When I came up for the name for this blog, I wasn’t sure if anyone would get the reference to PJ Harvey’s 2002 LP, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. I wanted my blog to capture the same motley of invigorating emotions that underpinned that album. I wanted it to be exciting. I wanted it to be bold. And, of course, I wanted to tell stories—the kind of stories that provide unique perspectives of this ethnic enclave.
And for the most part, I think I was successful in shedding light on Chinatown and its plentiful residents. But it wasn’t a cake walk I assure you, especially with the impeding language barrier I faced. My friends would comment why I even chose to report on Chinatown, since I can’t even speak an inkling of the language. I’d respond with a curt “Well, I like the food!”
It wasn’t until I wrote my piece about Chinatown’s Alleyway Tours did I realize that beneath Chinatown’s touristy exterior—filled with toy snakes and bamboo backscratchers galore—there’s this enclave brimming with momentous stories about the neighborhood’s history, as well as the people who grew up there.
After taking these crash courses of Chinatown history during the alleyway and ghost tours, I became more involved with the sociopolitical climate of the neighborhood. I then took on my biggest assignment yet: covering the Chinese-American communty’s furor over the recently introduced bill that would make it unlawful to possess, sell and distribute shark fin.
By talking to Chinatown activists and leaders, as well as prominent political figures in the Bay Area, including Senator Leland Yee and Assemblymember Paul Fong, I’ve gained a broader perspective of the neighborhood as a close-knit community as well as their cultural beliefs.
This blog served a greater purpose than simply fulfilling a requirement for my reporting course. It served as a sort of conduit that conveyed Chinatown’s culture and history through personal vignettes. I wanted to create each story from a very human perspective.
These stories that you’ve read don’t even scratch the surface of Chinatown’s mystifying history. It’s as vast and mysterious as the sea. Sure, these are stories from Chinatown, but I’m still working on the “stories from the sea” part.
As a server came up to Fei Yi Long’s table with a cluster of small white bowls carefully portioned with shark fin soup, she was the only one at the table of family members who politely declined. Her aunties and uncles would incessantly say that she’s too much of a hippie, Fei Yi said.
“My family prides itself in serving the soup at banquets,” said Fei Yi. “If it weren’t for my mom’s persistence, I wouldn’t have had it served at my wedding.”
It’s apparent that shark fin soup has a whiff of controversy around it that highlights this generational divide between the younger eco-friendly generation and the more traditionally bound older generation.
Fei Yi, a 25-year-old nursing major at San Francisco State University, said that Chinese culture needs to adapt to the changing environment, especially with the decimated shark population. Her mother, Huayi, couldn’t disagree with her more.
“The soup isn’t just a soup,” Huayi said. “It’s the embodiment of these prized Chinese notions of hospitality, generosity and, of course, saving face.”
Fei Yi believes that the proposed ban on shark fin is an opportunity for the older Chinese community to become more eco-conscious and not be ashamed to lose face in becoming so.
“My mom’s all about pride and prestige, and shark fin soup is all about that,” Fei Yi said. “I explain the importance of the ecosystem to her and how it outweighs the mystical properties of one soup dish. But I’m like her, stubborn and all.”
Though Fei Yi was weaned on shark fin soup that was cooked by her mother for special occasions, she ate it strictly as a customary ritual. After she discovered the soup’s impact on the ecosystem, she stopped eating the soup altogether. Shark fin soup serves as nothing more than a shallow means to boost one’s self-worth, she said.
“We’re really only putting a $100 price tag on our pride when we serve the soup,” she said. “That sure doesn’t justify the millions of sharks dying slow, painful deaths.”
At her daughter’s wedding reception, Huayi Long looked down woefully at her bowl of gelatinous soup filled with shredded chicken, scallions and ginger. She steadily lifted her wonton spoon and gently scooped up sinewy strands of cooked shark fin. Even coming from the emotional high of her daughter’s wedding ceremony, she felt sorrow concentrated in that one bowl of soup. This may be the last time Long may ever have shark fin soup, a Chinese tradition that’s been practiced by her family for almost a century.
“Without shark’s fin, there’s no celebration,” said Long, 53. “It exposes your lack of self-worth, especially financially.”
