Read In China Town of Byways Around San Francisco Bay, free online book, by William E. Hutchinson, on

If you are a tourist, making your first visit to San Francisco, you will inquire at once for Chinatown, the settlement of the Celestial Kingdom, dropped down, as it were, in the very heart of a big city; a locality where you are as far removed from anything American as if you were in Hongkong or Foochow. Chinatown is only about two blocks wide by eight blocks long; yet in this small area from ten to fifteen thousand Chinese live, and cling with all the tenacity of the race to their Oriental customs and native dress. They are as clean as a new pin about their person, but how they can keep so immaculate amid such careless and not over-clean surroundings is a mystery not to be solved by a white man.

For a few dollars a guide will conduct a party through Chinatown, and point out all the places of interest; but we preferred to act for ourselves in this capacity, and saunter from place to place as our fancy dictated. Stores of all kinds line both sides of Grant Avenue, formerly called Dupont, where all kinds of Chinese merchandise are displayed in profusion. At one place we stopped to examine some most exquisite ivory carvings, as delicate in tracery as frost on a window pane. Next we lingered before a shop where the women of our party went into raptures over the exquisite gowns and the beautiful needlework displayed. Here are shown padded silks of the most delicate shades, on which deft fingers have embroidered the ever-present Chinese stork and cherry blossoms, as realistic as if painted with an artist’s brush.

That peculiar building just across the way is the Kow Nan Low Restaurant, resplendent with dragons and lanterns of every shape and size suspended above and about the doorway.

If you are fond of chop suey, or bird’s-nest pudding, and are not too fastidious as to its ingredients, you may enjoy a dinner fit for a mandarin.

We stop before a barber shop and watch the queer process of shaving the head and braiding the queue. The barber does not invite inspection, as the curtains are partly drawn, but we peep over the top and look with interest at the queer process of tonsorial achievement, much to the disgust of the barber and his customer, if the expression on their faces can be taken as an index of their thoughts.

Then to the drug store, the market, the shoeshop, and a dozen other places, to finally bring up where all the tourists do at the “Marshall Field’s” of Chinatown, Sing Fat’s, a truly marvelous place, where one can spend hours looking over the countless objects of interest.

One of the pleasures of Chinatown is to see the children of rich and poor on the street, dressed in their Oriental costumes, looking like tiny yellow flowers, as they pick their way daintily along the walk, or are carried in the arms of the happy father never the mother. If you would make the father smile, show an interest in the boy he is carrying so proudly.

To gamble is a Chinaman’s second nature. Games of fan-tan and pie-gow are constantly in operation; and the police either tolerate or are powerless to stop them. Tong wars are of frequent occurrence, crime and its punishment being so mixed up that an outsider cannot unravel them. The San Francisco police have struggled with the question, but have finally left the Chinese to settle their own affairs after their own fashion. Opium dens flourish as a matter of course, for opium and Chinese are synonymous words. You can tell an opium fiend as far as you can see him; his face looks like wet parchment stretched over a skull and dried, making a truly gruesome sight. Every ship that comes into the bay from the Orient is searched for opium, and quantities of it are found hidden away under the planking, or in other places less likely to be detected by the sharp-eyed officials. When found it is at once confiscated.

The Chinese are an extremely superstitious people, and it is very difficult to get a photograph of them, for they flee from the camera man as from the wrath to come. When you think you are about to get a good picture, and are ready to press the button, he either covers his face, or turns his back to you. The writer was congratulating himself on the picture he was about to take of four Chinese women in their native costumes, and was just going to make the exposure, when four Chinamen who were watching him deliberately stepped in front of the camera, completely spoiling the negative. The younger generation, and especially the girls, will occasionally pose for you, and a truly picturesque group they make in their queer mannish dress of bright colors, as they laugh and chatter in their odd but musical jargon.

A few years ago you could not persuade a Chinaman to talk into a telephone, for, as one of them said, “No can see talkee him,” meaning he could not see the speaker. Another said, “Debil talkee, me no likee him,” but now this is all changed. Some there are who still cling to their old superstitions, but they are few. The march of commerce levels all prejudices, and the telephone is an established fact in Chinatown. They have their own exchange, a small building built in Chinese style, and their own operators. Even the San Francisco telephone book has one section devoted to them, and printed in Chinese characters. And so civilization goes marching on, the old order changeth, and even the Chinaman must of necessity conform to our ways.

But the Chinatown of to-day is not the Chinatown existent before the great disaster of 1906. It has changed, and that for the better, better both for the city and the Chinaman.

Mr. Arnold Genthe, in his Old Chinatown, says: “I think we first glimpsed the real man through our gradual understanding of his honesty. American merchants learned that none need ever ask a note of a Chinaman in any commercial transaction; his word was his bond.” And while they still have their joss houses, worship their idols, gamble, and smoke opium, they are their own worst enemies; they do not bother the white men, and are generally considered a law unto themselves.

As we pass on down Grant Avenue we meet a crowd gathered around a bulletin board, where hundreds of red and yellow posters are displayed. All are excited, chattering like magpies, as they discuss the latest bulletin of a Tong war, or some other notice of equal interest; and here we leave them, and Chinatown also, passing over the line out of the precincts of the Celestial, and into our own “God’s country.”