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Asian San Francisco: Chinatown, Japantown & Little Manila

It was in San Francisco, where I moved after college, that I got my first taste - literally - of Asia: sushi, dim sum, Vietnamese chao gio, crisp Philippine lumpia. I acquired a taste for Ozu films and raku tea bowls as well. Familiarity became propensity: I moved to Tokyo and stayed for seven years. Recently returned to America, I decided to pay a visit to my "first Asia" to see how San Francisco now measures up to the real thing.

Chinatown

After a week's stay, I'd say it measures up favorably - particularly if one has an appetite not just for tea-smoked duck but for irony as well: for a Chinatown contrived by Caucasian architects; for fortune cookies, which were invented in Golden Gate Park's Japanese Tea Garden. Sometimes this confluence of cultures is amusingly dislocating. Waking up in my hotel room one morning, I switched on the TV to see a young Sean Connery at a Tokyo sumo tournament, next to a sexy Japanese woman who turned to him and said, "Welcome to Japan, Mr. Bond." I channel-surfed past a Philippine soap opera in Tagalog to a local news show covering animal-rights activists protesting the treatment of frogs, ducks, and fish in Chinatown's markets.

"You're infringing on our cultural traditions," countered one Chinese shopkeeper. "Get a life. It's food!" shouted another (more to the point, I thought).

Of course the most satisfying irony here is that San Francisco, the historical backdrop for shameful episodes of anti-Asian racism, has now become the world's most Asian city outside Asia - and an irrefutable argument for immigration. Asians and APA's (Asian Pacific Americans, to be of-the-moment politically correct) make up almost a third of the City by the Bay's population of 724,000 and are a vital presence in the cultural and political landscape. The chief of police is Chinese-American; when President Clinton swung through town during my visit he shrewdly posed for photographs flanked by two APA city supervisors, then sampled a moon cake at Chinatown's Eastern Bakery, on Grant Avenue. If he'd had enough time he might also have attended a Thai dance performance, visited the Tenderloin's Vietnamese community, had a traditional cheongsam dress made for Hillary at Hung Chong Co., on Clay Street, or taken a taiko drumming lesson - discovering in the process that San Francisco is now as close to the Asian mainland psychologically and culturally as Hong Kong is geographically. Indeed, there are so many "asias" in San Francisco that to try to explore them all in seven days would be madness. So on this trip I visited only China, Japan, and the Philippines, with some notable residents serving as my guides.

The Chinese have played a significant historical role in San Francisco ever since the gold rush and the building of the Central Pacific Railroad (for which they received scant credit). And Chinatown remains the symbolic home of the city's "Celestials," as they were once called. A warren of tenements, opium and gambling dens, laundries, sweatshops, and brothels (and crisscrossed, it was rumored, by secret tunnels), the original Chinatown was flattened in the 1906 earthquake, then threatened by the city with relocation - only to be saved by the Caucasian architects who redesigned it in a faux Chinese style as a tourist attraction.

Today, its roughly 20 square blocks embrace all the elements of a Hong Kong or a Taipei: dense crowds, a babel of languages (including Cantonese, Mandarin, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Burmese), pungent smells, and enticing displays of barbecued duck, dried squid, shiny eggplants, ripe mangoes, and clusters of lychees - particularly on Stockton Street, where most of the food markets are located. When you tire of all the street activity, you can duck into Imperial Tea Court (1411 Powell St.; 415/788-6080) for a bracing pot of oolong tea; check out the rice cookers, chopsticks, and bamboo steamers at Ginn Wall Co. (1016 Grant Ave.; 415/982-6307) and the Wok Shop (718 Grant Ave.; 415/989-3797); or have your incense-tinged fortune told at Norras Buddhist Temple (109 Waverly Place, third floor; 415/362-1993).

Or you can eat. Chinatown is a suburb of Hong Kong, cuisine-wise, with a host of good restaurants. The most authentic, at least according to film director Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing, Eat a Bowl of Tea, The Joy Luck Club), is the always packed R&G Lounge (631 Kearny St.; 415/982-7877), where he and his wife, Cora, a former film actress, took me for dinner during my stay.

The three of us sat at a table for eight; like most restaurants that cater to a Chinese clientele, the R&G has few small tables. Outside the main dining room, animated families and groups of 10, 12, and more waited to be seated. Cora eschewed the menu and conferred with the maitre d' in Cantonese. "Chinese food is not about what's on the menu," Wayne advised "When I call to book a table, I ask what's fresh and then reserve it, because they run out fast." I understood why as soon as our food started to arrive: succulent Peking duck; spinach spiked with the intense flavor of fermented and salted eggs; a whole steamed fish.

Wayne and I drank tea, but Cora sipped only hot water. "I've learned from drinking lots of bad tea. Now I drink tea only at home." Her advice?"Smell it before you buy it. My favorites are Jade Fire and Jasmine Pearls. And Tikuanyin tea - it smells just like Chanel No. 19."

Both Wang and his wife emigrated from Hong Kong - he as a teenager, she later. Through his films Wang has explored with tender humor the tensions and traditions of Chinese-American life, particularly in his adopted city. But it was his most successful film, The Joy Luck Club, adapted from Amy Tan's celebrated first novel of the same title, that really put San Francisco's Chinese community on the international map.

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