As I wrote in Part 1, I took the opportunity of having a week off between jobs to do some exploring and signed up with Wok Wiz Chinatown Walking Tour to check out this special part of San Francisco. In the last post, I shared some of the spots I visited and a little bit of the history surrounding this important part of the city.
The influence of the Chinese culture on San Francisco is undeniable and the past and present are inseparably woven together in a way that is still visible today. It began when 30,000 Chinese immigrants came to San Francisco during the gold rush, a wave of immigration that lasted for many years. Even during the Chinese Exclusion Act in effect from 1882 through 1962, a law that limited Chinese immigration to 100 people a year, there were other methods employed such as the “Paper Son” process that kept the Chinese arriving. Prior to 1951 it was illegal for a Chinese immigrant to live outside of Chinatown so it became “the most densely populated urban area west of Manhattan,” with 15,000 residents living in 20 square blocks (data from the San Francisco Planning Department).
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That means absolutely every inch is utilized and it’s why the streets and alleys look like this!
There were so many photos I wanted to take, something at every turn and I will definitely be going back to wander around. I loved this one of the gentlemen working on a piece of jewelry. No space to work? Do it outside!
With the immigrants came their traditions, including medicine and there are herb shops scattered throughout Chinatown tasked with figuring which one of the 2500 herbal remedies are right for you. These stores are endlessly fascinating for me and I love visiting them, much like I love wandering pharmacies in Paris and London. This herbalist was preparing a 10-day mix, measuring out each of the herbs carefully.
I really wanted to spend more time snooping around and buying snacks, but we had to keep up a certain pace to get everything in!
We visited the second most photographed spot in Chinatown (#1 being the gates shown in Part 1), it’s the building which housed the Chinese Telephone exchange. It was built in the 1880’s and served that function until 1909. There were 15 female operators (and a few children) speaking 3 to 5 dialects each supporting 8,000 subscribers.
Chinese are superstitious with numbers (f.y.i 4 is bad and 8 is good!) so they rarely used them. Someone would call into the exchange and ask for someone by name (and maybe street) and the operators were expected to know who they were. If a recipient didn’t have a phone, they would dispatch a child to go run and track them down!
The building is typically Chinese with the colors red representing good fortune and joy; green representing fertility and growth and gold representing wealth (not bad for a bank either, which the is business now running in this building!) and the curved roof coming from Buddhism keeps the bad spirits off.
There were no bad spirits just lots of yummy smells coming out of the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Ross Alley. If you blink you will miss this place. Although most of the manufacturing of fortune cookies is done outside of San Francisco, this one is still running and is a popular tourist spot.
If you can elbow your way in you can observe the making the cookies. There are people folding them by hand and it is actually a really cool process. Whatever money they make on cookies probably shies in comparison with the 50 cents they charge per photo, quite entrepreneurial of them! Of course, I paid them a dollar so I could take one with my iPhone and one with my camera!
There is a great video of this spot from a new online travel show called customNation, I am sure they didn’t charge them 50 cents!
Of course, there was more food! And drink!
We stopped in at the Red Blossom Tea Company on Grant Avenue for a little lesson on tea. The shop has been around for 3o years and has a wonderful selection of teas including many varieties of oolong and green. We were served tea on a beautiful tray and in lovely cups while we learned about how the geography of tea impacts its taste. I went back later and bought a really delicious organic Formosa red which I have been bringing whenever Mr. Misadventures and I go out for dimsum.
Our tour guide Emily also brought a sachet for the meal we ate at the end of our tour. While sadly most of the good Chinese and dimsum restaurants moved out of Chinatown after the 1989 earthquake, it is still possible to get a good (not great) meal. We visited the Four Seas Restaurant for a lovely lunch. I completely understand the difficulty of trying to feed a tour group at a restaurant – the differences in likes and dislikes and level of experiences can be extreme. I thought that the Wok Wiz Chinatown Walking Tour team did an exceptional job of balancing those needs.
We had dishes that were very familiar to most Americans, like egg rolls and won ton soup, mixed in with lesser well-known dumplings or chow fun (instead of chow mein).
Everyone tried everything even if they weren’t familiar with it, which I loved to see! As I mentioned in Part 1 there was an aunt and niece from Michigan (or Minnesota) who admitted they were very unfamiliar with most seafood, even shrimp, yet they tried everything with gusto!
The tour was small a total of six of us and we had great conversations over lunch. The culinary student from Los Angeles had to head out to meet friends, the family from Michigan went off to Golden Gate Park, but I stuck around with the couple from Maryland and Emily for a while, finishing our tea and enjoying one of my favorite dimsum desserts, sesame balls.
I am very thankful to have gone on this tour, it was such a fun experience and a confirmation that I want to do much more exploring. Emily, my Wok Wiz tour guide, was phenomenal and I can’t wait to try the “I Can’t Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown! Tour” you know that one has my name written all over it!
How about you? Have you had an opportunity to visit San Francisco’s Chinatown? What did you see? How about another city’s Chinatown?