Asian San Francisco: Chinatown, Japantown & Little Manila
Published: April 2009
By Alan Brown
Wayne Wang, Amy Tan, and others lead an insider's tour through the Far East—in San Francisco
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.
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.
Tan, a San Francisco native, also has strong opinions when it comes to the city's Chinese-food scene. "For me, being Chinese means getting together with family and eating," she said when I first phoned her. She then proved her point by inviting me to dinner along with 12 family members and friends and two small dogs (which dozed in a carrier by her feet) at her favorite Shanghai-style restaurant, the Fountain Court (354 Clement St.; 415/668-1100), in the Richmond district.
As heaping platters of jellyfish, beef, chicken, and lobster spun by on the lazy susan, Tan's mother eyed me anxiously, admonishing her daughter to "make sure the foreigner is well fed." She needn't have worried. My chopsticks never rested while Tan described for me some of her favorite pursuits in her "chinese" hometown: watching tai chi practitioners in Washington Square Park; buying good-luck charms at Sam Bo Trading Co. (14 Ross Alley; 415/ 397-2998) - "You can spend anywhere from one dollar to a hundred" - and shopping for food and kitchenware at the Happy Supermarket (400 Clement St.; 415/221-3195).
Tan's final recommendation - for an offbeat, quintessential tour of Chinatown - was to follow the brass marching band that plays for Chinese funerals. "Anyone is welcome," she explained; "the more, the better. Try to go for a Saturday funeral, when all the locals are out grocery shopping and the streets are packed with tourists." Start at the Green Street Mortuary, and follow the band as it plays Christian hymns all through the neighborhood. The Chinese onlookers bow and doff their hats, and the tourists stand and gawk. (Chinese funerals are usually scheduled a week in advance; call the Green Street Mortuary, 649 Green St., 415/ 433-5692, for times.)
As second- and third-generation Chinese have moved out of Chinatown, the Richmond district has emerged as the city's "new Chinatown." Restaurant and shop signs in Chinese, Korean, Thai, and other Asian languages dot the landscape; in recent years, similar ones have begun to appear in the Sunset district as well. While these areas offer none of the touristy exoticism of Chinatown, they attract serious eaters with superb and informal restaurants. At one of them, the Happy Immortal (4401 Cabrillo St., at 45th Ave.; 415/386-7538), food writer Shirley Fong-Torres introduced me to the house specialty: a crisp, deboned chicken stuffed with sweet rice (to be ordered in advance). "Never ask a skinny Chinese where to eat," Shirley warned as she served me two helpings of the rice - the double portion's a Chinese custom, she explained, so that one doesn't seem stingy. But stinginess is not a problem at the Happy Immortal. After the restaurant cleared out, the staff sat down to their own dinner. When they saw Shirley and me eyeing their sauteed oysters, they graciously offered us each a serving on the house.
The Japanese first arrived in San Francisco in the mid-19th century, settling in Chinatown as well as south of Market Street (at that time not the fashionable area it is today). After the 1906 earthquake they headed out to the Western Addition to the area that became known as Japantown. There they stayed until they were forced to relocate to internment camps during World War II. Some returned after the war, but great numbers moved to the suburbs, diminishing the city's Japanese presence. Yet Japantown remains-- and that's where I headed to re-create for myself an entire "day in Japan."
At first glance there's something uninviting about Japantown, whose heart is the five-acre, fortresslike Japan Center, a collection of shops, restaurants, theaters, bookstores, and hotels. Unlike the real Japan-- known for its crowded streets-- Japantown can be eerily deserted, particularly on weekdays. I was tempted, for nostalgia's sake, to have lunch at the corner Denny's, since that chain restaurant is ubiquitous in Japan (there was one across the street from my Tokyo apartment). Instead I chose the most authentic Japanese meal in Japantown, at Maki (Kinokuniya Bldg., Japan Center, 1825 Post St.; 415/921-5215). Maki not only has good food, but it's a near-perfect facsimile of a Tokyo restaurant: the right size (walk-in closet with a small counter and six tiny tables); minimal decoration; and attractive and friendly women in aprons scurrying about, taking orders and pouring hot tea. My ten don lunch-- tempura on top of a huge bowl of rice, with pickles and miso soup-- tasted just like the real thing.
The national sport of Japan, as anyone who's been there can tell you, is not sumo but shopping. After lunch I decided to get some exercise. There are a dozen stroes in and around the Japan Center (a growing number of which are actually Korean-owned), and you can buy anything from a 19th-century woodblock print to a 20-pound bag of rice. The best shopping I found, whoever, was a few blocks east of Japantown at Kiku Imports (1420 Sutter Street; 415/929-8278.) This huge, handsome space is filled with Japanese furniture and antiques, all beautifully restored and so reasonably priced that Japanese tourists buy here and ship home. Kiku's specialty is Tansu chests, one of which now graces my home.
