A Buddha awaits a buyer in San Francisco.
Chinatown. Everyone used to know exactly what that meant. It was the crowded city neighborhood where people spoke Cantonese, the buildings had curvy pagoda roofs, and you first ate winter melon soup. Chinatown was Seattle's Hing Hay Park, chop suey at Hung Far Low in Portland, and shopping for a dragon kite on Ninth Street in Oakland. Above all, Chinatown was San Francisco: The click of mah-jong tiles through a half-open door on Pagoda Place. Crowded sidewalk groceries on Stockton Street. Portsmouth Square. Fortune cookies. Warm custard tarts. But over the past few decades, shiny new "Chinatowns" have been popping up in suburbs from San Jose to Los Angeles. In these neighborhoods no one is playing mah-jong; everyone is gabbing on cell phones. You'll search in vain for chop suey but have your pick of hip cafés serving 20 flavors of Taiwanese tapioca milk tea. Meanwhile, as the many new zones have sprouted, immigrants from Southeast Asia and South Korea have revitalized old-style districts like the ones in Oakland and Seattle. And San Francisco's hinatown—long the nation's biggest and most beloved—has developed a reputation, perhaps undeserved, as a cheesy tourist trap. What does it mean? Should the new neighborhoods even be called Chinatowns? And are they places anyone would spend a precious vacation day?
For nearly as long as the city has existed, San Francisco's Chinatown has been a place apart. The first shiploads of Chinese workers sailed through the Golden Gate in 1849, followed by thousands more over the next decades. These early immigrants were almost exclusively male Cantonese speakers brought over from southern China's impoverished, war-torn Guangdong Province to work the gold mines and railroads.
In 1853 a reporter gave the city's nascent Asian settlement its name, and by 1880 Chinatown had 22,000 residents jammed into five blocks of prime bay-view real estate. After the 1906 earthquake and fire, developers tried to move Chinatown to Hunters Point, hoping to replace the laundries with mansions. But community leaders promised to rebuild with stylish Oriental facades that would bring the city new visitors—and revenue.
"Tourism saved Chinatown," says Norman Fong, program director for the nonprofit Chinatown Community Development Center. But Fong, who grew up in the neighborhood, admits to mixed feelings. "Grant Avenue," he says, gesturing at a string of garish souvenir shops. "This is what most tourists know, but what a limited vision."
On a spring morning, Fong—an irresistible, irrepressible champion of the area—agrees to show me his Chinatown, a tour he's been perfecting since a college sociology class in 1975.
We meet in Portsmouth Square, an informal gathering spot for local seniors who are playing cards, reading newspapers, and basking in the sun. Fong is a font of lore, and it soon becomes clear that every building ("Oh, wait, this is so cool!") and every alley ("This is a fun story!") has an anecdote: The ghost that haunted Willie Woo Woo Wong Playground. The glitzy headquarters of the Chinese Six Companies, a consortium of powerful leaders dating back to the 1800s. The Sacramento Street basement where missionaries hid girls fleeing what was called the "yellow slave trade." The handsome brick YWCA designed in 1930 by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan.
But Fong's main interest is Chinatown the neighborhood. It may stand among San Francisco's most popular attractions, but it remains above all a place where people live. Lots of people. "New immigrants all want to live in Chinatown because everything is here," Fong says. "Japantown is relatively quiet because no one lives there, and Chinatown is vibrant because people actually do."
It's not easy. Housing is so scarce that large families jam into 10-by-10-foot rooms. Fong's group tries to protect dwellings from developers who would like to erect office towers on the border with the Financial District. It renovates single-occupancy hotels so people can live decently in cramped quarters. To Fong, Chinatown means grandmothers shopping for ducks on Stockton Street, men gossiping in Portsmouth Square, and a new generation of kids tearing around Willie Wong Playground. And it is this—the sense of being in the midst of a thriving community—that makes a trip to Chinatown so exhilarating.
Moreover, it's a linguistically unified community, almost uniquely so among modern Chinatowns (see " Five Places to Savor the East in the West" ). At the bustling, no-frills Capital Restaurant, where literally half the diners greet Fong warmly, he orders noodles in a sweet sauce, fried chicken wings, and a delicate tofu stew. "We Cantonese don't like spicy food," Fong says. "We think it hides the flavors. And the southern Chinese, we still rule here, but only here. If you go any-where else, like Silicon Valley, you meet more Mandarin speakers."
I turn to him. "What about Las Vegas's Chinatown?" I ask.
