|San Francisco's is the largest Chinatown
outside Asia. A population of around 70,000 live in 30 square
blocks. The gateway to Chinatown at Bush and Grant Avenue was
given to the city of San Francisco by the Republic of Taiwan.
Grant Avenue is San Francisco's first street (formerly Dupont
Street) and stands today as the center of Chinatown. Streets
are lined with shops and trading companies offering a variety
of colorful merchandise - silk, jade, artifacts and antiques.
Restaurants are excellent (Try House of Nan-King) Old St. Mary's
Church, California and Grant, built in 1852, is one of the few
buildings to escape destruction by the great fire of 1906.
San Francisco’s Old Chinatown
By Commissioner Jesse B. Cook - Former Chief of Police
Jesse Brown Cook (1860-1938) served the San Francisco Police
Department from the late 1880s to the 1930s. He began as a beat
officer, and then served as a sergeant of the “Chinatown
Squad.” He served as Chief of Police after the 1906 earthquake,
retired, and was later appointed to the Police Commission. Before
he joined the police department he studied taxidermy, worked
as a sailor, drayman, and butcher, and toured Europe as a contortionist.
His police career began in San Antonio, Texas, and was a police
officer in San Diego before he returned to San Francisco. He
describes the conditions in San Francisco’s Chinatown
before the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 as seen from his
perspective as a member of the “Chinatown Squad.”
San Francisco’s Chinatown
has been known to me since childhood, when it occupied only
Sacramento Street, Kearny Street, and halfway up to Stockton
Street. One of my early recollections was attendance at the
First Baptist Sunday School in 1866. It was then located on
the north side of Washington Street, about 100 feet east of
Chinese at that time were coming in from the Orient at about
1,400 on every steamer. True it is they had been coming in
since 1848, but relatively few at a time. Therefore, there
was quite a number of the pioneer Chinese here in the days
of the old “gold fever.” These Chinese had come
on the old Pacific Mail steamers. The customs house officers
would search each Chinaman as well as his baggage, and then
chalk-mark him with a cross. After a sufficient number had
been marked to fill up a good-sized express wagon, it was
the custom to throw all the baggage onto the wagon and place
each Chinaman on top of his belongings. It was a common sight
to see these express wagons going west on Brannan (the old
Pacific Mail docks were located on First and Brannan Streets)
to Third Street, along Third Street to Market Street, crossing
Market Street to Kearny, and along Kearny to Sacramento Street
where they would be discharged to go to the different “companies”
to which they belonged. Although all of these Chinese were
from the province of Canton, they spoke different languages
In way of explanation, there were for instance Hock Kah men;
they were all barbers. Then again, there were See Yup men;
they were all laboring men. The Sam Yups were all businessmen
and they invariably controlled the business of Canton as well
as the business in San Francisco’s Chinatown. A See
Yup man was not allowed to enter into competition with a Sam
Yup. It was impossible for the See Yup men to get any goods
at all from Canton, as the merchants in Canton, China, would
sell only to their own people, the Sam Yups.
There were, of course, other provinces represented by the
Chinese Six Companies. The Six Companies looked after the
Chinese coming from their respective provinces in China. When
sick, the Chinese were cared for by and through the Six Companies.
This care lasted up to the time of death, when the Chinese
Six Companies saw to it that proper burial was given. In due
course, the bones of the Chinese were taken up and shipped
back to their homes in China. This is a custom that has endured
over the past centuries. The Chinese have a peculiar superstition
that if they are not buried in China, it will be very unfortunate
for the members of their families and for their descendants.
We now come to the starting of the so-called “tongs,”
commonly known as the “hi-binders.” The first
tong was the Chee Kung Tong. Every man coming from China became
a member of this tong. It was never known to have been in
any trouble, for the Six Companies looked after the Chinese
and saw that they were properly cared for.
In the early days, a Chinaman known as “Little Pete,”
whose Chinese name was Fong Jing Tong, was interested in quite
a number of slave dens, gambling places and lottery houses.
