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The Colorful Journey of Go in San Francisco: From Early Origins to the Japan Center Mall

Go in San Francisco has a long and colorful history, stretching back to the wave of Asian immigration in the 19th century after the gold rush. The game was played informally until the 1920’s when two small clubs were formed in San Francisco. Then in 1931, the two smaller clubs merged to form the San Francisco Go Club. This new club rented space at 1881 Bush St. in what was originally a Jewish synagogue, Congregation Ohabai Shalom, and would later become the Soto Zen Mission of the Sokoji Buddhist Church. The club thrived, and in 1936 was made the first overseas  branch of the Japanese Go Association (Nihon Ki-in). 

With the outbreak of World War II, most of the club’s Japanese members were “relocated” to camps in the western desert. The club closed, and the building was used as a homeless shelter by the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church. With little else to do in the camps many of our Japanese members played Go, and their skill improved significantly. After the war they were allowed to return, and in 1947 moved with the Zen Temple back into the old building.

The club flourished, especially in the 70’s when it became a gathering place not only for Japanese seniors, but young “flower children” spilling over from San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury scene. In the early 80’s when the Soto Zen Mission left, the club moved from it’s small downstairs room to the large high ceilinged room upstairs. The members put in a lot of work painting and making repairs. On any given day from noon to 9 pm, through thick cigarette smoke, you could see long tables covered with dozens of Go boards, and Japanese octogenarians playing intently with young hippies.

In 1994 the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, our landlord, revealed plans to renovate the building, and the club had to find a new home. Since then the club spent about five years on Balboa St. in the outer Richmond district, another fifteen years on Anza St. in the inner Richmond district, then four years renting a room from the Nichiren Hokke Buddhist Church at 2016 Pine St. The club was closed due to the Covid lockdowns for two years, and finally found our current wonderful space in the Japan Center Mall in January, 2022.

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