Chinatown San Francisco

San Francisco's is the largest Chinatown outside Asia. A population of around 70,000 live in 30 square blocks. The gateway to Chinatown at Bush and Grant Avenue was given to the city of San Francisco by the Republic of Taiwan. Grant Avenue is San Francisco's first street (formerly Dupont Street) and stands today as the center of Chinatown. Streets are lined with shops and trading companies offering a variety of colorful merchandise - silk, jade, artifacts and antiques. Restaurants are excellent (Try House of Nan-King) Old St. Mary's Church, California and Grant, built in 1852, is one of the few buildings to escape destruction by the great fire of 1906.

City Sightseeing's Downtown Double Decker Bus Tour has two Hop On Hop Off Stops in Chinatown

1. Chinatown Gate at Bush Street

2. Portsmouth Square at Jackson Street

The stops are less than 1 mile apart. We highly recommend hopping off at one of the stops and walking from one to the other. You will see the heart of Chinatown between these stops. Please ask out tour guides for recommendations and for more more sightseeing ideas.

Print our map to help plan your route.

Chinatown History:

San Francisco’s Old Chinatown

By Commissioner Jesse B. Cook - Former Chief of Police

Jesse Brown Cook (1860-1938) served the San Francisco Police Department from the late 1880s to the 1930s. He began as a beat officer, and then served as a sergeant of the “Chinatown Squad.” He served as Chief of Police after the 1906 earthquake, retired, and was later appointed to the Police Commission. Before he joined the police department he studied taxidermy, worked as a sailor, drayman, and butcher, and toured Europe as a contortionist. His police career began in San Antonio, Texas, and was a police officer in San Diego before he returned to San Francisco. He describes the conditions in San Francisco’s Chinatown before the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 as seen from his perspective as a member of the “Chinatown Squad.”

San Francisco’s Chinatown has been known to me since childhood, when it occupied only Sacramento Street, Kearny Street, and halfway up to Stockton Street. One of my early recollections was attendance at the First Baptist Sunday School in 1866. It was then located on the north side of Washington Street, about 100 feet east of Stockton.

Chinese at that time were coming in from the Orient at about 1,400 on every steamer. True it is they had been coming in since 1848, but relatively few at a time. Therefore, there was quite a number of the pioneer Chinese here in the days of the old “gold fever.” These Chinese had come on the old Pacific Mail steamers. The customs house officers would search each Chinaman as well as his baggage, and then chalk-mark him with a cross. After a sufficient number had been marked to fill up a good-sized express wagon, it was the custom to throw all the baggage onto the wagon and place each Chinaman on top of his belongings. It was a common sight to see these express wagons going west on Brannan (the old Pacific Mail docks were located on First and Brannan Streets) to Third Street, along Third Street to Market Street, crossing Market Street to Kearny, and along Kearny to Sacramento Street where they would be discharged to go to the different “companies” to which they belonged. Although all of these Chinese were from the province of Canton, they spoke different languages and dialects.

In way of explanation, there were for instance Hock Kah men; they were all barbers. Then again, there were See Yup men; they were all laboring men. The Sam Yups were all businessmen and they invariably controlled the business of Canton as well as the business in San Francisco’s Chinatown. A See Yup man was not allowed to enter into competition with a Sam Yup. It was impossible for the See Yup men to get any goods at all from Canton, as the merchants in Canton, China, would sell only to their own people, the Sam Yups.

There were, of course, other provinces represented by the Chinese Six Companies. The Six Companies looked after the Chinese coming from their respective provinces in China. When sick, the Chinese were cared for by and through the Six Companies. This care lasted up to the time of death, when the Chinese Six Companies saw to it that proper burial was given. In due course, the bones of the Chinese were taken up and shipped back to their homes in China. This is a custom that has endured over the past centuries. The Chinese have a peculiar superstition that if they are not buried in China, it will be very unfortunate for the members of their families and for their descendants.

