Yap Lai (入來): Come In!
When the Chinese arrived en masse in the US in the mid-1800s, they pioneered communities in large cities, where they secured employment. Today, New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Vancouver boast Chinatowns with classic dim sum haunts and incense-burning temples.
Of all the Chinatowns in North America, however, none is as old or dynamic as San Francisco’s. This one stands above the rest, steeped in history and saturated with tradition, food, art, and one-of-a-kind architecture. Bordered by the Financial District, North Beach, and Nob Hill, it rates among the top three most-frequented neighborhoods in the city, along with Union Square and Fisherman’s Wharf. For Chinese Americans, Chinatown represents a cultural rootstock; for travelers, a must-see icon.
“The best way to visit is to be open and not be afraid to ask questions,” says guide Linda Lee, owner of All About Chinatown tours. “When you look at something in a store, go ahead and ask, ‘What is that?’ Do not hesitate to inquire about what makes you curious.”
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Absorbing in one day all there is to know about Chinatown is like trying to sip water from an open fire hydrant. Take a deep breath and go slowly; don’t miss the treasures surrounding you among the twenty blocks and forty-three alleyways. Upon entering, it’s apparent that this is not quite America, not quite China. The Sino-architecture is a concoction of what American architects and engineers dreamed of in the early 1900s. And although Chinatown was designed to be an “Oriental” city, building materials came from regional sources, and construction methods were based on Western techniques. Since then, designers and artists have added Chinese motifs to blend in so that the eye cannot distinguish between old and new.
Although it appears ancient, the impressive Dragon Gate archway made its debut in 1970 after three Chinese Americans won a design competition. It is the only one in North America built according to Chinese gateway specifications, as it uses stone, not wood, from the base to the top. Close by, the red street lanterns on turquoise posts are the result of the Chinatown reconstruction after 1906. W. D’arcy Ryan, a prized illumination engineer, director of lighting at the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition, gets credit for the design and implementation of the Chinoiserie street lamps detailed with dangling bells and slithering dragons.
On a balcony on Grant Avenue, a line of Chinese stone warriors stands guard. They look as though they were pulled from the same archeological site as the famous terra cotta warriors of Xi’an, China. Yet these are silent new neighbors of circa 2015. Chinatown real estate maven Betty Louie commissioned these fellows from China, and they are made of lightweight fiberglass, not heavy stone.
In the Portsmouth Square plaza, a ten-foot-tall bronze Goddess of Democracy statue raises a torch celebrating freedom and independence. It has become quite the landing spot for pigeons these days. She is one of ten replicas cast after the Goddess of Democracy statue that students created in Beijing, China, during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest.
One thread is apparent in the Chinatown of the twenty-first century: Chinatown is on the cusp of a new era. Faithful relatives such as Anna Au (pictured above) help out at the family business. In this case, it is a Chinese antique store on Grant Avenue. The destination is merging the new with the old as shopkeepers and restaurateurs retire and entrepreneurs set up businesses. You will find trendy boutiques next to fading jewelry stores, ancient landmarks and contemporary murals, traditional Cantonese fare and Asian nouvelle cuisine.
The quintessential Chinatown day trip should start off with an overview of its history and culture. This is accomplished through visiting Chinatown museums and galleries. At the museum of the Chinese Historical Society of America, interactive exhibits cover Chinese immigration, early maps of Chinatown, and current issues facing Chinese Americans. The original architect behind this repurposed YWCA building was none other than the famous Julia Morgan, who designed Hearst Castle for newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst.
Next, located in the Hilton Hotel, the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco gives you a pulse on the creative minds of Asian American and overseas Chinese artists. And the one-room art gallery called 41 Ross curates themes often related to Chinatown. If you want to dive deep into this neighborhood, venture into the Chinatown Visitor’s Center on Kearny Street and book a tour.
As you wander Grant Avenue’s souvenir stores, you’ll find yourself stuck in a time warp. You recognize the same bamboo backscratcher found perched on your grandmother’s nightstand. That Chinatown Kite Shop where your dad purchased your first kite in the 1970s? Yes, it’s there after half a century. In curio shops, those rice paddy hats and faux-jade Buddhas seem so out of date, yet Chinatown wouldn’t be Chinatown without them.
