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Re-creating San Francisco's Chinatown block by block in Minecraft

The oldest Chinatown in North America was re-created in the video game by a group of students and recent grads to preserve the neighborhood's rich history.

"Yeah, there's supposed to be two murals here," 18-year-old Jacky Liu explains to me as he gives me a sneak peek tour of Chinatown in Minecraft. "But the main problem with both of these is there's always cars parked on each side, and I can't really take pictures of them. So that's one of the challenges that I had." 

Liu is being modest. He and many others, members of the Chinatown Community Development Center youth groups, spent months faithfully re-creating the San Francisco neighborhood in the world-building video game.  A lot of the re-creations were built from images found on Google Images and Google Maps, where crowded streets of Chinatown often obscure certain details these kids are trying to render; in a way, they're rebuilding the Chinatown of the recent past to keep its tourist aesthetic in the present.

There's no denying San Francisco's Chinatown has suffered during the pandemic. With a decline in tourism, many local restaurants and small businesses are struggling to stay afloat, leaving once bustling and busy streets quiet.

One of those businesses is giving tours of Chinatown, and that's where one of CCDC's youth programs' Chinatown Alleyway Tours comes in. Normally, walking tours of Chinatown would be offered at no cost (but donations are always welcome), with tourists and locals guided through the myriad alleyways to various spots to eat, shop and learn. But due to coronavirus restrictions, the tourism group has struggled to bring their neighborhood to life.


Empty streets of Chinatown

Mitchell Chang

The idea to use Minecraft came via a college graduation some 13 miles away at the University of California, Berkeley. Last May, a team of students built their university in Minecraft in order to hold their graduation ceremony virtually. This inspired kids at CCDC's youth group to build their youth center in Minecraft so that they could have their own graduation celebration for the high school seniors. The re-creation took a few weeks to complete, but the work prompted them to think even bigger.

To render San Francisco's Chinatown into Minecraft, a process that took many months, the staff recruited several alumni as well as the other youth groups within the CCDC to help. "We enlisted the college students who during the summer actually to have them build it," said Judy Kuang, the program manager for the CCDC youth group, "because we didn't want to tax our students, we wanted also to engage back our alumni first." That also meant bringing in an alum who is now an engineer to do the calculations for scaling the world.

As the world was being fleshed out, the tour itself went through some trial and error. One impediment was the learning curve of Minecraft itself. For 18-year-old Brandon Stites, operating in Minecraft was almost second nature, but for some of the people touring, it was a bit of a challenge.

"The first issue was some people didn't want to actually get on Minecraft," Stites said. "A lot of people didn't really know how to move or where they're looking or anything like that. So we resorted to talking about a specific location and then teleporting them to the next location and then talking about that location and teleporting them to the next location."

The students decided the screen-sharing route worked best by adding slides and a map so visitors could see where they were in relation to the real Chinatown to get historical context. "This just helps contextualize, as well as, like, give a visual when we're talking about something that isn't there in Minecraft," Stites said.


Chinatown Minecraft tour complete with map on the bottom left side of the screen

Chinatown Alleyway Tours

To celebrate Chinese Lunar New Year, the students recently gave a tour of Chinatown via Minecraft, following the same route they would in person, but this time completed with a flying dragon, an ox statue and some parade floats for good measure.


Side by side comparison of the Unity of Family mural on Wentworth Place in Chinatown, with the real life mural on the left and the Minecraft version on the right.

As I walked down Wentworth Place during the peek at the virtual world, my attention quickly turned to an ornate mural on one of the walls depicting the moon and a dragon.

"The cool thing about this is, it's a mural I helped build in real life," Stites said. "We built this in the summer of 2018. And it's in Minecraft now. It's pretty cool."

The team took the liberty of including details missing from the Lunar New Year festivities, including the addition of simulated merchants joining the celebration. "The whole Stockton Street would have red tents and then merchants bring out their wares to sell for the Lunar New Year," Liu said. "So we're re-creating that, even though it's not happening this year. We still put it out there."


Looking down Stockton Street in Chinatown, they have recreated the merchants who would normally be selling their wares during Chinese Lunar New Year.

Chinatown Alleyway Tours

Ultimately, there will be a time when in-person tours of Chinatown will return, but for now, Minecraft tours will continue. As for the future of the Minecraft tours, senior community organizer Lisa Yu says that decision would come down to a variety of factors, one of them being what the students want to do.

"It's a youth empowerment program," Yu said. "We want to be able to motivate the youth -- we want to be able to have the program be how the youth want it to run and what they think they want to do."

It's also a testament to the resilience and imagination of the youth programs within CCDC that have allowed not just students but alumni to continue the education of their community.