Chinese Historical Society of America – San Francisco, California - Atlas Obscura

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Chinese Historical Society of America

This museum in San Francisco's Chinatown is one of the oldest and largest archives of Chinese American history and culture. 

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This unique building in San Francisco’s Chinatown was built in the 1920s as a YWCA. It was designed by Julia Morgan, the architect behind Hearst Castle, and houses the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum.

Downstairs one can find small-scale scenes of San Francisco Chinatown in the 1940s. These are like miniature dioramas that were created by Frank Wong, who was raised in San Francisco and became a professional set designer. There is a high level of detail and precision involved in these “frames” of his memories of growing up in San Francisco; for example, a laundry, a home kitchen, a shoe stand, and a Chinese New Year celebration dinner setting. For miniature fans, this collection is obscure but a real treasure.

The museum is home to a permanent exhibit highlighting the life of Bruce Lee and, if timed right, there are docents available who lead tours. They share stories about Bruce’s life, his trials and tribulations, values, and how he inspired and empowered so many. One docent of note is Jeff Chinn, an avid fan, who offers more personal stories about Bruce Lee’s influence on him as a youth. Bruce Lee stood at just 5’7” and weighed 130 pounds, yet he possessed such great presence, power, and strength. He pioneered the use of mixed martial arts applying cross-training techniques from a variety of styles to build upon each style’s strengths and weaknesses to get a holistic result. 

And lastly, there is another room that hosts rotating exhibits. The current display is about the history of California’s Chinese American Women, from early immigration, labor, World War II, to today. It is a great historical summary that isn’t really covered in such detail in most schools.

Bruce Lee is famous as an actor and martial artist. But he was also a noteworthy humanitarian, philosopher, and teacher. To learn more about these other aspects of Bruce Lee, a visit to this museum is recommended.

Know Before You Go

Entry tickets are payable onsite or via their website. There are student and senior discounts. Highly recommend attending a docent tour. Don't forget to go downstairs to see continuing exhibits. Toilets are also located downstairs.


Make note of the architecture of the building; it was designed by Julia Morgan with Chinese motifs. Also in the neighborhood is the San Francisco Cable Car Museum. Dim sum and other luncheon locations are nearby.

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