Tour Guide Dorothy Quock's Guide to San Francisco's Chinatown
Dorothy Quock recalls San Francisco Chinatown restaurants using their street block numbers from memory. The Far East Cafe, for example, one of few restaurants serving old-style family banquets, is on “the 600 block of Grant Avenue between California and Sacramento.” While the neighborhood has changed over the years, it’s still “about eight blocks long and three blocks wide,” she says. “Twenty-four square blocks from the Chinatown Gate to Broadway and Grant Avenue.”
She knows the neighborhood intimately because she was born there, has lived there more than half her life, and takes visitors on neighborhood walking tours with Wok Wiz (as in, “Walk Wizards”), among the oldest walking tour companies in San Francisco.
If you’re visiting San Francisco's Chinatown, here are her recommendations for getting to know the storied neighborhood—and helping it continue to thrive.
A brief history of San Francisco’s Chinatown
Chinese immigrants in San Francisco came initially from Guangdong, a coastal province where the Pearl River empties into the South China Sea. While some of these immigrants arrived during the Gold Rush and helped build the first transcontinental railroad, many worked maritime jobs in fishing, canning, and shipping.
But by the time of the 1906 earthquake, Chinatown’s immigrant population was declining, partly due to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prohibiting the immigration of most Chinese laborers. After the earthquake, which razed the neighborhood, influential merchants commissioned architectural designs in “American” and “fairy-tale palace” styles. The goal was to reimagine Chinatown as a thriving center for tourism—and it worked. Chinatown today is one of the largest enclaves of Chinese people outside of Asia and draws more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge.
However, per Quock’s own estimate, a third of local Chinatown businesses permanently closed during the coronavirus pandemic. While Wok Wiz had grown used to scheduling tours daily, today they provide one or two a week. But community non-profits (including the Chinatown Community Development Center) have helped the tight-knit community recover by delivering meals, passing out masks, and organizing educational efforts on Chinese-language radio and television.
Quock notes that the neighborhood is making a slow but steady comeback, with new businesses opening recently. “They’re not the usual eatery or dry goods store,” she says, mentioning several contemporary restaurants opened by locals. “But it’s certainly not what it was prior to 2020.”
Dorothy Quock’s Chinatown recommendations
1. Portsmouth Square and beyond: Quock’s Chinatown tours usually start at Portsmouth Square, also called the “Heart of Chinatown.” The plaza was once the Spanish-style waterfront of Yerba Buena, an 18th-century settlement that eventually became San Francisco. Now, look for memorials dedicated to the first raising of the American flag on the square; the opening of the first public school in California; and the Scottish-born writer, Robert Louis Stevenson. In addition, The Goddess of Democracy, a statue built to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests and Massacre, sits in the square.
After Portsmouth Square, Quock takes travelers to neighborhood alleyways. “There’s more to discover there,” she says, “and they’re more interesting than what you see on typical sightseeing tours.” There’s Waverley Place, the most famous alleyway and home of Chinatown’s oldest temple, Sun Yat-sen, the first president of The Republic of China who hid in Spofford Alley while plotting to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. (Spofford is also where Quock was born.) And Ross Alley is home to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.
2. Connect with the local culture: Visit the Clarion Performing Arts Center during Saturday jazz concerts. Alternatively, if you hear drumming, follow your ears—they will likely lead to lion dance performances, which locals perform in parades or to celebrate business openings. Finally, explore Grant Street between Clay and Washington when it’s blocked off to traffic, usually on weekends.
3. Old-style family banquets: Head to the Far East Cafe, a neighborhood fixture serving banquet-style meals since 1920. With palace chandeliers, murals, and carved screens brought from China more than a century ago, the interior is from another time. As Quock says, the restaurant is on the 600 block of Grant Avenue, between California and Sacramento.
4. Classic dim sum: Try the Hang Ah Dim Sum Tea House, said to be the oldest dim sum restaurant in the US. The low-key eatery is hidden in a basement on Pagoda Place, a tiny alley off Sacramento Street. If you have trouble finding the storefront, look for a handwritten sign that says “1st Dim Sum House in USA” on a brick wall across from the Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground.
5. Fine-dining with neighborhood roots: Quock recommends Mister Jiu’s for upscale meals and special occasions. The local husband-and-wife team turned an older neighborhood restaurant into a minimalist space with contemporary decorations and mid-century furniture. The chef, who grew up in Chinatown, creates gourmet concept dishes inspired by Cantonese, Sichuan, and California cuisine.
6. Learn more about Chinatown history: The Chinese Historical Society Museum is dedicated to the legacy of the Chinese in America. The museum is housed in the historic Chinatown YWCA building, designed by San Francisco powerhouse architect Julia Morgan. Exhibits focus on the Chinese American immigrant experience. Visitors can take tours of the museum and the surrounding community for a small fee.
7. Tour the neighborhood: Wok Wiz offers three basic tours, including one focused solely on neighborhood food. Quock also recommends trying Chinatown Alleyway Tours, sponsored by the Chinatown Community Development Center. Led by local youth, the tours are an occasion to help them learn how to become tour guides and improve their public speaking skills.