Returning to the Japan Center, I stopped for a quick cup of coffee at On the Bridge (1581 Webster St.; 415/922-7765), a snack shop that nonsensically advertises "Japanese-European cuisine." If you really want to know what young people are eating in Japan, order the curry rice, or spaghetti topped with natto (fermented soybeans), or, if you're very brave, the white-bread gratin - all as authentically Japanese as Hello Kitty and the Sony Walkman.
The weird juxtaposition of popular and traditional culture is what has always fascinated me about Japan. So, after visiting On the Bridge, some friends and I attended a tea ceremony at the Japanese American Association (1759 Sutter St.; 415/921-1782). With her open, handsome face, Mrs. Sekino, our tea teacher and hostess, was living testimony to the benefits of whisked green tea, since she looked and acted three decades younger than her 86 years. Sitting on tatami mats, we sipped tea, nibbled sweets, and chatted in Japanese and English as Mrs. Sekino seamlessly performed the detailed movements of the ceremony.
We emerged into the afternoon sunlight refreshed, and decided to unwind even further with a visit to the Kabuki Hot Spring (Japan Center, 1750 Geary Blvd.; 922-6000). In Japan, the bathhouse is one of the few places where people literally and figuratively let down their hair. Even though most Japanese now have baths at home, many still visit their neighborhood bathhouses for a relaxing soak and some convivial gossip. But inside the spic-and-span Kabuki Hot Spring, with its showers, cold and hot pools, sauna, and steam room, there were shh! signs everywhere, and the patrons (all Caucasian) were grimly silent. One naked man meditating in a full lotus pose looked just like one of those roly-poly dolls that bounce back when you knock them over, although I suspect he thought he looked like the Buddha. After my friends and I were twice "shushed" for talking, we washed quickly and left, sorely disappointed. How could they have gotten it so wrong?
Although I spent seven years in Japan avoiding karaoke, there is, I've learned, a time and a place for beer and bad singing. With this in mind, later that evening we strolled into Shinjuku (Japan Center, 1581 Webster St.; 415/ 922-2379), a karaoke bar next door to the restaurant Maki. The selection of both Japanese and English songs includes "Hey Jude," "Teenager in Love," and, of course, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" - all at a dollar a crack. If you're so inclined, a few tunes and a tall Sapporo beer make a great way to end a "day in Japan." Just stay away while I'm at the microphone.
"The reason it's so foggy in Daly City is that all the Filipinos are cooking rice," laughed Wilma Consul, repeating an oft-told local joke. We were heading south out of San Francisco through a dense fog bank and into the town that's home to the largest concentration of Filipinos outside Manila.
A quarter of Daly City's population is Filipino-American. Filipino and Asian shops and restaurants dominate a landscape of shopping centers, the biggest of which is the Serramonte Center, a huge mall that has become "Little Manila," the virtual village square for Filipino-Americans and immigrants. Filipino music drifted out of shops as Wilma and I walked around. At Manila Bay Cuisine and other fast-food outlets, employees served adobo and other Filipino dishes. A group of retired men sat in the mall's court and heatedly discussed local politics - local to the Philippines, that is.
"Everybody here is more impassioned about politics in Manila than about politics in San Francisco," Wilma told me as we headed back onto the highway. "They keep up with all the news on the twenty-four-hour Filipino TV channel. That's one reason why we still have a low profile on the city's cultural scene, even though the Filipino community here is thriving."
Wilma, who came to San Francisco from Manila at age 14, is a former editor of Filipinas magazine now working in radio. She had offered to take me dining and dancing at the Solita Club & Filipino Restaurant (120 Hazelwood Dr., South San Francisco; 415/952-8769), about a 10-minute drive south of downtown on Route 280. A terrific dancer, Wilma knows absolutely everyone at Solita, which is a hangar-size room crowded with long tables and adorned with Christmas lights. There's live music and dancing every night and free ballroom-dancing lessons on Thursdays. When we arrived, couples of all ages were gamely learning to cha-cha. The only other non-Filipinos I spotted were a bouncer the size of a Sherman tank and a middle-aged man drinking beer with his Filipino buddies. But trust me: any visitor will feel right at home.
"It's like a Filipino wedding," Wilma remarked as we squeezed in with a group of her friends feasting on garlic mussels, soft-shell-crab omelette, kare-kare (chunks of beef in a peanut sauce), noodles with shrimp and vegetables, and halo-halo, a wild, Technicolor parfait that's made up of (I'm relying on Wilma for this) ice cream, sweet beans, banana, jackfruit, yam, coconut, shaved ice, and evaporated milk.
