In San Francisco’s Chinatown, many tourists and even some Bay Area locals never make it past the bamboo backscratchers and paper lanterns in shops lining Grant Avenue.
What lies beneath this touristy guise is a neighborhood deeply ingrained with rich history and culture exhibited through its distinct cuisine, art and lifestyle.
“To get to the heart of Chinatown, you need to see it through the eyes of the people who have been growing up there most of their lives,” said Ellen Jeung, who works for the reference desk at San Francisco Public Library’s Chinatown branch.
From the leisurely feel of Portsmouth Square to the rustle and bustle outside supermarkets on Stockton Street, the best way to explore every corner of Chinatown is by foot.
Vibrant yellow streams of banners adorn most of Grant Avenue, signaling the mark of a new lunar year. Underneath one of these banners stood a line of customers waiting outside the doors of Yong Kee, a dim sum restaurant on Jackson Street.
“You haven’t had dim sum till you tried this place,” exhorted Wing Lim, a business marketing student at the University of San Francisco. “I come here at least twice a month.”
As I got served light portions of siu mai and an assortment of dumplings nestled inside a bamboo steamer, I realized the vastness of Chinatown’s untapped culture and cuisine. It can be daunting to venture through unfamiliar territory, given the numerous curious heads I saw peeping into stores and restaurants from tourists.
“It’s a big culture clash,” said Jeppe Mortensen, a tourist from Copenhagen, Denmark. “I’ve never seen a place quite like this.”
I advise tourists as well as locals to venture past the touristy facade of Chinatown’s southern entrance, which is home to its famous main gate. It’s not the locales that necessarily make Chinatown what it is; it’s the people.
Ray Fong, 63, said he grew up in Chinatown and has lived here ever since. He can be seen playing the erhu, a traditional Chinese two-string instrument, along Grant Avenue.
“I play here almost everyday,” Fong said.
For a more immersive experience, I also suggest stopping by Chinatown’s many produce and live markets that fill up Stockton Street—the main shopping area for its everyday people. Dozens of resident shoppers fill this street to buy fresh produce. Some even engaged in shouting matches over Chinese celery, which can make for an all-day attraction for incoming wanders like myself.
There are still stories from Chinatown I have yet to unearth. There will be more to come.