"They have a Chinatown there?" officially, yes. Or so says an exit sign on Interstate 15, five minutes from the famed Strip. And yes, according to Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn, who christened the neighborhood in 1999.
Just over a decade ago, Taiwan-born developer James Chen decided Las Vegas needed an Asian mall. It would be an outpost for Chinese tourists in search of familiar food and a shopping hub for local Asians, some of whom had been regularly driving to Los Angeles to stock up on star anise and rice noodles. "Do you want population before you build, or do you build to attract population?" Chen asked a Wall Street Journal reporter in 2004. "You don't want to be late."
Chinatown Plaza was right on time. A gaudy gold statue of the 7th-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang rears up from a fountain in the packed parking lot. There's a Philippine bakery here, a jade gallery, a florist shop, and a bookstore where you can buy Bill Clinton's memoirs in Chinese. But the biggest draw is indisputably the 99 Ranch Market, a branch of a West Coast chain that carries everything from feisty live Dungeness crabs to fermented Szechuan vegetables. And from the day it opened, 99 Ranch has been a magnet, not just for Chinese but also for Vietnamese, Koreans, Japanese, and Filipinos.
Chinatown Plaza now anchors an ever growing sprawl of Asian language schools, dental practices, and minimalls spanning two miles of Spring Mountain Road. "It just keeps going," says Sue Fawn Chung, an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas, who has studied the city's Chinese immigrants. "Now it's heading toward the Strip!"
The district has only been keeping pace with the city's burgeoning Asian population. "This is a very labor-intensive place," says David Wang, the Taiwan-born director of the Nevada Chinese Academy. "It's easy to get a job and much cheaper than San Francisco and Los Angeles." New arrivals often staff local restaurants or deal cards in the casinos. "At first, they like to live close, so they can walk 15 minutes to work," says Kamyan Yuen, formerly an associate pastor at the Chinese Baptist Church. "Until they get driver's licenses. Then they move farther away."
But long drives don't seem to keep people away from Chinatown, where they fill the tables at Pho Little Saigon, buy gallon jars of kimchi at Western Market, browse Chung Chou City for herbal sciatica cures, and drop into Volcano Tea House. Here, Mark Seo is whipping up honeydew tapioca drinks for a clientele that is mostly young and Asian. He estimates 20 percent of his customers aren't Asian. "They don't know what they're ordering, but when they taste it, they like it," he says. "Usually." Seo, who arrived from South Korea about three years ago, shops and works in Chinatown but lives 20 miles away.
And, of course, he isn't Chinese. For a visitor, Spring Mountain's vast culinary diversity is a revelation. Provence Bakery resembles a high-end French patisserie, except that alongside the creamy mocha cakes you find Korean breads filled with sweet bean paste. Mein Dynasty specializes in fiery northern Chinese noodles; Hue Thai, in Vietnamese sandwiches; Kapit Bahay, in Philippine adobo chicken. Then there's Banana Leaf Cafe, an immaculate, sunny yellow restaurant on the forlorn backside of a mall.
"The location could be better," says co-owner David Wong when I arrive for dinner. "But we have good mouth word." At a counter, a cook is stretching dough into enormous, cellophane-thin rounds for roti, a crispy Malaysian flat bread. Wong, who left Malaysia in 1985 for New York's Chinatown ("Very dirty!"), his haunt for over a decade, suggests I start with a saté and rojak—a gutsy fruit-and-squid salad that is hard to stop eating. For dessert: fluffy shaved ice drenched in syrup and sprinkled with peanuts, mung beans, corn niblets, bits of green gelatin, and a chewy, translucent substance that he describes as "underwater coconut." It sounds appalling but tastes delicious.
Nearby I've seen posters for a Mother's Day show at Pacific Asian Plaza, reading, dear mothers: an escape from your hard work. relax and enjoy the performance of talented children. At the appointed hour, several hundred moms—and dads, aunts, baby brothers, and grandparents—gather in the mall's atrium. Emcee Perry Ni hosts in English, Yen Li in Mandarin. "Today the Caucasians are a minority," Ni jokes. "Finally!"
What follows is a cross-cultural spectacular, recorded for posterity by many, many video cameras: A Chinese American preschooler recites a classical Chinese poem. A Caucasian 6-year-old does an off-key rendition of "Tomorrow" from Annie. Teenage sisters play violin, an Asian boy break-dances, and an African American girl sings. But the showstopper is Vanessa, a 12-year-old Filipina American, who belts out "I Will Always Love You," a ballad composed by Dolly Parton, covered by Whitney Houston, and reinterpreted here to a largely Chinese audience at a Hallmark holiday celebration sponsored by a Korean bank and a Malaysian restaurant.
