By Lee Foster
Chinatown San Francisco retains its aura as an exotic place for a traveler to encounter. At first, this does not seem so. If you enter Chinatown at the fabled gate, Grant and Bush, the initial two blocks seem to be lined with memento shops that will never end, although some of the merchandise in jade, ivory, porcelain, and silk is special. At the point where red lanterns become the décor across the street, the scene changes to become quite authentic. By the time you come close to Grant and Broadway, and prepare to turn left to stroll back down Stockton, the full foreignness becomes apparent.
The foreignness expresses itself in the Chinese passion for and skill at food preservation by drying or keeping animals alive. All kinds of dried sea creatures and fungi, as well as herbs, are for sale. Large slug-like animals known as sea cucumbers, abalone, and scallops are dried and exhibited. And the prices are not low. Ginseng in open barrels may retail for $500-$1,000/pound. Many of the dried delicacies have prices in the $100-$500/pound range. The Fong Seng dried food store at 1024 Grant is typical. Live creature sales is the other unusual option. You can literally buy your chicken or pigeon live at Ming’s Poultry, 1136 Grant. Take it home, kill it, and eat it. Around the corner on Stockton, a few feet up Pacific, there is an elaborate fish shop known as Pacific Street Seafood, 1199-E Stockton, with live fish in aquarium-like containers. Choose your fish live and take it home for dinner. Look closely and you will also see turtles or maybe the feet of an alligator. Stockton has a half dozen such live fish shops and numerous produce stores.
You can also feast, mainly with Chinese fellow-diners, besides admiring the roast ducks in the window, at Yee’s Restaurant, 1131 Grant. The roast ducks are always patiently waiting there, as if exotic props replaced daily, just waiting to be photo ops. Enter and you will be seated at the next available table, sitting with whoever happens to show up. Roast meat are the specialty. Roast duck and pork would be good choices. Ask for the pork complete with crispy pig skin. Two meats and a plate of fried rice with shrimp, plus tea, command a modest price, about $20 for two people. Another style of food to consider in Chinatown is the dim sum (“touch of heaven”) restaurant, where you are served an endless parade of small and enticing taste treats.
Be courteous when walking these streets. The Chinese shopkeepers want to sell their goods. They don’t benefit from people taking photos, especially when travelers get in the way of their customers in the narrow spaces.
Medicinal herb shops are another exotic aspect of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Much thought and education has gone into the thousand-years-old practices in Chinese herbal medicine. The herb shops are revered places, where a prescription for an herbal medicine concoction can be filled. You will see the herbal pharmacist carefully weighing out the appropriate amounts. Often the herbs are then taken home and used in an infusion as a hot tea. Superior Trading Company at 837 Washington and Great China Herb Company at 857 Washington are two prominent herb shops. Some shopkeepers still use an abacus to tally up prices.
If you can time your visit to San Francisco to coincide with the February or March Chinese New Year Parade, you will experience a major San Francisco annual event. The exact date depends on the Chinese lunar calendar, with each year celebrating one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac group. This colorful and vigorous pageant involves numerous marching groups, including Chinese-speaking schools for non-Chinese students. The always showy dragons snake along menacingly in multi-person entourages. Largest of the dragons is a 268-foot creature known as the Golden Dragon, whose undulating body has perhaps a hundred men and women propping up the parts. The celebration starts during the day at a street fair on Grant Avenue in Chinatown, which is closed off between California and Columbus. In the evening the parade leaves from Chinatown and proceeds down Market, then west to Union Square. Expect the parade route to be packed for this event, which occurs rain or shine. February/March in San Francisco can mean rainy and chilly, so dress accordingly. The parade is a three-hour exhibit of Americana and may be telecast nationally and internationally. Chinese New Year is not a quiet event. It is said that the Chinese invented fireworks, and the reverberations of explosions in the concrete canyons of San Francisco each year seem to reinforce that historic fact.
Any time of the year, Chinatown is an intriguing place visit. This San Francisco community definitely needs to be experienced by walking it, rather than a drive-by. The compactness of the heart of Chinatown is evident. Looking at a map, the central core is only a 16-square block area, bounded by Stockton, Broadway, Kearney, and Bush. Walking up Grant to Broadway from the gate at Bush and then walking back down Stockton, parallel to Grant and a block west, is a good plan, as this write-up suggests. But walk also all the side streets to make many discoveries. The red lanterns decorating some streets are there because red is a universal color of good luck in much Chinese lore.
Many Chinese in San Francisco have now risen to an elite status. The mayor of San Francisco, as this is written, is a man of Chinese heritage. Arguably the most successful ethnic group in California to place its students in the prestigious University of California system are the Chinese, who have instilled discipline and a drive for excellence as ideals in their children.
The relative success of the Chinese in San Francisco and California, however, is recent. Chinese came to the Gold Rush, but when they struck it rich, they were often driven off their claims by the American and European miners. Thousands of Chinese came to California in the 1860’s and 1870’s to build the Central Pacific Railroad. Later, floods, drought, and overpopulation in China caused waves of migration. The Chinese suffered from a “Yellow Peril” bias against them, especially in tough economic times, when it was assumed they were taking the jobs.
To understand the full immigration picture, it is best to take the ferry from San Francisco to Tiburon, then the local ferry out to Angel Island, and walk over to the Immigration Station. Angel Island is now a bucolic State Park, and the Immigration Station is a poignant restoration of a facility that processed many of the Chinese and other Asian immigrants who came into the U.S. It was a kind of Ellis Island West, except for the lack of welcome. Many efforts were made to deport Chinese who had managed to survive the long sea crossing. Rigorous tests were set up to justify the societal desire to exclude Chinese.
Today, in Chinatown San Francisco, it is instructive to go in early morning to a small park on the east side of the enclave, known as Portsmouth Square. There you may observe Chinese people exercising, practicing their tai chi chuan routines, just as their comrades will be doing on this same morning on the walls of the ancient Chinese city of Xian, along the Silk Road in central China. San Francisco is in a special position to benefit from the era of mainland China prominence expected during the 21st century.
Chinatown San Francisco: If You Go
Details on the upcoming Chinese New Year and parade can be found at http://www.chineseparade.com.
The tortured story of Chinese immigration to the San Francisco region is best seen on Angel Island at the restored Immigration Station, http://www.aiisf.org.
(This article will appear in one of Lee Foster’s new books for Spring 2016, which will be The 100 Top San Francisco/Bay Area Travel Experiences and The 100 Top Northern California Travel Experiences (Beyond the San Francisco/Bay Area). These projects will appear as printed books, ebooks, websites, articles, photos, and videos.)