archival photo of the Shanghai Low night club in Chinatown, SF circa 1920s

Chinese American Historic Context Statement

Project status: Ongoing

The context statement provides historic background on the development of the City and the Chinese American experience in San Francisco touching on various topics, among them the struggle for civil rights, beginning with challenges to the myriad discriminatory local, state, and federal laws and policies implemented in the nineteenth century, through the Asian American Movement, student, and community activism of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

In collaboration with the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA), the San Francisco Planning Department is pleased to announce the completion of a working draft of the Chinese American Historic Context Statement. The report was authored by historian Grant Din with contributions by William Tran, Palma You, Stephen B. Haines Jr., and Eric Mar and support from historic preservation consultants ICF.  

Highlighting initial settlement patterns in Chinatown, the report expands upon the primarily westward migration of Chinese Americans into the Sunset and the Richmond neighborhoods of San Francisco, noting details associated with property types and architectural styles, including the Asian Eclectic style, popular in the post-1906 earthquake and reconstruction period. The report makes recommendations for recognizing and interpreting significant sites, additions to the City’s Legacy Business Registry, and areas for further exploration into the rich history of San Francisco’s Chinese American communities.

This effort dovetails with the creation of the Sunset Chinese Cultural District which aims to preserve and memorialize the neighborhood’s Chinese American history and “the legacy and traditions uniquely born in the Sunset.” Formally launched in 2022, the Sunset Chinese Cultural District was established by community interest and the Board of Supervisors. The Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development coordinates the program.

How Will the Historic Context Statement be Used?

The Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) has made it a priority to identify places associated with San Francisco’s social and cultural heritage. One way to do this is through the landmark designation process.

The Board of Supervisors approved Landmark Designation of the historic City Cemetery (known today as Lincoln Park) on September 27, 2022. San Francisco's 306th landmark is important in San Francisco’s Chinese American history as the only municipal burial place for indigent dead between the 1860s and early 1900s and for hosting remnants of the Kong Chow Funerary Chapel, which stands as a symbol of Chinese culture and history in San Francisco.

Other existing landmarks associated wholly or in part with Chinese American history in San Francisco include the Donaldina Cameron House (920 Sacramento Street, Landmark No. 44) and the Oriental Warehouse (650 Delancey Street, Landmark No. 101). As part of this effort, staff is reviewing existing landmarks to determine if they require updating to include omitted community histories, including the Chinese American experience. The Clay Street Center (965 Clay Street, Landmark No. 122) – formerly the Chinese YWCA, and the current location of the Chinese Historical Society of America – is among the landmarks under review.   

Another way to protect these buildings is to provide economic incentives. The context itself can recommend policies to incentivize businesses, protect community spaces, and interpret significant sites where the physical fabric of a building or site has been lost. If adopted by the HPC, the document can be used by community historians, advocates and city planners to provide a foundation for the protection, identification, interpretation, and designation of significant Chinese American related sites and places.  

A revised and updated timeline is forthcoming.

The Chinese American Historic Context Statement documents the expansive story of the Chinese American experience throughout San Francisco, following initial 19th century settlement and community formation in Chinatown, through migration patterns to neighborhoods such as the Richmond and the Sunset in the mid-20th century. The report discusses important community leaders and figures, including historian Him Mark Lai, business owners Sinclair and May Louie, and 19th century rancher Lim Lip Hong and his descendants.


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The initial project was supported by a grant from the California Office of Historic Preservation, with technical oversight, review, and production by the Planning Department.  

This cultural context is one of several the Department has completed and are in-progress to ensure the appropriate documentation of the City’s expansive and diverse story, as part of the Citywide Cultural Resources Survey. Please visit this page to learn more about other cultural, architectural, and thematic contexts which comprise the Citywide Historic Context Statement.