We now come to the starting of the so-called “tongs,” commonly known as the “hi-binders.” The first tong was the Chee Kung Tong. Every man coming from China became a member of this tong. It was never known to have been in any trouble, for the Six Companies looked after the Chinese and saw that they were properly cared for.

In the early days, a Chinaman known as “Little Pete,” whose Chinese name was Fong Jing Tong, was interested in quite a number of slave dens, gambling places and lottery houses. The hoodlum element of Chinatown would make raids on these places and demand tribute money, or blackmail. It became so bad that Little Pete conceived the idea of forming tongs to protect his interests. The first tongs he started were the Bo Sin Sere and the Guy Sin Sere, and they guaranteed him absolute protection.

About this time there was another Chinaman, Chin Ten Sing, known as “Big Jim,” who also had large interests in a great many gambling, lottery and slave houses. He saw the protection that Little Pete was getting, and as he had to turn to his own houses for protection, decided to start some tongs also Among them were the Suey Singsa, the Hop Sings and a number of others.

This proved very successful until the tongs started fighting among themselves over slave girls and gambling games. These wars sometimes lasted for several months.

At one time, I stood at the corner of Grant Avenue (then called Dupont Street) and Clay Street with Patrolman Matheson (now Captain Matheson, City Treasurer), and Ed Gibson, then a detective sergeant, talking about two tongs that were holding a meeting to settle their troubles. These tongs began fighting among themselves, and inside of a half-hour there were seven Chinamen lying on the streets wounded; one on Waverly Place, one on Clay Street, Two in Spofford Alley, two in Ross Alley, and one on Jackson Street. The one in Waverly Place was shot, the bullet cutting the artery in his arm. Captain Matheson and myself took this Chinaman out of the shop where he fell, and stopped the flow of blood by means of a tourniquet. The physician later told us that if this had not been done the Chinaman would have died.

In regard to the gambling games in Chinatown—my first trip to Chinatown was in 1889 as a patrolman in a squad. At that time there were about 62 lottery agents, 50 fan tan games and eight lottery drawings in Chinatown. In the 50 fan tan gambling houses the tables numbered from one to 24, according to the size of the room.

The game was played around a table about 10 feet long, 4 feet high and 4 feet wide. On this table was a mat covering the whole top. In the center of the mat was a diagram of a 12-inch square, each corner being numbered in Chinese characters, 1, 2, 3 and 4.

At the head of the table sat a lookout or gamekeeper. At the side was the dealer. This man had a Chinese bowl and a long bamboo stick with a curve at the end, like a hook. In front of him, fastened to the table, was a bag containing black and white buttons. He would scoop down into the sack with his bowl and raise it, turning it upside down on the table. The betting would then start.

After the bets were made, the dealer would raise the bowl and start to draw down the buttons, drawing four buttons at a time. The Chinese would make their bets at the drawing down of the buttons. The dealer would draw down until one, two, three or even four buttons would be left. Sometimes the Chinese would bet that the last four buttons would be all white, all black or that there would be a mixture of black and white buttons.

The construction of the gambling rooms was very interesting. There was a large door 2 inches thick, of heavy oak, seasoned and studded with bolts. The doorjamb and the outer front were the same, but on the back of the door was a large bar on a swivel with two cleats on each side. When the door was slammed, the Chinese could turn the swivel and lock the door in order to keep the police from entering. Of course, because of the bolts studded on the door, it could not very well be chopped down.

Alongside the door was a little room with a window, where the lookout sat. He held the strings controlling the door, and was there to watch everyone that entered. On entering, you would pass through a hallway about 10 feet long, then through another door, either right or left, into a hall of about the same length, which would lead into the game. Three doors generally had to be passed through before reaching the game. The halls were always arranged so that if the police got through the first door, they had to pass through a second door, which, of course, would be locked. By the time they finally got to the game room, all evidence would be removed.

