Last week our class visited 5 of the 41 alleyways in San Francisco’s Chinatown.An alleyway is defined as a street that is less than 32 feet wide between storefronts on either side of the street.
I had never been to Chinatown before and learning about it through a tour with Chinatown Alleyway Tours was an exciting and engaging experience for me. Through the tour we learned how the alleyways, have changed from dangerous walk ways that people avoided to the well lit and clean alleyways they are today. Additionally, the alleyways today reflect the culture and history and of Chinatown.
The alleyways used to have a high frequency of crime and grime since the city and the residents owning property on alleyways did not feel it was their responsibility to clean them up. The poor state of the alleyways motivated a group of teenagers to clean them themselves. Soon afterwards, store keepers became motivated by the teenagers and started cleaning the alleyways as well. The teenagers’ initiative to improve the alleyways is responsible for the pristine alleyways we see today and shows that teenagers can make a lasting impact in their towns.
The alleyways of Chinatown are historically rich. During our tour we visited a one room fortune cookie factory where the employees folded each tasty treat by hand. Although fortune cookies are often thought of as a part of Chinese cuisine, we learned that these cookies were originally created by a Japanese restaurant owner living in California who wanted to create a cookie that Americans would enjoy. His cookies proved to be very popular. When Japanese citizens were forced to relocate to internment camps during World War II, the Chinese decided to start making fortune cookies. The cookies continued to be very popular and are still served today in American Chinese restaurants.
Not only are the alleyways historically rich they also reflect the culture of Chinatown. Today murals can be found in most of the alleyways. The murals were painted in the alleyways primarily to visually communicate the culture of Chinatown but also to discourage graffiti. Some alleyways also have themes, including the Alphabet Alleyway which shows the English alphabet ‘jumping’ down the sidewalk past an elementary school. I found the Cameron House located on the Alphabet Alleyway to be particularly fascinating. In the 1900s, Chinatown was a dirty and unsafe place. Many girls and woman who immigrated from China were enslaved in the brothels. Donaldina Cameron, a missionary, worked with policeman to rescue these enslaved immigrants. During the day she taught the rescued women to sow and cook, and during the night she disguised herself as a man and went to brothels where she would help the women escape. Donaldina’s story is one of courage and strength and is a great example of the rich history in Chinatown.
After our visit to Chinatown, I now appreciate the community for much more than the good food that can be found there. Chinatown has worked hard to maintain its culture and celebrate its history through the alleyways and community centers.