The Year of the Monkey is coming. He’s intellectual, creative and a curious prankster. His favorite activity is people watching, especially in Chinatown San Francisco.
Chinatown San Francisco was first established in 1848, but was subsequently leveled by the 1906 earthquake and fire which destroyed most of the city. Chinatown was quickly rebuilt to become the largest and most popular Chinatown in North America, as well as the most densely populated area of San Francisco, with more than 100,000 residents living in roughly 30 city blocks.
Beyond the gates at Stockton and Bush, the fading neon signs, chinoiserie street lights and architecture, and the busy restaurants and markets create a fascinating, foreign world unto itself. An inspiration for movies from The Maltese Falcon to Big Trouble in Little China, the neighborhood is also engagingly cinematic. To choose this week’s Listen Up selection, we turned to the exploding world of modern Chinese cinema and selected composer Lo Ta Yu’s Until the End of the World from the movie Red Dust (1990) directed by Ho Yum. We hope you enjoy this beautiful, melodic piece (performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra) on this virtual tour of Chinatown San Francisco. Xinshang.
Traveling an hour away from home to a place that is both familiar yet unexplored, we hope to be transported to an utterly other world. Then again, tourists head for San Francisco’s Chinatown in droves before moving on to Fishermen’s Wharf. Do we really want to join the crush?
Today there are no tourists. We pass people hurriedly walking along the streets and alleyways of Chinatown, heads down, balanced by bright plastic bags full of groceries. Some glance up at us with curiosity, then continue on their way. They converse in Chinese, we are silent – the silence of the other. Inside the boundaries of Chinatown, an old world exists of faded facades and signs on yellow brick buildings set next to freshly painted pagodas and buildings with sometimes graceful, sometimes outlandish architectural elements — all whose names we do not know. Row upon row, low level buildings line up Asian-deco next to ‘50’s streamline and everywhere there are fire escapes draped with clothes left out to dry. On the edge a glimpse of the Transamerica building or Big Al’s intrudes — a background reminder that we are in San Francisco. Along Grant Street the shops are stuffed with Buddhas and pandas, monstrous Chihuly-like chandeliers, plush Pokeman dolls and painted figurines, colorful kites and bamboo wind chimes — souvenirs for the tourists who aren’t touring on this chilly January morning. On Stockton Street, merchants are weighing fruits and vegetables and nuts and spices (we see many foods whose names and tastes we do not know) as the residents go about their day shopping and meeting friends for coffee in bakeries full of puff pastries and savory buns (whose names we do not know). Down the alleys, acupuncturists and fortune tellers, social clubs and temples prop their doors open and greet their neighbors. In this compact city within The City, we have slipped into a fascinating world where we are the outsiders and there is much to be learned.
A weekday in January — before the Chinese New Year celebrations (Lunar New Year is Feb 8th, ushering in the Year of the Monkey ) — is the perfect time to avoid the crush of tourists in Chinatown San Francisco. Without crowds it’s a pleasure to leisurely enjoy the architecture and signage, visit the shops stuffed with merchandise, and get a seat at a popular restaurant without standing in line. Besides, it’s easier to be transported to another world when it’s just you and the people who live there.
We started the morning searching for the famous Golden Gate Bakery, but we found the scissor gates drawn closed and they were on vacation. Reportedly, they have the best egg custard tarts, possibly in the world. Instead we joined a roomful of locals at Garden Bakery, and their egg custard tart (the very first we’ve ever tasted) had a toothsome shortbread crust and was creamy and eggy with just a hint of sweetness.
There are hundreds of restaurants to choose from – Szechuan, Hunan, Cantonese and Mandarin, old and new – but since this was our first lunch in Chinatown, we went to the classic House of Nanking serving Shanghai-style Chinese food on Kearny Street. Each dish we tried – the crispy onion tart, steamed pork dumplings, green beans, and cold sesame noodles – was deliciously addictive.
Walk up and down every street — make sure you don’t miss the courts, plazas or alleyways – look for the small moments, light play, and surprises like The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Ross Alley. Just three women, one machine, and the business serves up 20,000 warm, crunchy fortune cookies a day.
Check out the mounds of fresh produce, nuts, and spices on Stockton Street and see how many you can name. When I worked near NYC’s Chinatown I vowed to try everything I couldn’t identify at the produce stands. My plan was stopped in its tracks by Durian fruit, but I’d be tempted to try again if I lived in San Francisco. Enjoy watching the people elbowing each other and bartering – it’s grocery shopping taken to a competitive sport.
Don’t leave Chinatown without stopping for a signature Chinese mai tai at the Li Po Cocktail Lounge. Yes, it is a dive bar, but trust us: it’s exactly where you’ll want to be at the end of the day.
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