The lottery drawings: The Chinese have a very large room, with the doors constructed the same as in the case of a fan tan game room. The far end of the room is partitioned off with wire screens to the full width and about 8 feet deep. In back of the screen are two shelves, one of which acts as a counter for four Chinamen. Each Chinaman has a separate window in the screen. On the other shelf are placed Chinese ink pots and brushes, for the purpose of marking Chinese lottery tickets. Every Chinese lottery ticket has 80 characters on it, 40 above the line and 40 below. Each company stamps their own name at the head of the ticket. These tickets are really a Chinese poem, written by a Chinaman while in prison, and later adopted as a Chinese lottery ticket. There is not a thing on these tickets to designate their real use, although they are never used for any other purpose.

The agents around town had their offices in back of stores where they sell the tickets. Just before the drawing takes place, they present a triplicate copy of each ticket sold to the Chinaman at the window. The duplicate ticket is given to the purchaser, while the agent retains the original.

The clerk back of the window then figures up the amount that the agent should turn in to cover the tickets sold. If they agree, the clerk accepts the tickets. No receipts are given. The actual taking and accepting of the tickets by the clerk is considered an acknowledgment, as his name appears on all the tickets.

As soon as all the money and tickets are in, the tickets are closed and the lottery is held. In a little package, about 2 Inches Square, are 80 slips of paper. On each of these slips is a character corresponding to one of the characters on the lottery ticket. The Chinaman sets in front of him a large pan, like the old-time milk pans we used to set for milk to raise cream, and four bowls, each bearing a Chinese number—either 1, 2, 3 or 4. The small slips of paper are folded into little pellets, thrown into the pan and shaken up. The drawing then begins. The first pellet drawn is put into bowl No. 1, the next into bowl No. 2, and so on, until there are twenty pellets in each bowl.

The Chinaman then takes another small package, containing four little square pieces of paper. On each of these pieces is a figure in Chinese corresponding with the figures on the bowls. The same procedure is then followed as with the pellets. The slip picked from the pan is handed to the clerk, who in turn hands it to a man standing on the shelf in back of him. It is opened, in the presence of everybody gathered there. Of course, the bowl bearing the same number is considered the winning bowl; the other three are placed under the counter.

The pellets are then taken from the winning bowl and are pasted on a board in full view. These are winning characters. The Chinese mark the tickets by daubing the characters that agree with the ones on the board, with a brush. After this has been done, they present their tickets, and come back at the proper time to get their reward; that is, whatever they won.

In 1895, Chin Buck Guy, Chin Kim You, Wong You, Wong Fook, Jim Wong, Mah Lin Get, Chin Chung, and Qwong Bin, who were sometimes called the “Big Eight”, controlled the lotteries and games.

The lottery companies at that time were the Tie Loy, Foo Quoy, Foo Quoy Chung, Fay Kay, Shang High, Fook Tie, Quong Tie, New York and Wing Lay Yuene.

Some years later, around 1905, the Chinese population of Chinatown had increased to 40,000, the district covering from Sacramento to Pacific Avenue, and from Kearny to Stockton Streets.

The Chinese at that time were a peculiar class of people. They did not believe in allowing their daughters to attend school. They thought it was unnecessary for a girl to have an education, as she was meant for a wife to bear children for her husband, and was, therefore, worth a certain price to any Chinaman who wanted to marry her. The Chinese girl had to obey her parents and marry the man picked for her, whether she liked him or not.

The boys were sent to school; that is, to the Chinese school; they were not allowed to go to the European school. At that time there was one public school of about four rooms, on Clay Street, between Stockton and Powell Streets, those in attendance being mostly Japanese and other races. The Chinese boys went to their own school, from 8 o’clock in the morning until 10:30 at night, with time off for lunch and dinner. In Chinese, each character represents a word, and the only way they had of studying was to memorize these characters, which were placed on a blackboard or hung upon the wall. These were repeated over and over continually all day long until thoroughly imbedded in the minds of the boys. The teachers generally carried a long rattan and were very strict. If a boy made a mistake in reading from a chart, the teacher would hit him over the head with the rattan.

In other words, the characters were beaten into the boy’s head if he could not learn them in any other way.

