The story of Chinatown is the story of an old, immigrant neighborhood. It is a locality intricately woven into the fabric of the city of San Francisco, bounded by Broadway, Kearny, Bush, and Powell streets. San Francisco, the largest commercial port on the West Coast, became the primary entry point for Chinese immigrants who were recruited as laborers for the development of the western part of the country. 

The Chinese people of San Francisco faced conflict and resistance from the Americans for a long time. Sinophobia raged high in the community in the 19th century, which even led to the banning of Chinese immigration in 1882, and continued well into the 20th century. San Francisco tried to destroy Chinatown many times throughout history. To keep their place in the city, the Chinese transformed their neighborhoods into the ‘Oriental City’. Designed with sino-vernacular architecture, they created a unique skyline for Chinatown enabling it to grow fast into a tourist attraction. 

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Chinatown, San Francisco_©

Introduction to the History of Architecture of Chinatown | History of San Francisco

The complex relationship the Chinese had with the city of San Francisco and the community’s hybrid social structure gave rise to distinct architectural features. These could be seen in the picturesque balconies and pediments, restaurants, and curio shops in the area. 

The discrimination faced by the Chinese American immigrants highly influenced the physical environment of Chinatown. Discrimination and government policies kept the Chinese constricted to a small area at the western edge of the central business district. The Chinese people were banned from owning property by the State of California and were left to the mercy of the American landlords. The lack of space led to the formation of hybrid residential and commercial buildings in every space leftover in the city, creating a crowded and densely populated urban area. 

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Chinatown before and after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire picture_©

The 1906 Earthquake and Fire gave the Chinese an opportunity to shape Chinatown according to their needs. Chinese decorative treatments now adorned all community and commercial buildings. The redesign of Chinatown focused on the re-establishment of social hierarchy and capturing tourist attractions. Christian churches were constructed at the corners of the locality to serve the people and spread their teachings. What was infamous in the 19th century as the enclave for the marginalized outsiders, is now known as a cultural haven rich in traditions and heritage.

Chinatown Before 1906

The pattern and layout of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the nineteenth century reflected the community’s social structure and discrimination. Racial discrimination stopped the expansion of the Chinese population into residential areas. That, combined with the growth of the central business district kept the Chinese in a tightly contained area. 

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Shaded area indicates the Chinese Quarter in 1850 Thesis report_©

In the beginning, the Chinese settled in different parts of the city depending on their employment. As anti-Chinese feelings rose during the 1850s and 60s, the Chinese associations and businesses in other areas of San Francisco were slowly forced to move into Chinatown. As more Chinese settled in this area colloquially named “Chinatown”, all the white residents in and around the area moved out until only the Chinese occupied the few blocks bound by Kearny, California, Pacific, and Stockton streets.

Architecture in Chinatown in the Late Nineteenth Century

In the 19th century, most buildings were multi-use and made of brick with no ornament or decoration except for the windows sills. There was no formal zoning followed in the area. Because of the lack of space, each multi-storied building had various uses juxtaposed within it.

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Storefront in Chinatown, 1950s_©

The storefronts of food and produce were opened out into the street so that the vendors could display their goods on hooks and counters. It was also common for the owner or employee of a store to live in an apartment in the same building. The restaurant business was one of Chinatown’s key elements, with Chinese restaurants popping up around every corner. The interiors of the slightly bigger restaurants were decorated with carved panels and wooden screens with geometric and abstract patterns imported from Guangdong.

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“Parlour houses” or Brothels in Chinatown, 1950_©

The Chinese Opera became a wildly popular means of entertainment in San Francisco. The Shanghai Theatre and the Chinese Theater were popular opera houses where companies would come for a season of performances or more. Three other major means of entertainment in the almost completely male Chinese community were gambling, prostitution, and opium smoking. During the early 1850s, several Chinese gambling houses and brothels appeared in clusters around Sacramento Street and Bartlett Alley. Opium establishments would be in the dark and dingy basements of these buildings. 

Initially, there were very few women and families, so the most common form of residence was the residential hotel. A lot of the Chinese lived in houses that were prefabricated structures imported from Hong Kong during immigration. These were about 28 sq ft and 12ft high and made from a wooden frame composed of round timbers with a covering put over it.

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Portsmouth Square, 1865_©www./

There was only one open space in Chinatown – Portsmouth Square. Commonly called Fah Yuen Gwok by the Chinese, it served as their community park. 

