By Maya Chin
For my on-site observation, I took a walking tour of San Francisco Chinatown. The tour group is called Wok Wiz Chinatown Tours since the tours are on foot (walk) and are oriented around food (wok). Wok Wiz was created by Shirley Fong Torres, author of the books In The Chinese Kitchen, San Francisco Chinatown: A Walking Tour, Wok Wiz Chinese Cookbook, and The Woman Who Ate Chinatown.
My tour guide’s name was Lola Hom. She grew up in San Francisco Chinatown so she knew her stuff. We started at the Hilton Hotel in the San Francisco Financial, located on Kearny St. which happens to be right on the border of Chinatown. We introduced ourselves to the other tourists. There was a couple from Arizona who were shivering because they were wearing thin shirts. The women told us that she had seen the sunlight outside her hotel window and thought it would be warm out, unfortunately in San Francisco, you can never depend on that. Lola kindly lent her a scarf.
We left the hotel an proceeded to walk across the street, entering Chinatown. We headed up Clay St. and stopped in front of a small shop. The window display was made up of Chinese red envelopes called lai see or hong bao. They had various pictures and words in gold. Behind us, across the street, we could hear and see little kids playing on a play structure and the faint sound of Chinese pop music. Lola told us about the lisee. They are handed out at various occasions, including Chinese New Year and Red Egg and Ginger parties. They are used because Chinese don’t like to hand out “naked” money. We followed Lola inside because she told us she needs to restock her red envelope supply. Inside, we saw red lanterns hanging from the ceiling, the shelves were covered with Chinese greeting cards, and crates were full of red envelopes. The sign above the closest crate said, “Lucky Red Envelope $1.20 each.” Lola made her purchase and we headed back out into the chilly air. Then we peeked in the windows of the store next door, a wedding dress shop. The window had a pink chong-sam (wedding dress) in it and a huge 50% off sign. Lola told us about some of the wedding traditions she had to perform.
We crossed the street and entered the small park called Portsmouth Square Plaza. To the left were restrooms and to the right was the playground. In front of us, a few stands were set up selling various things. There was also a table set up with speakers playing Chinese music. When we were standing in front of it, they turned the speakers up so loud that we had to move away.
“They did that on purpose!” Lola laughed. We all laughed along with her, she was pretty funny. From the park we could see the Transamerica Pyramid building towering high up in the sky. Lola told us that a lot of the Chinese in Chinatown live in tiny one room apartments called SROs. Since these rooms can barely contain the bed and stove they have, the tenants do not have any living room or dining room, so they go to the park to sit, read, play, and socialize. This has earned the park the name “Chinatown’s Living Room.” If you look on the benches you would see all the old timers reading their Chinese newspapers or talking. Lola also gave us a small history lesson on the Gold Rush and Chinese immigration.
We continued our tour on Washington St. and stopped across the street from the Bank of Canton. Lola explained that the bank use to be a telephone exchange, the first Chinese telephone exchange to be exact. In 1949 it was closed after rotary-dial was invented, but by 1960, the Bank of Canton had bought and restored the building. Lola showed us her father’s 1942 directory.
Next we headed to Grant Ave. which is known for its beautiful balconies and store fronts. Red lanterns hung from strings across the street from window to window. Lola pointed out a little restaurant across the street called Sam Wo Restraunt. It is about one hundred years old. The kitchen is on the first floor and you sit on the second and third floor. They use a dumbwaiter to transport the food between floors. Lola showed us a shop with roast ducks and pigs hanging in the window. These restaurants are very common in Chinatown, you can find one on almost every block.
We turned into an alleyway called Ross Alley, it’s one of the oldest alleys in Chinatown. Unlike the stereotypical, creepy alleys in the rest of San Francisco, this alley, like many others in Chinatown, was a mini street bustling with people. It had little stores and factories, even a barber. Above our heads, we could see clothing waving in the wind on clotheslines, a typical sight in there. We admired the pretty murals on the walls. A woman Lola knows stopped to converse with her in Cantonese. We stopped in a grocery store that is well known because they make there own tofu. Lola bought some noodles and snow peas. Next, we stepped inside a fortune cookie factory. We watched the workers take the flattened dough and fold it into the classic fortune cookie shape. We got to eat some samples.
Outside, about a door down from the fortune cookie place was a tiny barber shop. Sitting on a chair in the doorway was an old man holding a tall, stringed instrument. “An erhu,” he explained to us. His name was Jun Yu, and apparently he is quite a celebrity in San Francisco Chinatown. In the movie Pursuit of Happiness, Jun is seen playing his erhu (Chinese violin) in the streets of San Francisco. He had a sign posted next to his head reading “Erhu, movie: “Pursuit of Happiness,” song: “The Moon Means My Heart.” He played us the traditional Chinese song. I realized that he had hooked up his erhu to an amplifier. All day, between cutting hair, Jun plays his erhu to tourists venturing down Ross Alley.
We came out of the alley, squinting in the bright sunlight. We were on Jackson St. now. Lola gave us some recommendations for good dim sum. We saw extravagant paper items that were burned for the deceased family members so that in the after life they would have some entertainment and essentials to be happy in the after life. We went to some of the best grocery stores in Chinatown and got to watch the busy shoppers make their purchases. Lola showed us some Chinese vegetables. We also visited a seafood store that sold live fish, shrimp, crabs, etc. We arrived in front of a decorative cement building with a pagoda like gate. Lola tells us that these are the apartment buildings that she grew up in.