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Asian San Francisco: Chinatown, Japantown & Little Manila

Little Manila

"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.

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