Rebuilding Chinatown After The 1906 Earthquake and Fire | History of San Francisco

After the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, the Chinese got the opportunity to redesign their space to better represent their culture and social structure. They created an environment filled with monuments for prominent associations, commercial buildings, and Christian institutions. The new buildings had to conform to the existing roughly rectangular Chinatown plots with only one edge exposed to a street or alley. Chinese institutional buildings usually had axially symmetrical facades with a centrally placed entry gate opening onto a courtyard or the main hall. All the new buildings utilized brick construction instead of the original wood frame construction

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Sing Chong Building, 1980s_©

The redesign of Chinatown’s commercial buildings focussed on giving a more “oriental and artistic” appearance. The Sing Chong Building and Sing Fat Building served as gateways to the community. Architect T. Patterson Ross and engineer A. W. Burgren were hired to design these buildings which housed the oriental bazaar. The concept to make the buildings more “oriental” was restricted to the treatment of the exterior surfaces. 

In the Sing Chong Building, the metal-framed structures were decorated with Chinese motifs in terra cotta in contrast to the yellow pressed brick exterior surfaces. Pagoda-like towers were placed opposite one another at the corners of each building. 

The Sing Fat building was designed by Ross and Burgren in the same year. Green “queen glazed” terra-cotta strips accentuated the corners and the cornices and formed the primary decorative elements on the yellow pressed brick facades. Like in the Sing Chong building, the Sing Fat building also had pagoda-like towers at the corners. 

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Sing Fat building, 1980s_©

The details and decoration used gave Chinatown its unique visual character. Color was an important element during redesign with many buildings having bright red, yellow, and green facades. 

Churches and temples were some of the most important buildings in Chinatown. After the fire, in 1909, the new Kong Chow Temple was designed by Charles Paff. He tried to replicate the bracketing system used in Chinese architecture as the main decorative element. The main chamber was encrusted with gold-gilded carvings. The carvings underneath the front altar showed scenes from the Dragon King’s court and the Three Kingdoms. All the carvings were handmade in Guangdong and donated to the temple. Many of the churches and other Christian associations were also rebuilt after the fire and they attempted to design their facades to match the other redesigned buildings. 

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Kong Chow Temple, 1980s_©

Residential architecture faced a lot of changes after the 1906 earthquake. There was a high demand for Chinese prostitutes since the population was predominantly male and many women were sold into bondage from South China to San Francisco. Many sanctuaries for women rescued from human trafficking were built during the redesign. The Gum Moon Residence Hall was one such building, redesigned by Julia Morgan. It was a two-story red brick building. Blue and green glazed tiles were placed between the eaves brackets. The keystone and intrados of the entrance arch were also done in glazed tile. The upper stories housed the dormitories and the basement contained the kitchen, dining room, and classrooms.

Gum Moon Residence Hall_©

The Impact Of World War II On Chinatown 

China became an ally of the United States at the beginning of the Second World War and this changed the relationship between the Americans and the Chinese. One of the major effects of the war on the Chinese-American community was the increased availability of employment opportunities that they were not privy to all those years. The war led to a change in the Immigration Act as well and the Chinese were allowed to become legal citizens of the United States. The aftermath of the war also saw the rise of the middle classsecond and third generationChinese Americans who were now financially stable enough to invest in real estate outside Chinatown. 

The change in the economic status of the Chinese resulted in a huge development of Chinatown buildings. Chinatown became a destination for shopping, dining and socializing, for the Chinese Americans who now lived outside of Chinatown and tourists as well. Large parts of Chinatown slowly became a residential area for the elderly and the new immigrants. Although many Chinese moved out of Chinatown post-WWII, the locality continued to be a symbol of the Chinese American community’s unique history and identity. 

Chinatown Today

Chinatown today_©

Today, Chinatown is a neighborhood defined by its long history—a history of rejection and acceptance. Beyond the oriental facade, you will find crowded residences brimming with the elderly and new immigrants,  struggling with the problems caused by years of exclusion and discrimination. But over the years, Chinatown grew into a self-sufficient urban village containing a network of residences, employment, and schooling. Even though it has its problems, Chinatown has grown to become a cultural hub in the heart of San Francisco.

References | History of San Francisco (2019). Chinatown | The Story of Chinatown. [online] Available at: ‌

QUAN, J. (1994). SAN FRANCISCO’S CHINATOWN–A HISTORY OF ARCHITECTURE AND URBAN PLANNING. [online] The University of Arizona, Arizona, United States: The University of Arizona, pp.1–158. Available at: 

Choy, P.P. and America, C. of C. (2012). San Francisco Chinatown: A Guide to Its History and Architecture : An Excerpt. [online] HuffPost. Available at:


Artist, dancer and writer Sanjana Ramesh is a soon-to-be architect trying to find the time to add ’amateur guitarist’ to the beginning of this sentence. Loves puppies and all things chocolate. She’s also really good at bad jokes. She hopes to find her place in the world of design through her words and illustrations.