San Francisco Sees a Colorful History Slip Away in Chinatown


When Chinese-American merchants faced banishment to San Francisco’s outskirts after the 1906 earthquake leveled much of the city, they came up with a proposition: Let us stay and we’ll build you an “Oriental City.”

Within months, brightly hued buildings with curled eaves and gold ornaments lined Grant Avenue, and merchants stocked their shelves with trinkets and antiques.

Chinatown was reborn--and, like chop suey and fortune cookies, it was distinctly Chinese-American.


“It’s sort of pseudo-architecture,” said Philip P. Choy, an architect and Chinatown native. “It’s what people thought of as ‘Chinese’ or ‘Oriental.’ What we ended up with is something like a Disneyland--an illusion of what Chinese architecture is.”

Today, nearly a century later, tourists still flock to Grant Avenue for a glimpse of an imagined China.

But many of the graceful, carved wooden doors of storefronts past have made way for glass. Stone arches are being torn down in favor of plastic awnings. The old buildings, once majestic, are fading, their paint peeling, and few passersby remember their old glory.

“What’s been very disheartening is for me to see a lot of the old fabric being modernized,” says Enid Lim, a daughter of Chinatown. “All the old stores that had such beautiful windows and the second-floor mezzanines--they’re gone. And then all this schlocking of Chinatown. It’s changing it into what Fisherman’s Wharf is.”

She and Choy are among Chinatown old-timers who want to see the neighborhood’s history preserved. But an equally vocal group, many belonging to a new generation of Asian immigrants with small businesses, are clamoring for change.

“All these buildings are unsafe. They should be retrofitted,” says Pius Lee, a developer who has turned one school into a mini-mall. “Give us the choice. We can still maintain the outside look, the ‘Oriental’ structure, so it looks like a Chinese building.”


Lee, who was born in China, advocates tearing down the buildings in favor of high-rises--the exact move some say could destroy Chinatown as a village and turn it into a commercial district like the Chinatown in Los Angeles.

“There needs to be a compromise. I’m not for arresting the whole area for the sake of history --things progress,” Choy says. “But the history never changes.”

He led a movement to have Chinatown declared a San Francisco historical district. It lost, killed in part by opposition from property owners who chafed at the many restrictions on landmark renovation. Instead, the city installed stringent zoning ordinances.

“We have to rebuild Chinatown. But, unfortunately, [the city is] making it so difficult to build anything,” Lee said. “Otherwise, it’s not profitable or affordable.”

For the first time, 10 alleyways--the narrow corridors where Chinese Americans got their hair cut, bought incense and gambled--will get make-overs. Twenty-one are to follow.

“The most valuable thing it has is its history and its longevity,” Choy said. “It’s really the longest, oldest surviving ethnic community in San Francisco, and it’s settled right in the area of San Francisco’s beginning.”

Lured by rumors of gold and jobs, the early Chinese immigrants joined settlers at Portsmouth Square by 1848. Soon, laundries, restaurants, gambling houses and opium dens filled a 12-block area dubbed “Little Canton.”

But as jobs became scarce, hatred for the Chinese grew. In 1882, Congress banned Chinese laborers from U.S. shores, and by the early 1900s, San Francisco officials were contemplating moving the Chinese miles south to Hunters Point.

But when the 1906 quake devastated the city, a quick-thinking American-born merchant named Look Tin Eli came up with a plan.

He hired two top architects, both white Americans, to design his bazaar, the gold-bricked Sing Chong Building.

“Most of the architects were well known--people who built City Hall, people who built the grand theaters. They didn’t skimp; they gave the best,” Lim says. “But it was made up.”

The architects gave traditional Western motifs, such as Ionian columns and brackets, an “Oriental” flair. They crimped sheet metal to simulate the roof tiles used in Asia.

“Turn up the ends a little and voila! You’ve got a Chinese skyline,” Choy says.

The same designers built the Sing Fat Building across the street, adorning the rooftop with a towering pagoda that to this day dominates Chinatown’s skyline.

Today, the Sing Chong sits on prime real estate. Cable cars rumble past. McDonald’s--with framed photos of the old Sing Chong--replaces the herb shop, and Cathay House diners peer from picture windows that once displayed Look Tin Eli’s wares.

Ten years ago, Bob Coluccio was wandering through Chinatown grumbling about the crowds jamming Grant Avenue. “It hit me in the head one day,” he said. “These are all tourists--these are not the Chinese.”

He bought out an elderly couple and stocked his shop with cameras and electronics. He sold out in a week.

Many others followed, most of them non-Chinese. The Chinese, Coluccio points out, have moved one block over to Stockton, a street lined with markets stocked with live fish, mandarin oranges and starfruit.

“There aren’t many of the old mom-and-pop stores around,” Coluccio says. “There’s Stockton for the Chinese, with the vegetable markets, and then there’s Chinatown for the tourists, and that’s Grant Avenue.”

Lim remembers what it was like in the old days on Ross Alley, where her father was a professional gambler. The mah-jongg parlor, and the alleys of Chinatown, were her playground.

Back then, Chinese Americans rarely ventured out of Chinatown. They had their own churches, schools, markets, even their own telephone exchange. Unwilling to lose her childhood home, Lim appealed to merchants to let them preserve Chinatown.

“I said, ‘You people are always talking about your home village. But you know, we were born here in the United States. This is our home village.’ ”


‘It’s sort of pseudo-architecture. It’s what people thought of as “Chinese” or “Oriental.” What we ended up with is something like a Disneyland--an illusion of what Chinese architecture is.’