This is a Chinatown? No, not exactly. But like San Francisco's and all those other spots, it's a wonderful place to visit.
WHAT'S TO SEE IN SAN FRANCISCO'S CHINATOWN?
By all means hit the Dragon Gate, Chinatown's photogenic portal on Grant Avenue at Bush Street. For souvenirs, stop by Chinatown Kite Shop and the Wok Shop at 717 and 718 Grant. Then grab AAA's San Francisco map and explore. For rich tastes of the district's lively past and present, seek out the following sites. Area code is 415.
- Chinatown YWCA Designed by Julia Morgan, the building now houses the museum of the Chinese Historical Society of America. In the gift shop, see the 2006 book Images of America: San Fran-cisco's Chinatown. 965 Clay St., 391-1188, www.chsa.org.
- Clarion Music Center A bazaar of sonic wonders—Chinese erhus (two-string violins), African thumb pianos, Australian didgeridoos, and much more. 816 Sacramento St., 391-1317, www.clarionmusic.com.
- Golden Gate Bakery The best place for traditional warm egg custard tarts. 1029 Grant Ave., 781-2627.
- Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory Watch hot cookies folded by hand. 56 Ross Alley, 781-3956.
- Hang Ah Tea Room Said to be the nation's first dim sum restaurant, opened 1920. 1 Pagoda Pl., 982-5686.
- Imperial Tea Court The country's first traditional Chinese teahouse. 1411 Powell St., 788-6080, www.imperialtea.com.
- Jai Yun Restaurant Chef Nei' Chia Ji presents fine dinners in a spare setting; reservations required. 923 Pacific Ave., 981-7438, jaiyun.menuscan.com.
- Old Saint Mary's California's first cathedral, plus Sun Yat-sen as sculpted by Beniamino Bufano. 660 California St., 288-3800, www.oldsaintmarys.com.
- Tien Hau Temple Possibly the city's oldest Chinese shrine, with red paper lanterns and golden altars honoring the Goddess of the Heavens and departed ancestors. 125 Waverly Pl., 391-4841.
- Yoogo Gelato Flavors include taro, durian, avocado, green tea, black sesame, and Budweiser. 601 Broadway, 398-2996.
FIVE PLACES TO SAVOR THE EAST IN THE WEST
You'll find thriving Asian districts up and down the West Coast, although few are as unalloyed as San Francisco's old Chinatown. Food is always a crucial part of the cultural mix.
MILPITAS, CALIF. Discover a vast 99 Ranch Market and 20 restaurants in Milpitas Square, purportedly the largest Asian-themed mall in Northern California. Choose your cuisine, from familiar Cantonese to hearty northeastern Chinese (Dongbei) to lamb-rich Islamic-Chinese. 190 Barber Ct. at Interstate 880 and Hwy. 237, www.milpitasquare.com.
MONTEREY PARK, CALIF. In this Los Angeles suburb, Asians—mainly Chinese—make up 62 percent of the population. Eats? Check out Chung King, lauded by L.A. Weekly critic Jonathan Gold for beef casseroles "so spicy they attack the nervous system like a phaser set to ‘stun.' " 206 S. Garfield Ave., (626) 280-7430.
OAKLAND Produce markets, eateries, and houseware shops anchor downtown Oakland's increasingly pan-Asian enclave (www.oaklandchinatownchamber.org). Restaurant Peony seats 900, but it's so good—try the Hong Kong–style dim sum—that patrons often wait in line for tables. 388 Ninth St., (510) 286-8866.
SEATTLE In the 1880s Seattle's Chinatown moved from the waterfront to King Street, and now this lively melting pot—renamed the Chinatown-International District—is dense with stores and eateries (http://www.cidbia.org/). Check out the Wing Luke Asian Museum. 407 Seventh Ave. S., (206) 623-5124, www.wingluke.org
VANCOUVER, B.C. Founded in 1885, Canada's largest Chinatown has a wealth of restaurants, bakeries, and shops, most along Pender and Keefer streets (www.vancouverchinatown.ca). Don't miss the oddly slim Sam Kee Building (8 W. Pender St.) and Dr. Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden, the first of its kind outside China (578 Carrall St., 604-662-3207, www.vancouverchinesegarden.com).
Photography by Alison Wright
This article was first published in March 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.