it’s so much smaller than this. It’s really only one block. I still love stopping by there to pick up produce and other great ingredients I need. When anyone comes to Visit Victoria, I always bring them here. It’s also so much fun to bring kids! I like to treat my nieces to a toy each when we visit the small gift shops. There’s always something new and fun.
    Thanks for posting this – I really enjoyed it 🙂

  13. Andrew Graeme Gould

    Great to see your glimpses of the San Francisco Chinatown back streets here, Cathy. I did a pretty good exploration of it last year, and found it fascinating.

  14. Andrew

    My aunt lived in SF and I remember visiting as a kid. We only went through pieces of this area unfortunately. I do remember the newer chinatown area near her house though. Mainly just food store, but all o fhte cool chinese lettering, which was pretty neat to see as a kid.

  15. Reena @ Wanderplex

    I visited Chinatown when I was in San Fran and it was great! Had a really fantastic lunch at a restaurant there (no idea of the name now, sorry) and sampled cookies at the fortune cookie factory. Ah, I can still smell them now…

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  17. Andrew Graeme Gould

    Great post, Cathy. I really like how you’ve divided it into those two sides, and the sights you’ve shown. There´s just so much to see in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I certainly hope to go back there again sometime.

  18. fotoeins | Henry

    On the one hand, it’s great to see that there are some parts of San Francisco’s Chinatown I have yet to see, and on the other hand, I can’t believe I missed these little gems of side-streets and alleys. Thanks for highlighting “the pretty and the gritty”, Cathy!

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