Chinatown and the Empress of Heaven

A Tour of San Francisco Chinatown and the Tin How Temple…


 

The Chinese immigrants that built the San Francisco Chinatown wanted to bring their home with them. The goal was to create a city within a city. They had their own businesses, newspapers, governing institutions, commerce centers, and religious spaces. While embracing America and opportunities for fortune, they kept their culture and community. This is why Chinatown is such a culturally rich landscape and beloved community for locals and tourist alike. A perfect example of the rich traditions transposed to America is the Tin How Buddhist Temple.

 

The Chinese in San Francisco

Many Chinese migrated to California for work and fortune hunting. They called California the Gold Mountain. Struggling through hardships and a hostile new homeland, they sought to create a space for themselves in San Francisco. Rising out of the Portsmouth Plaza, in between Clay and Kearny Streets​, Chinatown became a source of pride and sanctuary for many Chinese.

Roaming through the Grant Street, one is overwhelmed with trinkets and t-shirts. With festive lights and decorated buildings, this is the Chinatown of travel blogs and postcards. The variety of Chinese restaurants, offering every conceivable dish and cuisine from the multitude of provinces in China, makes it conceivable to taste the whole of China by surveying the various eateries throughout the area. It’s been said that you can name a regional Chinese cooking, and there’s a restaurant in Chinatown to serve it up.

Meanwhile one block away on Stockton Street, the teaming sidewalk is bursting with local resident Chinese, from both Chinatown and San Francisco, bustling through the various fresh fishmongers and grocers. Only by entering into one of the many stores can you be exposed a variety of recognizable and equally unrecognizable produce, along with a myriad choice of rare and exotic spices and dried produce. Just the smell of this strip of Stockton Street is enough to create a unique experience of Chinatown.

 

The House of Mazu

There are the many temple in Chinatown. There is the Kong Chow Temple, which was founded in 1857. One can visit the green, red and gold altars that dedicated to Guan Gong and pay your respects. There is the Norras Temple, the oldest Buddhist Temple in Chinatown, which has an altar made of wood from China and features small chariot markings of Tibetan Buddhism. There is also the Old St. Mary’s Cathedral off of Grant Street, which was originally built with granite from China. There is also the First Chinese Baptist Church, which was organized in 1880.

The crown jewel of these religious sanctuaries is the Tin How Temple, which is a Taoist temple dedicated to the goddess Mazu. It was founded in 1852 by the Cantonese Clan Association in San Francisco and is the oldest Taoist Temple in Chinatown. The temple was dedicated to Mazu in gratitude for her many blessings​ to the Chinese migrants, who endured ocean storms and shipborne disease to make the perilous journey to the United State. Mazu was a source of hope and strength for many of these Chinese on their odyssey.

Mazu, whose formal title is Tin How (meaning Empress of Heaven in Cantonese),  is one of the most popular and respected deities in China. She is worshiped by both commoners and the imperial courts since the Song dynasty. She has been honored with roughly 36 imperial titles for over 700 years.

Mazu was believed to be born in 960 CE in Southern China. She supposedly had knowledge of medicine and healing, along with being able to predict the weather and foretell the future. Respected and loved in her community, she was believed to have saved many seafaring travelers. A small shrine was built after her death that led to many reports of her appearance. It is said that her appearances, sometimes holding a lantern or a ball of red light, occurs to guide ships in danger during harsh storms at sea.

 

The Temple on the Third Floor

Inside the temple, which is on the third floor of the 125 Waverly Place, Mazu sits in the central shrine, her two assistants by her side, with rows of lanterns above her. There is a table in front of the shrine with offerings and ritual items that were donated by devotees over 100 years ago. Holding court around her are a series of shrines dedicated to many other deities including Guan Gong, Wah To, and Lady Golden Flower.

As custom for many devotees to the temple who seek advice and inspiration, a devotee can shake a container by the shrine filled with divinity sticks until one drops out. The sticks have numbers and the devotee can exchange their fallen divinity stick for a slip of paper with the same number, which will offer an insight that might provide help for the devotee’s troubles.

The temple isn’t among the more popular stops for many non-Chinese tourist to Chinatown but is worth visiting. The temple is on 125 Waverly Place, which is a side street between Washington and Clay Street. It’s just one block uphill from Stockton Street. To reach the temple on the third floor, you use the stairs.  There are plenty of restaurants close by and the trip is an excellent opportunity to experience a bit of Chinese spiritual life and enjoy the amazing Chinatown cuisine.

Want to Visit? Here is a map to get you started:

 

Further Reading

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