The hoodlum element of Chinatown would make raids on these
places and demand tribute money, or blackmail. It became so
bad that Little Pete conceived the idea of forming tongs to
protect his interests. The first tongs he started were the
Bo Sin Sere and the Guy Sin Sere, and they guaranteed him
About this time there was another Chinaman, Chin Ten Sing,
known as “Big Jim,” who also had large interests
in a great many gambling, lottery and slave houses. He saw
the protection that Little Pete was getting, and as he had
to turn to his own houses for protection, decided to start
some tongs also Among them were the Suey Singsa, the Hop Sings
and a number of others.
This proved very successful until the tongs started fighting
among themselves over slave girls and gambling games. These
wars sometimes lasted for several months.
At one time, I stood at the corner of Grant Avenue (then called
Dupont Street) and Clay Street with Patrolman Matheson (now
Captain Matheson, City Treasurer), and Ed Gibson, then a detective
sergeant, talking about two tongs that were holding a meeting
to settle their troubles. These tongs began fighting among
themselves, and inside of a half-hour there were seven Chinamen
lying on the streets wounded; one on Waverly Place, one on
Clay Street, Two in Spofford Alley, two in Ross Alley, and
one on Jackson Street. The one in Waverly Place was shot,
the bullet cutting the artery in his arm. Captain Matheson
and myself took this Chinaman out of the shop where he fell,
and stopped the flow of blood by means of a tourniquet. The
physician later told us that if this had not been done the
Chinaman would have died.
In regard to the gambling games in Chinatown—my first
trip to Chinatown was in 1889 as a patrolman in a squad. At
that time there were about 62 lottery agents, 50 fan tan games
and eight lottery drawings in Chinatown. In the 50 fan tan
gambling houses the tables numbered from one to 24, according
to the size of the room.
The game was played around a table about 10 feet long, 4 feet
high and 4 feet wide. On this table was a mat covering the
whole top. In the center of the mat was a diagram of a 12-inch
square, each corner being numbered in Chinese characters,
1, 2, 3 and 4.
At the head of the table sat a lookout or gamekeeper. At the
side was the dealer. This man had a Chinese bowl and a long
bamboo stick with a curve at the end, like a hook. In front
of him, fastened to the table, was a bag containing black
and white buttons. He would scoop down into the sack with
his bowl and raise it, turning it upside down on the table.
The betting would then start.
After the bets were made, the dealer would raise the bowl
and start to draw down the buttons, drawing four buttons at
a time. The Chinese would make their bets at the drawing down
of the buttons. The dealer would draw down until one, two,
three or even four buttons would be left. Sometimes the Chinese
would bet that the last four buttons would be all white, all
black or that there would be a mixture of black and white
The construction of the gambling rooms was very interesting.
There was a large door 2 inches thick, of heavy oak, seasoned
and studded with bolts. The doorjamb and the outer front were
the same, but on the back of the door was a large bar on a
swivel with two cleats on each side. When the door was slammed,
the Chinese could turn the swivel and lock the door in order
to keep the police from entering. Of course, because of the
bolts studded on the door, it could not very well be chopped
Alongside the door was a little room with a window, where
the lookout sat. He held the strings controlling the door,
and was there to watch everyone that entered. On entering,
you would pass through a hallway about 10 feet long, then
through another door, either right or left, into a hall of
about the same length, which would lead into the game. Three
doors generally had to be passed through before reaching the
game. The halls were always arranged so that if the police
got through the first door, they had to pass through a second
door, which, of course, would be locked. By the time they
finally got to the game room, all evidence would be removed.
The lottery drawings: The Chinese have a very large room,
with the doors constructed the same as in the case of a fan
tan game room. The far end of the room is partitioned off
with wire screens to the full width and about 8 feet deep.
In back of the screen are two shelves, one of which acts as
a counter for four Chinamen. Each Chinaman has a separate
window in the screen. On the other shelf are placed Chinese
ink pots and brushes, for the purpose of marking Chinese lottery
tickets. Every Chinese lottery ticket has 80 characters on
it, 40 above the line and 40 below. Each company stamps their
own name at the head of the ticket. These tickets are really
a Chinese poem, written by a Chinaman while in prison, and
later adopted as a Chinese lottery ticket. There is not a
thing on these tickets to designate their real use, although
they are never used for any other purpose.
