On a recent weekend trip to San Francisco with my Mom, we decided to take it pretty easy. Yes, we did a lot of the typical touristy things, but little researcher that my mother is, she found this really unique tour – Chinatown Alleyway Tours. They take place on Saturdays and Tuesdays at 11 a.m. and you need to book ahead. The cost is $18 per adult, and the tour lasts about two hours.
The neat thing about the tour is that your guides are teenagers that live in Chinatown. Our tour guides were Calvin and Lisa (shout out to the most awesome tour guides!). You’re getting their point of view on what makes Chinatown special. The website describes it best with a quote from a guest talking about the “cultural transmission” of the youth passing down their history. How many of my peers (no, I’m no longer a teenager, but let’s imagine) know their own history? They might know bits and pieces, but do they know enough to tell interesting stories and engage visitors for two hours? I highly doubt it.
Here are some of the factoids and stories I learned on our tour:
- To be considered a street or a road, there must be 32 feet between buildings. In Chinatown, some of the “alleyways” have 31 feet between them, so are not considered roads! As a result, they are not cleaned by the city, so residents join together to clean them up.
- San Francisco’s Chinatown us actually TINY! While considered the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, it is only a few blocks wide, and six or seven blocks long.
- Portsmouth Square (where the tour begins) is the hub for socialization in Chinatown. Many of the apartments are tiny, enough space for the necessities only, so come rain or shine, residents meet in the square to spend time with friends and family.
- For a very long time only Asian men were able to immigrate to San Francisco. As a result, women were smuggled in and forced into prostitution. While a sad story, there was one woman, Donaldina Cameron, who risked her own safety on multiple occasions in order to save 3,000 women from prostitution rings. Diana Cranstoun tells the full story.
- While Westerners like myself are used to seeing colourful Chinatowns around the world, this trend started in San Francisco. After the great fire, a developer was brought in with the mission of designing Waverly Street as he imagined China to look like. This spawned the many colourful balconies with ornate iron and lanterns everywhere. According to our guides, however, this is not how China traditionally looks.
- San Francisco’s Chinatown is a hub for movie filming. Hello Indiana Jones and The Pursuit of Happyness.
- The modern fortune cookie is claimed to have originated in San Francisco. At a banquet for hundreds of people, they demanded dessert, which had not been planned for. One of the chefs adopted the recipe – of Japanese origin – and folded the cracker into the shape we now know, including a message within. If you want to sample a great fortune cookie, head to Ross Alleyway.
There were a ton of more factoids and stories that I learned on this fabulous tour, but I’ll stop here. I highly recommend this for anyone visiting San Francisco!