I’ve been to China and I’ve been to many a Chinatown while in the U.S, but none of them were as impressive as the one in San Francisco. This rather large area of the beautiful bay city is centered on Grant Avenue and Stockton Street. It’s the largest population of a Chinese community outside of China. It became a Chinatown all the way back in 1848. These old roots truly demonstrate a deep Chinese heritage in North America.
Is this China?
When I was walking around the streets here a few weeks ago, I was amazed at how similar the sights, sounds, and most noticeably, the smells were to my trip to China in 2006. Everything seemed to be the same! I could not believe that I had just walked around the corner of the immaculate and clean San Francisco downtown, to find myself in the middle of a hustling Asian world. Market venders were yelling and answering questions from hordes of shoppers, shot Chinese men were pushing dollies down alleyways with cigarettes hanging from their lips, and all the restaurants and shops were labeled with Chinese lettering. It was truly an impressive sight for the average American, yet even more so for me because of the nostalgia factor.
What is Going on Back There?
Just like in China, this little town in SF has lots of alleyways with behind the scenes spectacles. If I thought the front of the shops and restaurants were colorful and grimy (not in a bad way), I was equally awed by their alleyways. Many elderly and immigrants decide to live here above and behind the shops because it’s affordable and the commute to work or the store couldn’t be shorter. The residents here string laundry between balconies and raise their children just a few feet away from the shop fronts. Therefore, an interesting mix between business and residential districts swim together in what I can describe only as chaotic order. Children toys are being dogged by frantic Chinese business owners moving stock behind their stores. Recyclables are constantly discarded by the wealthier class and being picked up and stored in the alleyways by the poor elderly. And the smell…it’s just like China. I would like to say that it’s a mix between rotting sea urchins and the earthy smell from the gravel on a children’s playground. The truly special aspect about the smells back in these alleyways is when a whiff of a delicious soup or fried chicken aroma gives your scent-assaulted nose a quick and fleeting relief. Whatever your interest is for visiting Chinatown; be sure to explore these alleyways a little. Be prepared to breathe through your mouth…but don’t let that scare you away. It’s a very interesting experience.