San Francisco Chinatown Revealed: Tourists Deprived of Raw Culture

“There are more things in San Francisco’s Chinatown than are dreamed of in Heaven and earth…In reality there are three parts of Chinatown — the part the guides show you, the parts the guides don’t show you, and the part that no one ever hears of” (Rast, 29)

San Francisco Chinatown Map in 1885

Normally when tourists come to San Francisco, Chinatown is one of the top recommendations for sight seeing and enjoying delicious food. A lot of the popular tours include showing the entrance gates and famous places to eat. Little do they know, there is a lot more history to the area than they realize. When visiting a city, or monumental sight, there are normally tour guides that educate the tourists on the history and fun facts of the area. For San Francisco’s Chinatown, there is a lot of history and culture that tour guides choose to ignore.
Let’s start at the beginning. A Chinese man and two Chinese women arrived in San Francisco in 1848 in hopes of starting a new life. This is around the time that the world realized that there was gold in the area, so many people left China to come to San Francisco because that was the port of entry for miners. Once the influx of Chinese people started to settle in the area, there was a important document that stopped the population increase. Unfortunately, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 changed the immigration laws which cause population decrease in the San Francisco Chinese population.
While this immigration ban effected thousands of people, they put the immigrants on Angel island to be detained while their applications were processed. Angel Island is known as a harsh environment that held immigrants for up to 22 months. With questionable moral decisions being made, obviously tourists wouldn’t want to hear about the potential turmoil that had gone on in the area. Angel island does, in fact, host tram and segway tours. These tours claim to give a “history rich audio recording” that will guide you as you ride through the island.

Angel Island Immigration Center

In my article, I focus specifically on the negative impacts that Chinatown had on the area, and some specific religious impacts that were either ignored or extremely modernized. During the COR 330 Gods Ghosts and Ancestors class, I found a lot of connections between the placement of ghosts in Chinese Culture.

In San Francisco, Chinatown has their very own ghost tours for tourists to embark on at night through the dark alleys. According to Wolf’s “Gods Ghosts and Ancestors,” “ghosts are despised, ‘like beggars’” and they are known to offer “misfortune to any kind” (Wolf, 169-170). The common representation of ghosts is that they “the soul of a dead person believed to be an inhabitant of the unseen world or to appear to the living in bodily likeness” (Merriam-Webster). These ideas are taken in a way that tourists that come to the area would be disinterested due to the uncomfortable experience they may have. Ghosts area large part of Chinese Traditional Culture and should not be ignored in a place emerged in the cultural ideals.

There is a company that allows tourists to embark on a ghost tour that leads you around Chinatown while telling scary stories. There is then a murder mystery to the game, where you must solve the puzzle or else the ghosts might come and get you.

“A Tour For People That Love Mystery But Aren’t Afraid Of The Dark!”

I decided to demonstrate my research through a National Geographic article because I felt like imagery is a main point of this article. Also, being a traveler, I would love to have read an article about San Francisco Chinatown before going. Showing comparison photos of alley ways and general town development is always a sign of how the town is doing economically and what kind of people they are trying to attract. Being able to show older photos of Chinatown compared to today can give the reader an insight into the history that took place.


For example, here is Bartlett Alley which is where heavy prostitution took place in the 1800s.

Bartlett Alley 1800s

Bartlett Alley became Beckett Alley in 1908

Learning about the history of the oldest Chinatown in the world was super interesting and showed a lot of connections between my Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors class but also related to other COR classes I have taken in the past.

One thought on “San Francisco Chinatown Revealed: Tourists Deprived of Raw Culture

  1. Matthew Fortier

    It is very interesting to see tourism come up so often in many different classes. Tourism seems to have very different impacts on the communities that people visit, and the impacts are not always positive. In your case, we have tourist who may not get the full experience when visiting Chinatown. Important cultural information and history is omitted in favor of dining destinations or modernized versions. In Life in the Amazon, we talked about the history of tourism in the area and how the locals were effected by the movement. People who were interested in visiting the Amazon in 1980’s were looking for an experience unlike no other. The ability to visit a contacted tribe’s village in the Amazon River Basin was considered an exotic experience at the time. Tourists came with their white clothing, their cameras, and cash to buy souvenirs. These local tribes began to get used to foreigners visiting their homes, having no respect for their land, bargaining for their hand made goods, and treated like animals. It is clear after learning about tourism in the Amazon and tourism in Chinatown San Francisco, that it is easy to lose sight of why you are visiting that place in the first place. If tourism in a specific area loses its historical and cultural value, is it even worth visiting anymore? Thank you!


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