A bill recently introduced in California Legislature has angered many of those including Long in the Chinese community who grew up eating shark fin soup as a cultural tradition.
Introduced by Assemblymen Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, and Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, AB 376 would ban the sale, distribution and possession of shark fin and take it off the market. The bill is a response to the 73 million sharks that were killed last year for their fins, said Fong.
“Once the sharks die, it affects the whole ocean ecosystem,” said Fong. “It’s like a house of cards. Once the top food predator goes, the other fish in the ocean will be off balance.”
Supporters of the bill say that the increasing popularity of shark fin soup within the expanding Chinese-American middle class is the major factor contributing to the decline of the shark population, as well as to the practice of shark finning, a process that involves cutting off the dorsal and tail fins of living sharks.
Since it’s much less lucrative than fins, the rest of the body is then tossed back into the bottom of the sea where the definned sharks starve to death, according to shark biologist Victoria Vasquez, who is a director of the conservationist group SeaStewards. Although federal law prohibits sharks from coming into U.S. ports without their fins attached, a loophole permits solely importing fins. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of fins are coming through the San Francisco port, Vasquez said.
“Sharks are arguably the most important fish in the ocean,” said Vasquez. “Without them, the marine ecosystem would collapse.”
A similar law was passed in Hawaii last year that seeks to prohibit shark finning. Penalties for the possession of shark fin are severe, with fines ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 for a first offense. Last week, a similar bill was passed in the Washington State Senate and the Oregon House. Guam has also proposed bills that would ban shark fin.
But the proposed ban, even with the support from chefs and activists of the Asian Pacific Ocean Harmony Alliance, is experiencing backlash from some leaders of the Chinese-American community who argue that it’s a cultural assault on the Chinese cuisine.
Senator Leland Yee, who is running for mayor of San Francisco, argues that the bill is an “attack on Asian culture.”
“Shark fin soup has been a part of the Chinese culture for thousands of years,” said Yee. “This is another example of a long line of culturally insensitive acts toward the Asian-American community.”
Some restaurateurs from leading Chinatown restaurants aren’t willing to stop serving shark fin due to the potential loss of restaurant profits. Jason Kuang, the general manager of Four Seas Restaurant, said that taking shark fin off the menu would jeopardize the restaurant, especially since it’s one of the more popular venues in Chinatown for Chinese banquets and ceremonies.
“In my current economic situation, I have no choice but to serve it,” Kuang said. “It’s a very important dish for banquets.”
Anna Yee, co-director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, said that she condemns the practice of shark finning and encourages people to protect the environment, but believes that the bill “demonizes” Asian culture.
“A thousand years ago, we already knew how to utilize all parts of the shark,” Yee said. “Shark finning—cutting off the fins and dumping the bodies back into the ocean—is not a part of Chinese culture. This is not the way to appreciate food.”
Michael Kwong, a local seafood processor whose family has been in the seafood business since 1905, said that sharks aren’t even directly targeted by fishermen.
“Sharks aren’t targeted; they’re usually a bycatch. But when they do catch a shark, they’re going to use it,” said Kwong. “They’ll use the entire carcass.”
Chefs and leaders of the Asian Pacific Ocean Harmony Alliance (APOHA), an organization in support of the ban, represent the Asian-American community that wants to save the rapidly declining shark population. APOHA member Judy Ki, who is a retired science teacher, said that she’s happy she stopped eating shark fin soup to help save the shark population.
“I don’t think this is taking away our culture or heritage. This is an opportunity for our culture to adapt to the changing environment,” Ki said. “The issue is strictly condemning the finning, not our culture.”
Every restaurant-goer has had their fair share of inadequate dining experiences whether it be from a high-end place or a fast-food joint. But many tourists and even some locals notice that Chinatown restaurants don’t exactly place customer service as top priority.
Perhaps, we’re holding these Chinese restaurants to the American standard of dining where the customer is always right. Or maybe we’re just not used to Chinese hospitality in restaurants. Nevertheless, many foodies like myself end up asking for the check a little too early.
“I get a little scared when I walk into a restaurant in Chinatown,” said Bay Area local Yuki Kokoro. “The servers tend to be short-tempered. They will quickly come and take your order, bring your food and never speak to you again.”
