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California: San Francisco (Chinatown)

Chinatown is the largest Chinese community outside of Asia, covering 24 square blocks in downtown San Francisco.  It is also the oldest Chinatown in North America and one of the top tourist attractions in the city, drawing more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge.

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Since its establishment in 1848, it has played an important role in the history and culture of ethnic Chinese immigrants in North America. Chinatown is a microcosmic Asian world, filled with herbal shops, temples, social clubs, and restaurants. It provides affordable housing for recent immigrants and the elderly and is considered the most densely populated urban area west of Manhattan.

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Chinatown was the port of entry for Chinese immigrants from the Guangdong province of southern China during the 1850s to the 1900s. Many found jobs working for large companies seeking cheap labor such as the Central Pacific Railroad. Other early immigrants worked as mine workers or independent prospectors hoping to strike it rich during the 1849 Gold Rush. During the 1960s , a large number of  working-class immigrants began to arrive from Hong Kong.  Despite their status and professions in Hong Kong, they were forced to find low-paying employment in restaurants and garment factories in Chinatown due to their limited language skills. The end of the Vietnam War brought a wave of Vietnamese refugees of Chinese descent, who put their own stamp on San Francisco’s Chinatown.

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It is said that Chinatown restaurants were the birthplace of Westernized Chinese cuisine such as Chop Suey.  They also were instrumental in introducing and popularizing Dim Sum to Western and American tastes, and today its Dim Sum tea houses are a major tourist attractions.

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Chinatown has served as a backdrop for several movies, television shows, plays and documentaries including The Maltese Falcon, Big Trouble in Little China, The Presidio, Flower Drum Song and The Dead Pool.

Bruce Lee was born at the San Francisco Chinese Hospital located at 845 Jackson Street in Chinatown.  His family moved back to Hong Kong when he was  three months old but he managed to return to the U.S. when he was eighteen years old, taking up residence in Chinatown for the first few months before moving to Seattle.

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You can walk to Chinatown from Union Square by taking Geary, Maiden Lane or Post east one block to Grant Avenue and turning north to the Chinatown gate. If you’re coming from North Beach, just cross Columbus onto Grant and you’re there.

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You can also get to Chinatown on the cable car. The California line stops at California and Grant, or you can get off the Powell line at California and walk three blocks to Grant.

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Parking isn’t just scarce in Chinatown, it’s almost non-existent. The Portsmouth Square Garage on Kearny is hard to get to, you have to drive all the way around the block, often waiting in a slow-moving line, so the St. Mary’s Square Garage on California may be a better option.

Remember, there are three annual festivals that draw street-clogging crowds to Chinatown. These are the Chinese New Year,  the Autumn Moon Festival and the Dragon Boat Festival.  Chinese New Year usually takes place between late January and early February. The Autumn Moon Festival and the Dragon Boat Festival take place in September.

San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the most exotic-feeling parts of San Francisco. It is an interesting mix of tourist attraction and ethnic enclave and small enough to see in just a couple of hours.

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