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Chinatown's Groceries Thrive in San Francisco

San Francisco's Chinatown was a thriving commercial center for Chinese immigrants in California. By 1856, there were already thirty-three Chinese-owned groceries and general stores that sold a wide variety of goods and foodstuffs, mostly imported from China, including rice, dried mushrooms, tofu, fruits, and vegetables.

A Chinese-American Historian on Chinatown Groceries

By the late 1870s Chinatown's ability to serve immigrants had expanded enormously. The 131 grocery stores constituted the most important type of business listed in the 1878 directory. Numerous shops that featured certain specialty goods, such as medicine and fruit, also carried groceries, which were apparently money-making products.

...The richest individuals were found among the grocery/general-store owners and those recorded as merchants in the census returns....At a time when little support could be expected from white financial institutions, Chinese San Francisco's internal resources were extremely important for its economic development. Many immigrants relied on traditions and social relations formed in the Old World to pool capital in order to open small businesses....another source of Chinese San Francisco's economic strength came from the propertyless ordinary men and women (and sometimes boys or girls), who supported the ethnic economy with both labor and consumption (tourist spending did not become a major source of revenue until later).

....The importance of the businesses, however, should not be understood only in economic terms. In providing the immigrants with Chinese-style goods and services, the various economic institutions also played a culturally important role in helping them maintain their way of life.

A White Tourist Visits a Chinatown Grocery

As we enter a neighboring grocery store a stronger and more objectionable odor greets our olfactories. You could never guess what this store sells to the people of Chinatown. Somewhat costly articles, too! Hens’ eggs imbedded in mud, and really imported from China. Think of the delicious soup made from them! We are assured that this soup, made of eggs three or four months old, is a great delicacy. Here are also salt fish, sharks’ fins, dried oysters, seaweed, and various vegetables, all in a state of decomposition and exhaling odors anything but pleasant….We are told that these grocers import all their goods from China.

Source | Yong Chen, Chinese San Francisco, 1850-1943: A Trans-Pacific Community (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 64, 68-69; Charles M. Taylor, Vacation Days in Hawaii and Japan (Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs, 1898), 30-31.
Creator | Yong Chen; Charles M. Taylor
Item Type | Book (excerpt)
Cite This document | Yong Chen; Charles M. Taylor, “Chinatown's Groceries Thrive in San Francisco,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed November 28, 2023,

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