In particular, many locals rave about the Sam Wo Restaurant located between Grant Avenue and Waverly Place. This restaurant has gained some notoriety for serving its customers with “brutal” Chinese hospitality, said Cynthia Yee, who is one of many Chinatown personalities. The restaurant was also featured on Conan O’Brian.
“This place is where you go if you want to experience real Chinese hospitality,” said Yee. “You’re in and your out.”
Some locals believe that it is the culture clash of Eastern and Western restaurant service that we’re not realizing here.
“Many of my non-Chinese friends always ask me why Chinese waiters are so rude,” said Kiki Lim, a 66-year-old Chinatown resident. “I say ‘they’re rude to me, too!’. The servers have this reasoning that they’re too good for their jobs. That explains their curt attitude.”
Students last week had the opportunity to connect with recently displaced workers from Chinatown’s declining garment industry.
In partnership with the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), SF State students from Professor Russell Jeung’s Chinese-American Personality class hosted the CPA event to raise funds for these displaced workers of the Support Training Employment Program (STEP). Students fluent in Chinese also conducted surveys for the STEP program to follow up how their participants have been doing financially in the past two years.
“My class holds this event annually,” said Jeung. “Each time brings different results. But this time was a definite success.”
Through selling raffle tickets and conducting surveys sponsored by STEP, the students were able to raise far more than their goal of $1000. They raised a grand total of $1360 for future CPA events.
Some students felt a stronger connection with the Chinatown community after chatting with these workers who have been in the work force for 20 years on average. Most of the workers supported families and had children to look after.
“It felt great talking with these STEP participants,” said Ellison Hu, an Asian-American studies major at SF State. “By getting to know more about the lives of these displaced workers, I now have this personal obligation to reach out to the community.”
Hu said that he wasn’t sure what to do as a career with his Asian-American studies major. But after working the event, he now wants to help his community and reach out to them.
“I didn’t realize how many Chinatown residents live off below minimum wage and how many live in jam-packed SROs,” said Hu. “I feel a lot more invigorated to help out the community in this regard.”
Adorned in a vibrant pink kimono and a massive frizzy neon purple wig, Fortune Kookie has been putting smiles on people’s faces, performing and entertaining children and adults for nearly 12 years.
Before the creation of her Fortune Kookie persona, Chinatown local and personality Korene Tom, 52, started developing her own characters and businesses after she laid off from her administrative assistant job during the dot-com boom at the turn of the century.
With the help from friends like long-time partner Dale Chung, Tom became immersed in the clown world, the balloon world and, of course, the entrainment world. Through their help, Tom learned about the ins and outs of the performing industry without attending clown school.
“I’m one of those ‘unedumacated’ clowns,” Tom said. “I never went to clown school or clown college.”
Tom said that she wanted to have a clown character that represented and be a distinct role model for the Asian community. This inspiration spawned her Fortune Kookie persona.
“She’s considered a glam clown. It’s very eye-catching because no one has that look,” Tom said. “It’s a little bit more of a quasi-clown anime type of deal.”
Tom has over 15 characters she plays, which creates marketability for her business, she said. Tom can play characters that range from Ms. Claus and a snow princess to Texy the Cowgirl and rainbow girl.
“Each character comes from a little piece of myself,” Tom said. “Once I start putting the makeup on, I’m a whole different person. For some reason, my persona changes. It’s in the making.”
For her performances, Tom says she draws inspiration from the slapstick humor she’d watch as a child from the The Three Stooges and I Love Lucy. Tom has performed in many local festivals including the Moon Festival, the Union Street Festival, and the Cherry Blossom Festival. She is scheduled to perform at the Asian Heritage Festival on May 21.
Tom says that before the dot-com boom, she had never expected to become a performer. Now, she can’t think of anything else she’d rather do.
“I love being able to have a craft that I could take with me and share wherever I am. I really enjoy seeing the smiles on people’s faces. I just like seeing people happy.”
I’ve provided a list of all San Francisco Chinatown restaurants that sell shark fin. I’ve listed each restaurant’s shark fin dishes with their corresponding prices. I’ve also listed their most recent health inspection rating, which is determined by their marker’s color.
Health inspection scores are out of 100.