Staff Reporter

Alex Lim, a Chinese-American tourist from San Francisco, wandered around Chinatown's Central Plaza last week.

With his video camera he recorded the deserted gift shops, the crumbling shrine of good luck, and the burned-out Grand View Gardens restaurant.

"Compared with Chinatown in San Francisco, it's a little quiet," he said.

An understatement if there ever was one. On a typical afternoon in San Francisco's Chinatown, it can be difficult to find sidewalk space, let alone parking space. With roughly 40,000 Chinese residents, San Francisco's Chinatown has more than twice the population of L.A.'s. While one district is a hive of activity jammed with well-maintained architectural gems, the other seems neglected and empty, and is struggling for its very survival.

Why the difference? Much of it comes down to location.

"(Chinatown) is close to the best parts of San Francisco," said Bernard Wong, professor of anthropology at San Francisco State University.

Nestled between the Financial District and North Beach, Chinatown San Francisco has no shortage of foot traffic, especially at lunchtime. Its central location also means easy access for visitors on walking tours of the city.

"Chinatown San Francisco has the financial district encroaching on it," said Len D. Betz, project manager at L.A.'s Community Redevelopment Agency, who has been looking to San Francisco for ideas on how to resuscitate L.A.'s Chinatown. "You have private property owners who are willing to sell because it is in their financial interest."

Chinatown Los Angeles, on the other hand, is very much out of sight. Surrounded by the Hollywood Freeway, Pasadena Freeway and canalized Los Angeles River, it is almost inaccessible by foot from the rest of downtown.

In many ways, Chinatown San Francisco has more in common with L.A.'s Little Tokyo than it does with L.A.'s Chinatown.

Little Tokyo is a short walk from City Hall and the financial district, so, at least during the day, it is more plugged into the downtown business community. And both San Francisco Chinatown and Little Tokyo hold historical significance.

San Francisco was the entry point for Chinese in the 19th century, just as Los Angeles because the main port of entry for Japanese immigrants in the first half of the century.

"You can make an analogy between Chinatown in San Francisco and the cohesiveness of Little Tokyo here," said Tom Hughes, a business development specialist at the Japan External Trade Organization. "It is where both communities started, and they still identify with it."

Chinese society puts great stock in tradition, so the age of San Francisco's Chinatown helps maintain its position as an important center of Chinese culture in America. Him Mark Lai, a San Francisco historian attached to the Chinese Historical Society, points out that San Francisco has had a Chinese-language newspaper since 1850. The Chinese community in Los Angeles had to wait until World War II for even a weekly paper.

In fact, L.A.'s Chinatown was moved to its current location as recently as 1937, when the original Chinese neighborhood was torn down to make way for Union Station.

Even San Francisco's Chinatown is suffering from some of the problems that have plagued its counterpart in Los Angeles. Middle-class Chinese-American families have left the area to buy homes in the suburbs, and newer immigrants from Taiwan and Northern China feel less attachment for a community that was established and dominated by Cantonese-speaking immigrants from Southern China.

With Chinese moving out and business moving in, some worry that over the years Chinatown San Francisco will become more of a tourist trap than a legitimate community.

"Chinatown peaked 20 years ago," said Lai. "It still has status as a cultural haven and unofficial capital of the Chinese community, which will give it momentum to carry on. But it is not what it used to be."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.