Immerse yourself in the Chinatown lifestyle by eating where the locals eat and ordering what they order. The enclave is, and has always been, tantamount to one big food hall. Each bite tastes different than dishes in Asia, because certain produce is not grown overseas. Some classic entrees in Chinatown are probably not even on menus in Beijing or Shanghai.
In early Chinatown, hole-in-the-wall joints proliferated with peasant cooks whipping up home-style Cantonese meals. They invented chop suey and egg foo yung to cater to Western tastes. Restaurant owners later offered American and Chinese fare, so it was common for spaghetti and meatballs and wonton soup to be listed on the same menu.
Anyone who has been here will tell you that service can be, well, sketchy. Waitresses ask patrons to sit with strangers to make room for others. Waiters sometimes demand a higher tip after guests have paid the bill. In Cantonese culture, bluntness, not courtesy, is standard. After all, customer service has never been a Confucian value. Diners should be prepared not to get offended. The oldest eatery in Chinatown is tiny Sam Wo, built after the 1906 earthquake and notorious for Edsel Ford Fung, dubbed the world’s rudest waiter. He told customers they were fat or ugly. Other times, he forced them to take his place and serve meals to other guests. This waiter, who passed away in 1984, was so popular that tourists wanted him to be their server. Now that he is gone, the noodle shop posts photos and articles about Edsel on the walls.
Meanwhile, dim sum teahouses remain a staple, but the rolling carts carrying steamed savories and sweets are harder to find. However, at New Asia (which is no longer new) and City View (which has no view), workers veer carts between tables as customers work up the courage to try the black bean tripe and sautéed chicken feet, toenails and all.
Of late, younger chefs are bringing polished techniques from culinary school. The glamorous, four-story China Live and Michelin-starred Mr. Jiu’s are two players upping the ante in Chinese cuisine. Both opened after 2015 with high-end menus, innovative takes on Chinese flavors, and luxurious interiors. Kathy Fang (pictured holding the white dish above), who grew up helping at her parents’ Chinatown business, House of Nanking, started FANG restaurant near the financial district. Kathy represents the emerging guard of Chinese American chefs committed to incorporating local ingredients (think portabella mushrooms) into innovative dishes.
Restaurateurs from other regions of China, not just Guangdong, have expanded people’s palates with Hunan and Szechuan dishes. You can thank revered restaurateur Cecelia Chiang for that. The hundred-year-old matriarch of fine Chinese dining introduced pot stickers, tea-smoked duck, and minced squab in lettuce leaves to a world completely unfamiliar with these items in 1968. Dubbed the Julia Child of Chinese cooking, she opened the elegant Mandarin Restaurant in Ghirardelli Square, exposing patrons to northern Chinese flavors and entrees. In addition to Chinese fare, foodies who look hard enough can locate Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean cuisine mingled throughout Chinatown.
Aromatic bakeries on every street tout treats relying on recipes used for over a century. If you see no prices or labels, the best way to communicate is to point. Most popular are custard tarts, lotus bean cakes, and sesame balls. Asian desserts are generally less sugary than American ones, and use ingredients such as rice flour and various beans for filling.
Newer entrants to the snack scene include Dragon's Beard candy, handmade in only a couple of places in the US. In the window of Dragon Papa Desserts on Grant Avenue, owner Derek Tam labors to create the Dragon's Beard, an ancient sweet created for China royalty. In this ballet of the arms, he stretches a hockey puck of dark molasses into thousands of delicious, delicate white threads later mixed with chopped peanuts or other toppings. These strands form the dragon beard appearing on the customers’ chins upon consumption.
Since its inception, Chinatown has welcomed young and old, poor and rich, anonymous and famous. Kung fu legend Bruce Lee was born at the Chinese Hospital in 1940, and there’s a plaque in the lobby in his honor. John Lennon and Ringo Starr escaped for a late-night drink at the Ricksha nightclub during the kickoff of the Beatles’ American concerts in 1964.
Today, anyone can find a reason to come to Chinatown. First-timers learn to use chopsticks while regulars scan delis, searching for thick strips of char siu, barbecued pork. Next time you visit, poke around the alleyways. Read the fine print under the landmarks. Converse with a tea merchant. This community is eager to be relevant to a new generation. As it says in Chinese on the Dragon Gate arch, “All under heaven is for the good of the people.”