People, generally, have the idea that Chinese are natural gamblers. This is not true. The old-time Chinese visited gambling houses so much because there were so few places of entertainment. In the first place, very few of them were married men. They could not speak English and, therefore, could not enjoy American dramas, dances or games. The only things left for them to do were either to visit houses of prostitution, gambling houses, lottery houses or the Chinese Theatre. Today, of course, this is all changed. In 1911, when China became a republic, orders were issued by the Chinese government that the Chinese were to adopt the customs of the country in which they were living, attend the schools and cut off their queues, or “bings,” as the Chinese knew them.

The Chinese young men immediately took advantage of this order, and started cutting off their queues. If they found anyone who refused to do so, they would gather together, throw the man or boy down, cut off his queue and tie it around his neck.

Immediately, there was a run on the schools, with the result that a large Oriental school had to be built in that neighborhood. Today, the Chinese boys are graduating from American high schools and universities. They have taken up law, medicine, and dentistry and, being wonderful students, have become proficient in many lines. Gambling in Chinatown is now a thing of the past, for these boys and girls go to American shows, dances, baseball games or any other games played by the Americans. This shows that the Chinese are not naturally born gamblers. In old Chinatown there were scarcely 400 Chinamen who could speak good English, and very few women who could talk it at all. Today, it would be almost impossible to find a boy or girl in Chinatown who could not speak as good English as a white boy or girl.

The opium den was another thing that the Chinese resorted to because they had no other place to go. At that time nearly every store in Chinatown had an opium layout in the rear for their customers. All the Chinaman had to do was bring his opium. In those days the Chinese were allowed to smoke opium, provided they did not do so in the presence of a white man. If a white man was present it meant the arrest of all who were in the room at the time.

In the old days, at the corner of Washington Street and Spofford Alley, in a room right off the street, anyone could see Chinamen mixing old opium with new. That is, after opium is smoked the ashes drop down into the pipe in the bowl. This is scraped out with certain instruments and saved. It is then known as “Yen Shee,” and is later mixed with new opium. I have seen as many as 100 Chinamen smoking opium in a den in Chinatown. The opium smoke was sometimes so thick in those dens that the gas jets looked like small matches burning.

Opium has peculiar, sweet smell, not at all distasteful, and many times when coming home from Chinatown after going through dens, people in the cars sitting near me, would be sniffing, smelling the opium in my clothes and wondering what it was. When I got home it would be necessary to undress in an outer room and air my clothes to get the opium fumes out of them.

The Chinese had their own names for the alleys in Chinatown. The main streets, outside of Sacramento Street, were always known to the Chinese by their English names, the other streets, however, were all known by Chinese names. If you asked a Chinaman where an alley was and gave the American name, he would be unable to tell you, for he would not know. But if you gave him the Chinese name, he would know immediately. For instance, Sacramento Street was known as China Street—in Chinese as Tong Yen Guy. The Spanish originally settled Ross Alley, but when the Chinese came they crowded the Spaniards out. This alley was, therefore, given the name of Gow Louie Sun Hong, or Old Spanish Alley. Spofford Alley was another alley from which the Spaniards were crowded out; this was called Sun Louie Sun Hong, or new Spanish Alley. Alongside the old First Baptist Church, on Washington below Stockton was an alley, at the end of which was a stable for horses. The Chinese named this Mah Fong Hong, “stable alley.” A small alley off of Ross Alley was known as On New Hong, in other words, “urinating alley,” as the Chinese made it a regular urinating place.

Duncan [Duncombe] Alley is off Jackson Street, below Stockton, and is known as Fay Chie Hong, or “Fat Boy Alley.” This was named after a young boy living on the street who, at fifteen years, weighed about 240 pounds. A little way below, on the opposite side of the street, was St. Louis Alley. In the early days of Chinatown there was a large fire in the alley, which burned up quite a number of houses. The Chinese, therefore, called it “fire alley,” or “Fo Sue Hong.”

