I have been to San Francisco’s Chinatown countless times, but it was not until I was guided by the Chinatown Alleyways Tours (a project of the Chinatown Community Development Center’s Adopt-an-Alleyway Youth Empowerment Project) that I learned the social and cultural history of what I was seeing. Guided tours may be the best way to learn about Chinatown, but those unable to participate now have a great alternative: Phillip Choy’s new “San Francisco Chinatown: A Guide to its History and Architecture.” Published by San Francisco’s own City Lights, Choy’s guidebook includes historical background on both Chinatown buildings and culture (he even explains the origins of chop suey). Architectural historian Choy knows Chinatown as well as anyone, and his book enables readers to essentially accompany him as he walks through the historic neighborhood.

San Francisco’s Chinatown is among the world’s great communities. It features colorful and distinctive buildings, the market scene on Stockton Street, and a great range of food choices. It is a must visit for all tourists, and an ongoing source of delight for Bay Area residents.

But if you want to know more about what you are seeing in Chinatown, a guide or guidebook is required. Phillip Choy’s new work provides the historical backdrop to many Chinatown buildings and businesses, and can easily be carried up and down Chinatown’s many hills.

Not an AIA Guide

Choy has not written the Chinatown equivalent of the legendary AIA Guide to New York City, the most recent version I reviewed in 2010. That mammoth undertaking is too heavy to be easily carried, and is best used for buildings you are about to see or have seen.

In contrast, Choy’s book is easily read while walking, and fits easily into a jacket pocket. His descriptions are typically no more than two pages and are always accompanied by a large photo. What he lacks in comprehensiveness and depth is more than made up for in convenience.

I emphasize these qualities because the most important feature of a guidebook is that it is useable. And Choy has met this test. In exchange for not providing a comprehensive history of Chinatown and foregoing the type of detailed architectural analysis designed for experts in the field, he has written a book that gives the vast majority of visitors as much information as they desire about the various sites.

We learn about the origins of the Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground at 855 Sacramento, the history of Portsmouth Plaza, and why the historic “Belfast Sparkling Cider” remains “popular in Chinese-American communities and nowhere else.” Choy explains which portions of historic buildings have been remodeled, and identifies the businesses that occupied buildings over time. While some of his sites may be well-known to tourists – though I had not been to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookies Co. on Ross Alley until my recent guided tour – the history of the vast majority of buildings will be little known to those not already well versed in Chinatown history.

Chinatown’s Missing Historic District

The book’s outstanding photographs were taken by Choy’s son Brian in 1980 as part of a case report to nominate Chinatown as a national historic district. Many will be surprised to learn that Chinatown is not an historic district, despite its register of historic buildings and its obvious qualification for this designation.

Choy discusses the political evolution of Chinatown and its activists but does not address a question many relying on his book will likely ask: how is it possible that San Francisco Chinatown is not a national historic district? The answer is that such designation requires property owner support, and far too many Chinatown owners still see such government designation as the first step toward the Communist revolution that occurred in their former homeland. That such designation actually gives tax credits to owners for maintaining their properties – a number of which on Stockton Street in particular are in visible disrepair – has not altered this political dynamic.

City Lights Bookstore is on the border of Chinatown, so those visiting the area can stop by, pick up Choy’s book, and head out to gain a deeper appreciation of the community than they would otherwise get. And while Choy makes no recommendations on where to have a great lunch – and there are many top-notch spots – the locals I know prefer the R &G Lounge at 631 Kearny Street.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.