Explore the Alleyways of Chinatown
By Kathy Chin Leong

For a good understanding of what Chinatown was like in the 1800s, take a tour if its alleys.  The alleyways of Chinatown used to be notorious for opium dens and sex trafficking. Today, they have shed that awful reputation and are being beautified; they are historic locales rife with florist shops, tea haunts, even a Michelin-starred restaurant.  If you want to see the real Chinatown, hang out in the alleyways.  

Throughout the 26-block enclave of Chinatown, you can explore on your own, and they are always free to visit. However, we highly recommend the official Alleyway Tours are led by Chinatown local youth  from the Chinese Community Development Center (www.ccdc.org), a non-profit that focuses on low-income housing and support.As for how much time to allot on your own, take at least an hour to stroll around. If you take an official tour, give yourself two hours or more.  Make this aspect of exploration part of a half-day trip to Chinatown.  

On weekdays, an entourage of lion dancers from LionDanceMe practice flips at Waverly Place, one of 43 alleys in Chinatown. The atmosphere is electric as observers watch teens balance on four-foot poles performing gymnastic stunts requiring concentration and precision.  At Ross Alley, tour groups huddle in line, waiting for a free fortune cookie outside Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company. Owner Kevin Chan says the family business has been operating for more than 50 years using a secret recipe known only to himself and his mother.  

The red lanterns, suspended above, crisscross the street. At night, they are lit up by LED bulbs. These are compliments of BEChinatown, a non-profit group created to beautify Chinatown throughout, one section at a time. What makes alleys worth exploring is that life happens here. Locals weave in and out to buy rice plates for dinner or visit relatives upstairs.  Florist shops and hair salons call these narrow streets home.

The intersection between old and new is apparent. Multi-story family association buildings are clad in “good luck colors” of red, yellow, and green.  With names such as Yee Fong Toy, more than 200 have existed in Chinatown since the Gold Rush to support Chinese newcomers. 

Today, they serve as social halls for meetings and mah jong.  The clattering of resin tiles outside the windows is as familiar as the shouts of elderly grandmothers greeting one another in Cantonese. Newer entrants will surprise you.  Brandon Jew is the founder and chef at Mr. Jiu’s, a posh Chinese restaurant that landed the Michelin star the first year in operation in 2017.  The second level of Mr. Jiu’s features a glamorous bar with velvet booths and a giant skylight resembling a spaceship. Discover freshly painted murals and detailed tile mosaics. The Dragon Boats Chasing Moonlight mural, on Wentworth, is comprised of 30,000 glittering tiles.  On Jack Keroac Alley, a wall of Chinese red envelopes always showcases the current year of the Chinese zodiac.

The best way to experience the alleyways is to start early in the day with the Alleyway Tour offered by the Chinatown Community Development Center. Your guide will be a local who gives the historical low-down. Hear the heart breaking stories of how kidnapped Chinese women were sold on auction blocks in the alleys as prostitutes and later left there for dead when they got sick.  

Post-tour, regroup your emotions. See the latest exhibit at 41 Ross, a one-room art gallery. Buy orchids at Sweetheart Florist and fortune cookies at Golden Gate Fortune Cookies.  Refresh yourself at Taiwan Boba Tea.For eats, nibble on salt and pepper chicken wings at Utopia Café or have dim sum at Hang Ah Restaurant, the nation’s first dim sum house.  For the fun of it, visit herbalist Ningyao Li at Ning He Health Center, to assess your “chi.”  

When you arrive, park your vehicle at the Portsmouth Square Garage on Washington Street. To find out where all these gems are located, nab a free Chinatown map at the Chinatown Visitors Center on Kearny Street. 

My early memories of Chinatown alleys were frightful.  In the 1960s, these niches were filthy and dangerous.  Once I saw a crowd shouting in one of these dead-end streets. A gang fight was erupting, and Mom grabbed my hand to flee the commotion. For nearly a century, the City of San Francisco ignored these 43 alleys like the plague (and I bet there were enough germs to start a plague, too). 

These streets were never cleaned or upgraded since they did not qualify as part of the official grid. In 1998 the city acknowledged the alleys and poured public funds into renovation.  Thanks to the efforts of Chinatown advocates who put together the Chinatown Alley Masterplan, proud residents can take a morning stroll with sheer pride.

Chinatown Alleyway Tours - www.chinatowncdc.org 

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