The agents around town had their offices in back of stores
where they sell the tickets. Just before the drawing takes
place, they present a triplicate copy of each ticket sold
to the Chinaman at the window. The duplicate ticket is given
to the purchaser, while the agent retains the original.
The clerk back of the window then figures up the amount that
the agent should turn in to cover the tickets sold. If they
agree, the clerk accepts the tickets. No receipts are given.
The actual taking and accepting of the tickets by the clerk
is considered an acknowledgment, as his name appears on all
As soon as all the money and tickets are in, the tickets are
closed and the lottery is held. In a little package, about
2 Inches Square, are 80 slips of paper. On each of these slips
is a character corresponding to one of the characters on the
lottery ticket. The Chinaman sets in front of him a large
pan, like the old-time milk pans we used to set for milk to
raise cream, and four bowls, each bearing a Chinese number—either
1, 2, 3 or 4. The small slips of paper are folded into little
pellets, thrown into the pan and shaken up. The drawing then
begins. The first pellet drawn is put into bowl No. 1, the
next into bowl No. 2, and so on, until there are twenty pellets
in each bowl.
The Chinaman then takes another small package, containing
four little square pieces of paper. On each of these pieces
is a figure in Chinese corresponding with the figures on the
bowls. The same procedure is then followed as with the pellets.
The slip picked from the pan is handed to the clerk, who in
turn hands it to a man standing on the shelf in back of him.
It is opened, in the presence of everybody gathered there.
Of course, the bowl bearing the same number is considered
the winning bowl; the other three are placed under the counter.
The pellets are then taken from the winning bowl and are pasted
on a board in full view. These are winning characters. The
Chinese mark the tickets by daubing the characters that agree
with the ones on the board, with a brush. After this has been
done, they present their tickets, and come back at the proper
time to get their reward; that is, whatever they won.
In 1895, Chin Buck Guy, Chin Kim You, Wong You, Wong Fook,
Jim Wong, Mah Lin Get, Chin Chung, and Qwong Bin, who were
sometimes called the “Big Eight”, controlled the
lotteries and games.
The lottery companies at that time were the Tie Loy, Foo Quoy,
Foo Quoy Chung, Fay Kay, Shang High, Fook Tie, Quong Tie,
New York and Wing Lay Yuene.
Some years later, around 1905, the Chinese population of Chinatown
had increased to 40,000, the district covering from Sacramento
to Pacific Avenue, and from Kearny to Stockton Streets.
The Chinese at that time were a peculiar class of people.
They did not believe in allowing their daughters to attend
school. They thought it was unnecessary for a girl to have
an education, as she was meant for a wife to bear children
for her husband, and was, therefore, worth a certain price
to any Chinaman who wanted to marry her. The Chinese girl
had to obey her parents and marry the man picked for her,
whether she liked him or not.
The boys were sent to school; that is, to the Chinese school;
they were not allowed to go to the European school. At that
time there was one public school of about four rooms, on Clay
Street, between Stockton and Powell Streets, those in attendance
being mostly Japanese and other races. The Chinese boys went
to their own school, from 8 o’clock in the morning until
10:30 at night, with time off for lunch and dinner. In Chinese,
each character represents a word, and the only way they had
of studying was to memorize these characters, which were placed
on a blackboard or hung upon the wall. These were repeated
over and over continually all day long until thoroughly imbedded
in the minds of the boys. The teachers generally carried a
long rattan and were very strict. If a boy made a mistake
in reading from a chart, the teacher would hit him over the
head with the rattan.
In other words, the characters were beaten into the boy’s
head if he could not learn them in any other way.
People, generally, have the idea that Chinese are natural
gamblers. This is not true. The old-time Chinese visited gambling
houses so much because there were so few places of entertainment.
