Philip Choy grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown and went on to become an architect in the Bay Area. His new book “San Francisco Chinatown” reveals the culture and history of the district, and highlights landmarks like the distinctive YWCA Residence Club, designed by architect Julia Morgan, and Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground, named after a former USF basketball star. What’s your favorite Chinatown building or historic site?

Philip Choy, historian, architect and author of "San Francisco Chinatown: A Guide to Its History and Architecture"
John King, urban design writer for The San Francisco Chronicle
Bonnie Tsui, travel writer, contributor to The New York Times and author of "American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods"

  • Guest


  • BGibbs

    I’ve always enjoyed Portsmouth Square, sitting in the sunshine in the slightly dirty park among the chatty card players and the Falun Gong. One of the few airy corners of the neighborhood, and reminds me of a few parks I visited in Beijing.

  • Raj

    When studying at SF State, I heard there were possibly underground tunnels running beneath Chinatown. Is this true? Are they accessible? Possibly used for illicit activity of the time. I’ve always wondered about them and would love to walk through them.

  • halberst

    I have a love-hate relationship with Chinatowns- in SF and Oakland. They have an authenticity that most ethnic neighborhoods don’t. And I really enjoy the over the top faux Chinese architecture, especially the neon! Here are a few old medium format film scans I made a decade or so ago: (film somehow captured the neon alot better than digital.)

    But I often am disgusted by the poor hygiene and lack of order. Here’s one of my favorite examples, a photo I took of somebody curing bacon and drying underwear in the same window in SF Chinatown: !. I live in Alameda, and have to go through Oakland’s Chinatown to get home. I’m amazed at how many people double park leaving an elderly relative in the passenger seat to avoid getting a ticket.

  • Sheri

    One of my best memories of visiting Chinatown was a self-guided architectural walking tour. I learned so much of the history of the area from it as well as an appreciation for the variety of architecture.

  • FayNissenbaum

    Is Chinatown still an immigrant destination today? Are folks exploited by landlords and employers? My friend from Beijing routinely states that Cantonese Taiwanese look down on Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese. What’s the inside scoop? So many questions because we are drenched in Grant Street tourist schlock instead of actual reporting. Thanks for today’s show.

  • Wade

    The Rickshaw Lounge, located in one of the short streets between Washington & Jackson, was alleged to be designed by Dong Kingman, the great Oakland-born artist. Any knowledge of this? (Site was unfortunately “renovated in mid-80s.) Thanks

    • Jk

      No idea about whether or not Dong Kingman had any connection, but I do know of an Urban Legend that that was the site of the Beatles “after-party” following their final Candlestick appearance.

  • Guest

    I like to ride my motorcycle through the streets and alleys in China Town and make pit stops at all the restaurants and and stores. I absolutely enjoy getting lost in the sights, sounds, and smells of this part of SF. Question? With the population continually rising, will China Town spread further into SF?

  • Yoshi Grippin

    From the early years of my life my mother would take me every year to spend the day walking all the streets of china town during the chinese new year festival. Some of my most cherished memories were finding the hidden medicinal tea shops. As a child, I remember watching people being consulted, given a list, then the weighing of intriguing ingredients such as ginseng, shark fins, and exotic mushrooms. Now 34, I share these memories with my own kids. I have enjoyed two full calendars of attending the festival, many great memories.

  • Peter L. Stein

    Thanks, Michael, for mentioning the documentary “Chinatown,” which was part of the PBS series about S.F. neighborhoods I created at KQED in the 1990’s. Felicia Lowe was the wonderful director/producer of that episode, and it is still available in local libraries. Listeners can also learn lots about Chinatown’s history through the program’s website and resource guide, starting here:

    Peter L. Stein
    San Francisco

    • Jk

      If only KQED could go to the archives and obtain the footage from the old CNY parades from the 1970s and 80s. There were side footages in addition to the actual parade including a comedic sketch with a then unknown Dennis Dun

  • Qing

    I’ve visited Chinatown in New York City, Washington D.C, Seattle, Los Angles, and San Francisco. The San Francisco one is the best one in my personal view. To me, it looks like a mini museum, you can appreciate many exquisite artwork, antiques which I may rarely see in mainland China. It’s a treasure land.

  • heidi

    Just found footage from 1941 of SF’s Chinatown. It’s on beginning at timestamp 10:37. Link to video:

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