San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest community of Chinese immigrants and Chinese descendants outside of Asia and also the oldest, dating from 1848. Thousands of Chinese immigrants came to California during the last half of the 1800s as a source of cheap labor for mining and building railroads and levies. Today, Chinatown is one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions attracting even more visitors than the Golden Gate Bridge.
For non-Asians, to visit Chinatown is to immerse yourself in an alien environment unlike anything you’ve seen before. The sights, sounds, smells, and tastes are wholly unique; the architecture, arts, and even simple things like packaging and advertising are in a color palette and form so foreign that it seems like you are experiencing things for the very first time—like a newborn baby.
Chinatown is the most densely populated neighborhood in San Francisco with well over 100,000 people per square mile (40,000 per square kilometer) and is among the most populated areas in the United States. It is situated between Downtown to the south and North Beach, a largely Italian neighborhood, to the north and is centered on 2 main streets. Grant Avenue is the main tourist area with many shops and restaurants catering to visitors whereas Stockton Street, that parallels Grant one block to the west, is the central shopping area for the Asian population with a myriad of poultry, fish and seafood; some alive in pens or tanks, others butchered on ice, and still others prepared in countless ways. It is here, along Stockton Street, where the visitor seems most out of place: there are trays of prepared food on display that can’t be identified (or maybe you just don’t want to know!), there are fresh fruits and vegetables that you’ve never been seen before, and exotic herbs and ancient remedies lined up in row upon row of jars.
Chinatown is home to over 300 restaurants from elaborate and elegant dining palaces to simple and tiny back alley noodle houses. It has long been said that each place has two menus; one for the tourists and one for the residents, and if you dine in a place with a large Asian presence (and you should) you will know that this is true because the dishes on the neighboring tables will look like nothing on the menu. For a sampling of authentic cuisine go to one of the many restaurants specializing in Dim Sum, one that is attended by a mostly Asian clientele, and see what they are eating. The servers push around carts laden with tiny dishes or steamer baskets of food with one of two items per cart. At the end of the meal you are charged by how many plates are on your table. This gives you a relatively inexpensive way to try a variety of different items and if you don’t like a particular one you’re only out a few dollars.
I chose the Lomo Spinner 360 for this project because I hoped it would help capture the frenetic energy of Chinatown, the ebb and flow of shoppers, the brusqueness and impatience of the shopkeepers, and the bewilderment and fascination of the tourists. In this I was only partly successful as one of the characteristics of the camera is that objects and people appear much farther away and farther apart than they really are so the sense of congestion is mostly lost.