The Evolution of Chinatown

For years Chinatown has been stagnant, causing it to lose most of its luster. As the most densely populated place in the country west of Manhattan, Chinatown is filled with stores and restaurants that no longer have the same draw that they use to. This is in large part thanks to the overwhelming number of Chinese streets all over the Bay Area. But now the city has plans that could restore some amount of former glory to the historic neighborhood.

Mayor Ed Lee recently announced a new campaign aimed to reinvigorate San Francisco’s Chinatown. That campaign, called Shop Chinatown 888, was created to give small stores in Chinatown more of an opportunity to grow and expand, with investments like a $20,000 grant from Invest in Neighborhoods Initiative, part of Mayor Ed Lee’s plan for jobs and economic opportunity, that gives shoppers the chance to win prizes when shopping at Chinatown stores.

The Dragon Gate in San Francisco’s Chinatown photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Dragon Gate in San Francisco’s Chinatown photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Aside from these grants, the SF Shines Façade and Tenant Improvement Program will give over $1 million in support of small businesses. These funds as well as a heightened emphasis on the authenticity of the stores aim to make San Francisco’s Chinatown once again a hotspot of commercial and cultural exchange.

Established in 1848, this Chinatown is the oldest in North America. It was originally a neighborhood that was exclusively Chinese and filled with Chinese stores, restaurants and apartments. Chinese residents were also not allowed to live anywhere in the city other than the area designated as Chinatown. During the early to mid 1900s, Chinatown was often viewed as a center of criminal activity. This was due to the Tongs and Hong Kong-based triads who operated throughout the area. Dashiell Hammett took inspiration from the location and used it as a setting for some of his stories. Chinatown had become synonymous with brothels, casinos, opium dens and slums.

Much of the transformation of Chinatown happened during the 1960s after immigration laws were changed. A large wave of immigrants fresh from Hong Kong came over and settled there as well as Vietnamese of Chinese descent who came after the end of the Vietnam War. This broadening of cultures within Chinatown allowed for it to become more diverse in both people and stores.

San Francisco’s Chinatown brings in more tourists annually than the Golden Gate Bridge. Fifty years later it is no surprise to see San Francisco try to restore some of Chinatown’s famous and widespread mystique. It is even less surprising that much of the drive to redevelop Chinatown is coming from Mayor Ed Lee, someone who grew up in Chinatown during the 1960s and who organized rallies when he was a teenager to protest against the unjust treatment of the Chinese tenants.

Part of the Chinatown redevelopment begins with bringing in new restaurants to enliven the area. Plans are underway for restaurateur George Chen to convert the former Gold Mountain restaurant on Broadway into an upscale Chinese food emporium similar to New York’s Italian food hall, Eataly.

Aside from new restaurants, there are also ideas for redoing the landscape of Chinatown streets. Betty Louie, the owner of several properties on Grant Avenue, envisions “beautiful Chinese trees with oriental planters and maybe terracotta warriors” along the street. She also wants to place a signature dragon on top of one of her buildings. Of all the new developments in Chinatown, she stated that the new landscaping plan is the “first [development plan] that has really had this traction in years.” She also went on to mention that there are going to be colorful new lanterns hanging over the street.

The goal of the project is to transform the Chinatown that Dashiell Hammett wrote about into a more appealing, more diverse retail area that maintains its authenticity and history.

Leave a Reply