In the first place, very few of them were married men. They
could not speak English and, therefore, could not enjoy American
dramas, dances or games. The only things left for them to
do were either to visit houses of prostitution, gambling houses,
lottery houses or the Chinese Theatre. Today, of course, this
is all changed. In 1911, when China became a republic, orders
were issued by the Chinese government that the Chinese were
to adopt the customs of the country in which they were living,
attend the schools and cut off their queues, or “bings,”
as the Chinese knew them.
The Chinese young men immediately took advantage of this order,
and started cutting off their queues. If they found anyone
who refused to do so, they would gather together, throw the
man or boy down, cut off his queue and tie it around his neck.
Immediately, there was a run on the schools, with the result
that a large Oriental school had to be built in that neighborhood.
Today, the Chinese boys are graduating from American high
schools and universities. They have taken up law, medicine,
and dentistry and, being wonderful students, have become proficient
in many lines. Gambling in Chinatown is now a thing of the
past, for these boys and girls go to American shows, dances,
baseball games or any other games played by the Americans.
This shows that the Chinese are not naturally born gamblers.
In old Chinatown there were scarcely 400 Chinamen who could
speak good English, and very few women who could talk it at
all. Today, it would be almost impossible to find a boy or
girl in Chinatown who could not speak as good English as a
white boy or girl.
The opium den was another thing that the Chinese resorted
to because they had no other place to go. At that time nearly
every store in Chinatown had an opium layout in the rear for
their customers. All the Chinaman had to do was bring his
opium. In those days the Chinese were allowed to smoke opium,
provided they did not do so in the presence of a white man.
If a white man was present it meant the arrest of all who
were in the room at the time.
In the old days, at the corner of Washington Street and Spofford
Alley, in a room right off the street, anyone could see Chinamen
mixing old opium with new. That is, after opium is smoked
the ashes drop down into the pipe in the bowl. This is scraped
out with certain instruments and saved. It is then known as
“Yen Shee,” and is later mixed with new opium.
I have seen as many as 100 Chinamen smoking opium in a den
in Chinatown. The opium smoke was sometimes so thick in those
dens that the gas jets looked like small matches burning.
Opium has peculiar, sweet smell, not at all distasteful, and
many times when coming home from Chinatown after going through
dens, people in the cars sitting near me, would be sniffing,
smelling the opium in my clothes and wondering what it was.
When I got home it would be necessary to undress in an outer
room and air my clothes to get the opium fumes out of them.
The Chinese had their own names for the alleys in Chinatown.
The main streets, outside of Sacramento Street, were always
known to the Chinese by their English names, the other streets,
however, were all known by Chinese names. If you asked a Chinaman
where an alley was and gave the American name, he would be
unable to tell you, for he would not know. But if you gave
him the Chinese name, he would know immediately. For instance,
Sacramento Street was known as China Street—in Chinese
as Tong Yen Guy. The Spanish originally settled Ross Alley,
but when the Chinese came they crowded the Spaniards out.
This alley was, therefore, given the name of Gow Louie Sun
Hong, or Old Spanish Alley. Spofford Alley was another alley
from which the Spaniards were crowded out; this was called
Sun Louie Sun Hong, or new Spanish Alley. Alongside the old
First Baptist Church, on Washington below Stockton was an
alley, at the end of which was a stable for horses. The Chinese
named this Mah Fong Hong, “stable alley.” A small
alley off of Ross Alley was known as On New Hong, in other
words, “urinating alley,” as the Chinese made
it a regular urinating place.
Duncan [Duncombe] Alley is off Jackson Street, below Stockton,
and is known as Fay Chie Hong, or “Fat Boy Alley.”