At 9:45, the lights dimmed, the mirrored disco ball started to turn, and the band struck up "The Girl from Ipanema." And Wilma - well, she disappeared onto the dance floor, never to be seen again.
Was it folly to try to re-create Asia in San Francisco?Not at all. But as the week came to a close I finally understood that San Francisco is not a faux Asia but, instead, a new Asia. My friend Corey Tong - who is an architect and production designer, as well as co-director of the San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival - is a perfect symbol of this new Asia. Half Japanese and half Chinese, he comes from a family that has lived in Hawaii for generations.
Tong and I met for lunch at his favorite new Vietnamese restaurant, the Slanted Door (584 Valencia St.; 861-8032). As I perused the extensive wine, beer, and tea lists and eyed the fragrant dishes, such as caramelized shrimp and lemon-grass chicken, that flowed out of the kitchen, I listened to Tong tick off a list of places whose cultures he comes in contact with daily: "India, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Guam, Micronesia - everywhere." And I knew that while I hadn't returned to the Asia I knew, I was glimpsing - and this was even better, even more exciting - a new Asia, one I wanted to get to know.
By Ian Baldwin
Most of the city's hotels are located around Union Square. Chinatown is a short walk away, but you need to drive to the other Asian neighborhoods, so rent a car during your stay. And make restaurant reservations well in advance.
Asian Art Museum Golden Gate Park; 415/379-8801. The largest museum in the Western world devoted exclusively to Asian art. Some 12,000 artworks from more than 40 Asian countries.
Asian American Theater Company, 1840 Sutter St., Suite 207; 415/440-5545. Classical and contemporary works by APA playwrights.
Chinese Cultural Center Holiday Inn Hotel, 750 Kearny St., third floor; 415/986-1822. Lectures, exhibitions, performances, and workshops.
R&G Lounge Dinner for two $50.
Happy Immortal Dinner for two $35.
Maki Lunch for two $20; dinner $50.
On The Bridge Lunch for two $15.
Solita Club & Filipino Restaurant for two $30.
Slanted Door Lunch for two $20.
Kyoya Palace Hotel, 2 New Montgomery St.; 415/392-8600; bento lunch boxes for two $36, dinner $100. Tokyo chic, with the freshest sushi.
Straits Café, 3300 Geary Blvd.; 415/668-1783; dinner for two $35. A storefront restaurant transformed into a Singapore eatery, complete with a bargain "banana leaf" lunch. The inventive menu deviates from pure Singapore cuisine, but with very good results.
Harbor Village Restaurant, 4 Embarcadero Center; 415/781-8833; dim sum for two $35, dinner $70. Mammoth Hong Kong-style restaurant much praised for both its dim sum and its Cantonese cuisine.
Yank Sing, 427 Battery St.; 415/781-1111; dim sum for two $30. Clean and modern dim sum restaurant in the financial district. Some say it's the city's best.
Khan Toke Thai House, 5937 Geary Blvd., between 23rd and 24th Aves.; 415/668-6654; dinner for two $30. Warm and atmospheric, with candlelight, Thai motifs, traditionally costumed staff, and authentic, tasty dishes. Be prepared to remove your shoes and sit on cushions.
Japan Center, Post St. between Laguna and Fillmore Sts.
Eastwind Books, 1435 Stockton St.; 415/772-5877. Bilingual titles on China, Hong Kong, and Chinese America.
Kinokuniya Bookstore, Japan Center, 1581 Webster St.; 415/567-7625. Books and magazines on Japan and Asia in both English and Japanese.
Evelyn's Antique Chinese Furniture, 381 Hayes St.; 415/255-1815. Prices are high, but so is the quality.
Japonesque, 824 Montgomery St.; 415/391-8860 or 415/391-3530. Coolly chic gallery space with contemporary Japanese art and antiques.
Compass American Guide: San Francisco And The Bay Area, by Barry Parr (Fodor) - A subjective introduction to the city, from famous sights to less-known corners, with hundreds of color photos.
San Francisco Chinatown: A Walking Tour, by Shirley Fong-Torres (China Books & Periodicals) - A peek inside the nooks and crannies often overlooked by tourists, including fortune-cookie factories, historic Taoist temples, calligraphy studios, food markets, and herb shops. Includes recipes.
On The Web
Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco (http://www.infojapan.com/cgjsf) - This site contains a comprehensive events calendar that's a must-read for Japanophiles.
Chinese Culture Center San Francisco (http:// www.c-c-c.org) - A small, attractively designed site describing the center's exhibitions and events.
Filipino Express Online (http://www.filipinoexpress. com) - Stories from the leading Filipino-American newspaper. (Not limited to the Bay Area, but a good place to start cruising for Philippines-related sites around the world.)