The oldest such enclave in the USA, bustling and noisy Chinatown is shoehorned into several densely populated blocks and is home to one of the largest Chinese communities outside Asia. It has its roots in the arrival of Chinese sailors keen to benefit from the Gold Rush of 1849, and the migration of Chinese labourers to the city after the completion of the transcontinental railroad twenty years later. The city didn’t extend much of a welcome: Chinese immigrants were met by a tide of vicious racial attacks and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (the only law in American history aimed at a single racial group), which prevented Chinese immigration and naturalization. Nowadays, Chinatown bristles with activity despite its increasingly elderly population base and, in sharp contrast to the districts that surround it, a clear lack of wealth.
Enter through Chinatown Gate at the intersection of Grant Avenue (the district’s tourist thoroughfare) and Bush Street. Gold-ornamented portals and brightly painted balconies sit above Grant’s crass souvenir stores – some of the tackiest emporia in the city. A few blocks up, Old St Mary’s Cathedral, 660 California St at Grant Ave, was one of the few San Francisco buildings to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire, and there’s a good photo display of the damage to the city in its entranceway.