This was named after a young boy living on the street who,
at fifteen years, weighed about 240 pounds. A little way below,
on the opposite side of the street, was St. Louis Alley. In
the early days of Chinatown there was a large fire in the
alley, which burned up quite a number of houses. The Chinese,
therefore, called it “fire alley,” or “Fo
Opposite Fire Alley was Sullivan Alley, running halfway through
from Jackson to Pacific Street. As there was a restaurant
in this alley, the Chinese called it “Cum Cook Yen,”
the same name as the restaurant. Another alley was named “Min
Pow Hong,” or bread alley, because there was a bakery
on it. Brenham Place, running from Washington Street to Clay
Street, back of the square, was called “Fah Yeun Guy,”
or Flower Street, because of the park. Bartlett Alley, running
from Jackson to Pacific Street, just below Grant Avenue, or
Dupont Street, was called “Buck Wa John Guy,”
or the grocery man who speaks Chinese. Opposite this was Washington
Alley, known to the whites as “Fish Alley.” The
Chinese, however, called it “Tuck Wo Guy,” after
a store on it.
Waverly Place, originally known as Pike Street, ran from Washington
Street to Sacramento Street, above Dupont, and was called
“Ten How Mue Guy,” after a Chinese Temple in that
The State of California was at one time called “Gow
Kum Shain,” or Old Gold Mill. Sacramento was known as
the “second city,” or Yee Fow, and San Francisco
had the Chinese name of Tie Fow, or “the big city.”
America, that is the United States of America, was known as
May Yee Kwock, or Ah May Yee Kah, also Fah Kay Kwock, meaning
the flower flag country. Americans were known as Fah Kay Yen,
or flower flagmen.
Mongolians, Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Siamese and men from
Peking, China, all used the same characters. The Japanese,
however, adopted a lot of characters of their own that were
not known to the other races. If a Chinese wanted to talk
to a Japanese, Korean or Mongolian, all he had to do was write
him using the characters, as they have the same meaning although
Perhaps it will surprise you to know that there is no such
thing as the underground in Chinatown. True, you could go
from one cellar to another, but that is all. In order to deceive
the people, the Chinese guides would take them in on Grant
Avenue, between California and Sacramento Streets, going down
into a cellar. From this they would go downstairs into the
next cellar, and so on, sometimes going into six or seven.
These basements, however, were all connected with the stores
on Sacramento Street. Should you go from any one of these
basements toward Sacramento Street, you would, of course,
come to the cellar of some Sacramento Street store, and all
you had to do was to go up one flight of stairs to Sacramento
Street. The guides naturally would not allow anyone to do
this. They would bring the people back the same way that they
came and tell them that they had been down six or seven stories.
The people of course believed them, but at no time were they
ever over one story below the street.
The Chinese Theatre was also a good place to take tourists.
The guides would take them in the entrance on Washington Street
and from there down into the basement. This basement led down
into another cellar where the guides would tell the people
that they were now two stories under the ground. At this time
they would show them the Chinese actors’ dressing rooms
and sleeping quarters. Had the door at the end of the room
been opened, the stage of the theatre would have been seen.
The people had been told they were two stories under ground,
however, and they believed it.
The nearest thing to an underground passage that I ever saw
was in 1905 when with Captain Matheson, then a patrolman,
I went through a passageway leading from Spofford alley into
the basement of Old Tie Loy Lottery Company on Waverly place.
There were fourteen doors in this passageway, each door leading
into a room so constructed that it appeared as though you
were going down into the bowels of the earth. In reality you
were only going down into the basement on Waverly place.
During my first term in Chinatown in 1889, the Chinese did
not use revolvers in their tong wars, believing they made
too much noise. A lather’s hatchet sharpened to a razor
edge was their chief weapon. With this they could chop a man
all to pieces and generally, when they did leave him, would
drive the hatchet into his skull and leave it there. The men
using these weapons were known as Poo Tow Choy, or little
One night at the corner of Jackson and Washington Streets,
two Chinamen with hatchets chopped another all to pieces.
This happened about six feet behind a Chinaman who was selling
peanuts on the corner. Although this man was questioned, he
insisted that he did not Know anything had happened nor that
anyone had been killed, in spite of the fact that the back
of his clothes was all spattered with blood. The murderers
were later captured, sent to the penitentiary for life but
about ten years after were deported to China.
In ending—there is nothing in the world that will make
a Chinaman “madder” than for anyone to say to
him “Sock Nika Tow,” which translated means “Chop
your head off.”
San Francisco Police and Peace Officers’ Journal