Why I Give Tours of Chinatown


Telling the story of Chinatown, especially the seldom-told story of how Chinatown finds itself in God’s story, opens the heart to greater compassion, both for people who relate to Chinatown’s culture, and for those who know nothing about it besides dim sum and fortune cookies. Telling the story of Chinatown widens the conduits of our hearts to love those who come from a different background. And for those who relate to its culture, the telling of its story allows one to embrace their own story. Either way, I’ve seen God widen many hearts towards compassion with almost every group I’ve taken through Chinatown.

Among the many times I’ve given this tour, I meet some who grew up in Chinatown. Often, these people are hit the hardest with the tour. Here is a poem written by one of its natives after experiencing the tour (thank you Sarah Lee from IV for the idea of having participants write a poem):

What was Chinatown for me?


Historical to personal,

Past to present.

A recollection of reality only to be a figment with finality.

By now what is this place in connection to me?

There’s none to be. For all those I know are now invisible you see.
Yet as I walk around,

I learn something quite profound.

Like cells, those unseen have made a living community.

What I don’t see, still has a presence for me.

In one way or another, this place is part of me.

No matter how much I lose sight of it.

This place, to generations or foreigners like me, is a beginning,

Perhaps even an end, we’ll just have to see.

I hope later in the future,

When I too become invisible,

Those after me, will take a step too. And see…

Chinatown in its simple memories.

If we approach Chinatown like a consumer, we miss the treasures expressed in poems like this one. But the way Chinatown was designed WAS to bring in the “consumers”; it was the only way Chinatown could stay in its current location after the neighborhood-flattening 1906 earthquake and fire, a time when Chinese were hated in America. I give tours to trace this storyline, through its tumultuous beginnings, to where it is today. Also, the tour traces an aspect of its story that is scarcely touched by any other tour. And this is the story of redemption, snapshots of tremendous beauty within Chinatown’s residences, how this “ghetto” reflects God’s beauty among its brokenness, of how the people of Chinatown can be loved, and a picture of transformation of how today, people’s hearts are touched and changed because of these real stories.

Threats to Chinatown’s story in God’s Kingdom: Chinese “face” and pragmatism

Such irony, Chinatown has a lot of Christian churches for its small size. If you go back far enough (middle of the 19th century), I wonder how much of an influence Manifest Destiny had on the planting of churches so that the U.S. could extend its domain to the Far East. What I do sense from the older generation is now Christians were often seen as people who brainwashed the Chinese. Chinatown lost a lot of “face.” When Chinatown was rebuilt after the earthquake, it’s new pretty face found in the attractions of its main drag gave reason to hide the “real stories” found in its alleyways. So this “real story” tightened up, locked up for decades (e.g. Chinese were explicitly excluded from immigrating to the US for decades, so most Chinese had false identities, “paper names”). From a Kingdom perspective, the only real beauty of the story is where Chinatown’s ethics and hopes overlap with the ethics and hopes of the Kingdom. But that’s not the ideology of Chinatown nor Chinese people. Look behind the facade and tactics of Chinese culture, and I believe what you’ll find is one of its major idols: pragmatism. And if that’s true, there’s really little reason to tell the story of Chinatown. True, the painful stories of trafficking, the interrogation, the homicides, and more are coming out and being published. But these stories too are unresolved if it does not find itself in God’s Kingdom. We cannot leave these stories here. God has a plan for Chiantown, and SOMEBODY needs to tell its story.

“FACE”, what one sees, is a major value in Chinese culture.  A culture of “face” inherently does not believe that one could be accepted for who one is.  Chinatown has lots of “face.” The pictueresque face of Chinatown is undoubtedbly Grant Avenue, the main drag of Chinatown. It’s anchored by the famous Chinatown gate on Bush and Grant Avenue, and framed by all the architectural flourishings and decorations that line Grant Avenue.  Grant Avenue is definately the most pictureque of all its streets, and the most tourist friendly. But as you might guess, locals avoid Grant Avenue. They even have a nickname for Grant Avenue, “Foreign Devils” street. The real Chinatown lies behind this “face;” it’s here where the plot of its story thickens.

Vestiges of Chinatown’s story in God’s Kingdom: Hope and Redemption

But in spite of its beginnings, there is a story of redemption, of beauty. This story too, was planted long ago, the most famous is the story of how Ms. Cameron, a Christian missionary, saved thousands of trafficked young women sold into slavery. That’s right. Thousands. Beauty are often found among the backdrop of tragedy. And this story continues today. I walk people through the alleyways once lined with brothels, not the famous alleys with the “fortune cookie factory” but the darker alleyways, not tourist-friendly ones, but ones that speak to hearts. In so doing, our hearts are formed, and the participants are invited to step into God’s plan for redemption in new ways, even if they never step foot in Chinatown again.

The template in the preceding paragraph is found in the outline of Lamentations. In that book, the author hits emotional rock bottom before articulating the great, loyal love of God. This is the storyline of my tour; it’s not for tourists; they would hate my tour. It’s for people who have vested interest to invest their lives to contribute to further bring redemption to people like you’ll find in Chinatown. The tour can be disturbing at times as I describe just a small piece of how Chinatown hit “rock bottom.” But I tell the story of hope past, present, and future too. We become part of God’s bigger plan for places like Chinatown.

Hope is a foreign concept to Chinese hearts who don’t believe hearts can be transformed by God’s loyal love. I’ve led multiple teams of English teachers to China, and have taught (and played Carpenter’s music on my guitar) to hundreds of Chinese students in China, and I often ask them what’s most valuable in their lives. I get the usual “health and wealth” answers, and no one has ever articulated anything close to “hope.” To me, this is indicative of a pragmatic culture.

I give tours of Chinatown because it reveals who WE are, and who GOD is!

I’ve written many draft posts on Chinatown before I published this one. I feel like I could write a million posts on Chinatown, and it’s been very difficult to hammer down on just one. And that’s because places like Chinatown are not meant to be just read, or driven through (which is impossible for some of its alleyways anyway), but experienced on foot, to be smelled, seen, to be heard. Per Psalm 48, this is the “City of God.” This is how we can know our God. This is how we know the God who loves all these 16,000 folks living in crammed quarters, where some children eat their meals on alleyway dining tables, where they share a bathroom with eight other residences (because many live in single-room occupancy rooms where bathrooms and kitchens are shared). These are the stories that not only tell WHO God is, but WHO WE are, whites, blacks, yellow and red, as the old song goes. I’ve now led missionaries, pastors, students, therapists, counselors, and more through Chinatown, and they often share just how much they’ve learned about themselves, and atrocities committed by “their” people, but attendees of the tour also experience stories of hope and the role they can play in this grander story. Every story in God ends in hope, because of Christ. This is just the beginning of the untold story of Chinatown. It’s a story of their people, and how God sees them. It’s a story of their brokenness; it’s a story of hope and beauty. It’s a story of ourselves, and how God sees us. It’s a story of who God is, and His plan of redemption.



  1. HonorShame.com on May 4, 2015 at 1:58 pm

    I love you weave the story of redemption into a tangible context and community through the tour. Thanks for showing the “face” of God’s work among the nations in SF.

  2. John Voelker on May 25, 2015 at 7:43 pm

    Thanks Steve,
    Yes, I’d like to attend one of your tours.

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