The entrance to Chinatown is called “Dragon’s Gate,” located at the meeting of Grant Avenue and Bush Street. Don’t try to navigate the narrow, crowded streets by car. Leave the car at the hotel and take the cable car instead. This is truly another world different from nearly everything else in San Francisco.

The oldest Chinatown in North America evolved from the influx of Chinese gold-seekers to San Francisco in the 1850‘s. Those early immigrants clustered in 18 blocks of the city, 1.34 miles wide by 1 mile long, in the middle of Stockton, Kearny and Broadway. Their culture survived prejudice, poverty and persecution. Today, the Chinese-American and immigrant Asian population in Chinatown has reached 80,000 and make up one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the U.S. The median household income is $31,000 less than the San Francisco citywide average of $73,798, reflecting a community with higher rates of poverty and a higher percentage of elderly than the city itself.

There is still a migration into the area but not at the numbers seen in the 1960’s. Fifty years ago, working class immigrants from Hong Kong found mostly menial jobs in restaurants and factories.

The shopping in Chinatown is on Grant rather than Stockton, where tourists flock to the more typical souvenir shops. Stockton is where the locals shop at the herbal pharmacies, seafood, poultry and fresh produce markets. There are real treasures to be found hidden among the more kitschy retail purveyors in Chinatown. There are vibrant floor length silk dresses called qipao, endless strands of exquisite pearls, enamelware, hand-made furniture, elegant kites, fine linens, as well as the authentic Chinese markets. Ethnic cuisine is the highlight here, with the aromas of Chinese restaurants drawing tourists and locals alike to some of the best food in San Francisco.

Portsmouth Square is a community park where tai chi practitioners pose, serious xianggi (Chinese chess) is played and children scamper over the play structure oblivious to the much more intense adult pursuits.