Social History for Every Classroom


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Create a Walking Tour of San Francisco's Chinatown

In this activity students learn about the people and places, and the social rules that governed them, in San Francisco's Chinatown in the 1800s. Students develop a character based on the real people who lived in Chinatown, and then create a walking tour of what life was really like in "their" neighborhood. Students analyze photographs and read short background texts to gather information for their tours.


  • Students will analyze primary source images and read background texts to determine what life was like for the people who lived in Chinatown.

  • Students will compare the real Chinatown of the people who lived there with the myths and exaggerations created by outside visitors.

  • Students will synthesize their understanding of Chinatown by creating a walking tour that shows what real life in San Francisco's Chinatown was like.  

This activity supports the following Common Core Literacy Standards in History/Social Studies:

  • RHSS.6-8.7. Integrate visual information with other information in print and digital texts.


Step 1: Tell students that visitors to and residents of San Francisco's Chinatown had very different perspectives about the neighborhood in the late 19th century.  Outsiders saw Chinatown as exotic and adventurous, a place to eat strange foods, to gamble illegally, to have "adventures." Tourism to Chinatown was so common that many visitor's guides were published in the late 19th and early 20th century. But these visitor's guides are flawed: they don't really reflect the real experiences of the people who actually iived in Chinatown! In this activity, students will correct this problem by learning about real people who lived in Chinatown and creating a walking tour of "their" Chinatown.  

Step 2: Divide students into small groups of 2-3 students.  Assign each group one of the following identities and photographs:

  • Woman (Photograph "Chinese Women Relax in Golden Gate Park")

  • Laborer (Photograph "A Chinese Laborer Shields His Face from the Camera")

  • Elite Young Boy (Photograph "Children of High Class")

  • Merchant (Photograph "Customers Shop in a Chinatown General Store")

  • Young Girl (Photograph "The Fish Dealer's Daughter")

Give each student the Walking Tour pamphlet worksheet.  Ask students (independently or working in their groups) to analyze their photographs and read the description. They should read and fill out the first page of their planning pamphlet, using the information from the photograph and description.

Step 3: Give each group a packet of the following documents.  Students should go through each document in the packet and record their findings, from their character's point of view, on pages 2-3 of the planning pamphlet. Students should also answer the questions on page 2 about their character's photograph.  

  • Customers Shop in a Chinatown Grocery Store

  • "Street of Gamblers (By Day)

  • "Interior of Chinese Theater"

  • "Chinese Restaurant, San Francisco"

  • Exterior of a Chinese Temple in San Francisco

Step 4: When students have finished reviewing the documents, they should plan their walking tour on the last page of the planning pamphlet. Their tours should incorporate texts and at least three images. The teacher should sign off on their plans before giving them art supplies to create a pamphlet.  

Historical Context

The Chinatown envisioned by tourists in the late 19th century promised exoticism and adventure. They were not there to see the everyday life of the Chinese who lived there. For its residents, however, Chinatown was a home base, a safe place, a living community. The streets were full of familiar people, sounds, colors and smells. Male workers dominated the streets. Occasionally a wealthy merchant with his family might be glimpsed. Children playing outside were safeguarded by the community. In 1906, a devastating earthquake and fire destroyed San Francisco's old Chinatown.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2010.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Create a Walking Tour of San Francisco's Chinatown,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 4, 2023,

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