California Authors


San Francisco Chinatown Book Review

A Guide to its History and Architecture
by Philip P. Choy, City Lights Publishing

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Book Review By C. MacDonald

San Francisco's Chinatown has always been a tourist attraction, a fascinating place of unusual sights, sounds and tastes. Since Gold Rush Days, it has been known for delicious food, amazing entertainment, interesting architecture, unique dress and captivating culture.

Philip P. Choy, 86, who was born and raised there, peels back the facade in Chinatown so outsiders can peek inside, learn its true identity and its amazing history—a heritage involving pride, hard work, creativity and a can-do attitude of pro-actively overcoming many obstacles, including discrimination and misunderstanding.

You'll learn about old Chinatown being burned down in the devastating 1906 Earthquake and Fire and how a subcommittee of San Francisco's leading citizens recommended it be relocated to Hunters Point. But the Chinese had plans of their own and started rebuilding Chinatown as an "Oriental City" which would attract tourists, a project endorsed by the San Francisco Real Estate Board. And attract tourists it did, and still does!

--How Portsmouth Plaza, once the San Francisco Civic Center, became the heart and soul of immigrant Chinese to this day.

--How the site of San Francisco's first newspaper, "The California Star," became Pacific Telephone's first and only Chinese Telephone Exchange at 743 Washington.

--How the Mandarin Theatre, 1021 Grant Ave., became known for Cantonese Opera — with rave performances given from 7 to 12 every evening.

--How Stockton Street became famous in Gold Rush Days for its Chinese Food. There's more variety today but the food "with its strange looks and odd smells" (as the author wrote) are still favorites with tourists.

--How the Golden Gate Fortune Cookies Co., 56 Ross Alley, continues to attract tourists with its legendary "must see" fortune cookie machine.

--How in 2009, Willie "Woo Woo" Wong Playground, 855 Sacramento St., was named for a former 5-foot-5 University of San Francisco sensation—the first Chinese American to achieve prominence as a major college basketball player. Fans would chant "Woo, Woo" every time he scored. For over 75 years, the playground was known for having Chinatown's first swing sets, slides and more, but had no name.

This wonderful insider's guide is complete with maps, walking tours and great building architecture photos by the author's son, Brian, as well as interesting historical pictures.

A UC Berkeley Architecture grad, who taught the first college level course in Chinese American history at San Francisco State University, Choy offers fascinating details about building architecture as well as the triumphs and tragedies of the USA's oldest and most famous Chinatown.

He explains how present day Chinatown overlays significant sites from the Spanish, Mexican and American period. Choy also describes the racism and civil rights struggles that impacted the Chinese, many of whom were excellent business people, miners and laborers. More than 12,000 Chinese helped build the Transcontinental Railroad.

The book shows how far the Chinese have come in the city they helped make famous by the bay. In 2011, Edwin Lee was appointed Mayor of San Francisco, the city's first citizen of Chinese descent to become mayor.

City Lights Publishers present the book in a handy, easy-carrying format that every tourist should have when visiting Chinatown. You'll be able to spot specific buildings, learn the history behind the names and mortar, and gain an understanding of the culture that made Chinatown the major tourist attraction that it remains today--a very significant part of one of the world's greatest and most ethnically diverse cities.

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