Opposite Fire Alley was Sullivan Alley, running halfway through from Jackson to Pacific Street. As there was a restaurant in this alley, the Chinese called it “Cum Cook Yen,” the same name as the restaurant. Another alley was named “Min Pow Hong,” or bread alley, because there was a bakery on it. Brenham Place, running from Washington Street to Clay Street, back of the square, was called “Fah Yeun Guy,” or Flower Street, because of the park. Bartlett Alley, running from Jackson to Pacific Street, just below Grant Avenue, or Dupont Street, was called “Buck Wa John Guy,” or the grocery man who speaks Chinese. Opposite this was Washington Alley, known to the whites as “Fish Alley.” The Chinese, however, called it “Tuck Wo Guy,” after a store on it.

Waverly Place, originally known as Pike Street, ran from Washington Street to Sacramento Street, above Dupont, and was called “Ten How Mue Guy,” after a Chinese Temple in that street.

The State of California was at one time called “Gow Kum Shain,” or Old Gold Mill. Sacramento was known as the “second city,” or Yee Fow, and San Francisco had the Chinese name of Tie Fow, or “the big city.” America, that is the United States of America, was known as May Yee Kwock, or Ah May Yee Kah, also Fah Kay Kwock, meaning the flower flag country. Americans were known as Fah Kay Yen, or flower flagmen.

Mongolians, Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Siamese and men from Peking, China, all used the same characters. The Japanese, however, adopted a lot of characters of their own that were not known to the other races. If a Chinese wanted to talk to a Japanese, Korean or Mongolian, all he had to do was write him using the characters, as they have the same meaning although pronounced differently.

Perhaps it will surprise you to know that there is no such thing as the underground in Chinatown. True, you could go from one cellar to another, but that is all. In order to deceive the people, the Chinese guides would take them in on Grant Avenue, between California and Sacramento Streets, going down into a cellar. From this they would go downstairs into the next cellar, and so on, sometimes going into six or seven. These basements, however, were all connected with the stores on Sacramento Street. Should you go from any one of these basements toward Sacramento Street, you would, of course, come to the cellar of some Sacramento Street store, and all you had to do was to go up one flight of stairs to Sacramento Street. The guides naturally would not allow anyone to do this. They would bring the people back the same way that they came and tell them that they had been down six or seven stories. The people of course believed them, but at no time were they ever over one story below the street.

The Chinese Theatre was also a good place to take tourists. The guides would take them in the entrance on Washington Street and from there down into the basement. This basement led down into another cellar where the guides would tell the people that they were now two stories under the ground. At this time they would show them the Chinese actors’ dressing rooms and sleeping quarters. Had the door at the end of the room been opened, the stage of the theatre would have been seen. The people had been told they were two stories under ground, however, and they believed it.

The nearest thing to an underground passage that I ever saw was in 1905 when with Captain Matheson, then a patrolman, I went through a passageway leading from Spofford alley into the basement of Old Tie Loy Lottery Company on Waverly place. There were fourteen doors in this passageway, each door leading into a room so constructed that it appeared as though you were going down into the bowels of the earth. In reality you were only going down into the basement on Waverly place.

During my first term in Chinatown in 1889, the Chinese did not use revolvers in their tong wars, believing they made too much noise. A lather’s hatchet sharpened to a razor edge was their chief weapon. With this they could chop a man all to pieces and generally, when they did leave him, would drive the hatchet into his skull and leave it there. The men using these weapons were known as Poo Tow Choy, or little hatchet men.

One night at the corner of Jackson and Washington Streets, two Chinamen with hatchets chopped another all to pieces. This happened about six feet behind a Chinaman who was selling peanuts on the corner. Although this man was questioned, he insisted that he did not Know anything had happened nor that anyone had been killed, in spite of the fact that the back of his clothes was all spattered with blood. The murderers were later captured, sent to the penitentiary for life but about ten years after were deported to China.

In ending—there is nothing in the world that will make a Chinaman “madder” than for anyone to say to him “Sock Nika Tow,” which translated means “Chop your head off.”

San Francisco Police and Peace Officers’ Journal June 1931