Chinatow

The Barbary Coast Trail is roughly 4 miles in length and takes visitors through several of San Francisco’s colorful neighborhoods while exploring the city’s past and present.

At the corner of Grant Ave. and Bush St. stands a portal known as the Dragon’s Gate. It marks the entrance to the Chinatown neighborhood. Sitting on either side are two mythical lions, each about three feet tall, which guard against unwanted spirits. English speakers often refer to these guardians as ‘Foo Dogs.’

Continuing up Grant Avenue a visitor will notice an abundance of the color red on storefronts and signage, the color symbolizes good fortune and joy.

It is easy to spend much of a day in Chinatown investigating the stores and businesses that offer teak, jade statues, colorful fabrics, porcelain, teas, spices, and a variety of foods.

Barbary Cost TrailAt California Avenue stands two pagoda-topped iconic buildings known as Sing Fat and Sing Chong. These buildings were constructed after the earthquake and firestorm of 1906. They were built to reaffirm the Chinese presence in the area after the tragedy.

Across the street is the Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. The cathedral was constructed between 1852 and 1854 just a few years after gold was discovered and San Francisco.  The foundation was shipped over from China. Inside are some informative displays about the building’s history.

Just outside the cathedral, a street musician played “Oh Suzanna” on an Er Hu. This is a curious looking instrument with just a neck and two strings that are played with the bow.

A short distance north on Grant Avenue I made a left turn at Sacramento Avenue making sure to follow the Barbary Coast Trail markers embedded in the sidewalk. At the first right was a colorful street known as Waverly Place.

Barbary Cost TrailEntering Waverly Place today you would not guess it once had a very lurid past with madams, sing-song girls, opium dens, and even open warfare between various criminal groups. Today, the street is adorned with colorful balconies, residences, and businesses. A number of people passed me carrying bags of grocery bags filled with vegetables. A short way down the street were the unmistakable sounds of rhythmic drumming coming from the rooftop of a building. This was the Tin How Temple, the oldest Taoist Chinese temple on the west coast. The drumming was empowering; the large drums beat in unison, changing rhythms as one single unit, the low deep vibrations could be felt in your chest.

Crossing Washington Street and just a few paces away are Ross Alley.  The small and dark alley was slightly claustrophobic. More locals passed by with small bags filled with food items. At the end of the alley, a crowd of tourists had gathered outside a fortune cookie factory. I had to take a look.

The fortune cookie room was long and skinny, and several people worked near an industrial-looking machine. A man greeted people by placing a flat, golden-colored wafer about three inches in diameter in everyone’s palm. These were flat fortune cookie rounds. The commotion of people and boxes made viewing the machine a little difficult, but it appeared to have a number of pancake-like impressions that were turning on a large flat wheel. Apparently, from one side a dough mixture would be dolloped onto the tiny hot mini-skillets which would rotate and disappear into the machine to be quickly baked, on the return trip the baked rounds emerged to be grabbed by a woman and in a quick hand-fold-motion she inserted a small paper fortune to give the cookie its shape.  At this point, another tour group had gathered in the alley and began to pour into the store. I squeezed my way back into the alley. At that moment, a neighboring barber came out of his shop. He greeted the tourists then quickly ducked inside. A few seconds later he emerged with an Er Hu and played several quick tunes. The crowd applauded and he received a number of tips. In a flash, the tour group disappeared in the sea of people on neighboring Jackson Street and the alley was again quiet.

Jackson Street pulsed with activity. It was packed with locals shopping, people talking on cell Barbary Cost Trailphones, trucks honking to get by on the street and storeowners coming out of their shops to talk with customers who pawed through boxes that lined the storefronts. Restaurants in the area had large and colorful pictures of food in their doorways and one store had cooked ducks hung in the window. A woman at the street corner shoved a lunch coupon in my hand and pointed to a nearby restaurant. The images on the coupon looked tasty but I had to continue onwards.

Barbary Cost TrailArriving at Portsmouth Square a large crowd filled the tiny park and there was little room to pass. A speaker was passionately advocating, at times in English and Chinese, for democracy and the freedom of religious practices in mainland China. The gathering was held under the gaze of the Goddess of Democracy located in the Portsmouth Square, a smaller replica of the 33ft (10m) tall statue that was created during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

As the loud event ended and the crowd disappeared back onto the streets Portsmouth Square silently revealed some its old secrets; now stone and metal markers previously unseen became visible. This small patch of space is central to the story of California for many reasons but one is the most significant.  It is here, in May of 1848, that Sam Brannan first showed his gold to a curious crowd. His story of easy money unleashed the American Gold Rush.

>> Continue to Part 3: Gold Rush City

Quoted Reference: “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail” by Daniel Bacon.

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