Chinatown is one of the most popular destinations in San Francisco, and has the distinction of being the oldest and the densest Chinatown outside of mainland China. Your experience of a “town within a city” unfolds when, crossing Broadway or Bush, you enter a world with its own language, architecture, cuisine, and imagery.

Some of this is by design. After the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed Chinatown, Mayor Schmitz wanted to move the residents from the valuable real estate of the inner city to an outlying area south of the city. Those residents, now homeless, banded together and convinced the politicians that the Chinese would rebuild with an eye to tourism, creating a more “Chinese-looking” destination with intentional Chinese symbols. The new neighborhood, built up in the early decades of the 20th century, added Pagoda-style roofs, lampposts embellished with dragons, colorful lanterns, and recessed balconies.   The streets remained narrow, and the alleyways retained the flavor of mainland China.

You can still see the blending of old and new in today’s Chinatown.

Justin Hoover has recently completed a “Flying Dragon” mural in Wentworth Alley, combining traditional symbols with a political statement. Hoover created an undulating dragon superimposed on a golden sun or moon. Dark brushmarks somewhat like calligraphy sit next to the dragon. According to Chinese tradition, the mythical dragon represents beneficent power. He is often accompanied by an image of a moon or a pearl, a symbol of wisdom or life.

Hoover’s mural comes as Chinatown undergoes a major construction project, extending the Central Subway to Stockton Street. The mural uses the dragon to depict an older form of transportation (the Railroad) that owes much to the Chinese. In Hoover’s mural, the colors of the dragon, silver and dark red, evoke the railroad and the brushmarks evoke tracks or clawmarks. The accompanying Chinese characters spell out a poem that speaks to the hardship and difficulties of being a Chinese immigrant in the 19th century.

“Digging for gold (we) experience bitterness and tears. Building the railway, (we) are credited for its success.”