Gum Lung breathes fire into the Chinese New Year celebration in San Francisco.
After visiting San Francisco's Chinatown in 1889, Rudyard Kipling described it as "a ward of the city of Canton." Kipling may have been a writer of ripping good yarns, but a cultural anthropologist he apparently was not. Chinatown is not China and never was—any more than adjacent North Beach, San Francisco's "Little Italy," is a suburb of Rome. Instead, they are beguiling blends of New World and Old, immigrant landing pads where American-isms like fortune cookies and "That's Amore" meet ancient Taoist rituals and Madonnas lit by flickering votive candles.
Chinatown and North Beach are two of San Francisco's oldest and most colorful neighborhoods; you can easily spend an entire weekend immersed in their lively streets and hot jazz clubs, their temples and churches, their dim sum houses and trattorias. Chinatown in midwinter is especially festive as Chinese New Year approaches and already bustling shops and sidewalks spill over with branches of peach blossoms, mountains of tangerines, and other auspicious flowers and fruits. The public New Year celebration culminates with a spectacular nighttime parade—the largest event of its kind outside Asia—featuring floats, marching bands, lion dancers, and Miss Chinatown U.S.A. The undisputed star of the show, a 220-foot-long dragon named Gum Lung, slithers along the 1.5-mile route accompanied by the thunder of more than 600,000 exploding firecrackers.
The Chinese New Year Parade, February 11, 2012, from 5:15 p.m. to 8 p.m. from Market and Second streets to Kearny Street and Columbus Avenue, celebrates the Year of the Dragon, as do other events held January 14 to February 12. Call (415) 986-1370 or www.chineseparade.com.
Begin your weekend by ditching the car. For all the sights and sounds they contain, both neighborhoods are compact and walkable. Chinatown came into being after the 1849 Gold Rush as an enclave of Cantonese workers, and though more recent immigration has pushed out the community's boundaries, its heart remains within the traditional borders of California, Powell, and Kearny streets and Broadway. North Beach, settled by Italians in the late 1800s and invaded by beatniks in the 1950s, spreads between Telegraph Hill and Russian Hill, but its shops and restaurants are concentrated along Columbus Avenue and near Washington Square.
Broadway is recognized as the dividing line between Chinatown and North Beach; crisscross the street and you play cultural mix and match. In Chinatown, you can join the jostling crowds who buy char siu bao (steamed pork buns) and live fish along Stockton, then repair to the Victoria Pastry Co. for cannoli (ricotta-filled Sicilian pastry) or to Caffe Trieste for a sublime cappuccino.
Or you may prefer to explore one neighborhood at a time. In Chinatown, Grant Avenue is lined with stores selling back scratchers and other kitschy souvenirs, but you'll also find some shopping gems—a kaleidoscopic array of high fliers at the Chinatown Kite Shop, for example, and just about any kind of Asian cooking utensil imaginable at the Wok Shop. At 125 Waverly Place, climb three flights of stairs to the Tien Hau Temple, an incense-perfumed shrine that since 1852 has drawn supplicants who come to light joss sticks, remember ancestors, and pray.
At Caffe Trieste, you can savor a cup of cappuccino, buy fresh-roasted coffee, and on Saturdays listen to an Italian concert. 601 Vallejo St., 392-6739, caffetrieste.com.
When hunger strikes, choose your own dinner from the fish tanks at Great Eastern Restaurant.
You'll also find plenty of good eating in North Beach—everything from deli fixings at Molinari's to high-end dining at Rose Pistola. Non-Italian options include ethereal soufflés at Cafe Jacqueline. Between meals, browse the shelves at City Lights Bookstore, a beloved holdover from the Beat era. If you're a night owl, head to Broadway for music and dance clubs. Stay up late enough—or get up early—and you may see groups of elderly Chinese practicing tai chi in Washington Square in the morning. With Saints Peter and Paul Catholic church, the "Italian cathedral," as a backdrop, the scene is a fine visual reminder of the cultural cross-pollination that makes a visit to Chinatown and North Beach such a rich experience.
Photography by Maxine Cass
This article was first published in January 2005 and updated in November 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Check out the rest of our San Francisco package:
China Basin: Gourmet burgers and a handsome ballpark
Civic Center: Cultural hub near City Hall
Union Street: Boutiques and bistros
Yerba Buena: Downtown park and museums galore
Area code is 415 unless noted. Pick up the San Francisco map and Northern California & Nevada TourBook at any AAA branch. Contact the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau: 900 Market St., 391-2000, www.sfvisitor.org.
Chinese Historical Society of America Exhibit on the Chinese in the United States; occupies a beautifully renovated 1932 Julia Morgan building. 965 Clay St., 391-1188, www.chsa.org.
THE NIGHT IS YOUNG
Peña PachaMama Bolivian cuisine and world music. 1630 Powell St., 646-0018, www.penapachamama.com . Tosca Cafe Comfy old bar. 242 Columbus Ave., 986-9651.
Ask if your hotel offers parking for a charge. Portsmouth Square Garage $27 per day. Kearny Street, 982-6353, www.portsmouthsquaregarage.com. Sutter Stockton Garage $34 per day. Union Square, 982-7275. From here, walk or bus to Chinatown.
Chinatown Kite Shop 717 Grant Ave., 989-5182, chinatownkite.com. City Lights Bookstore 261 Columbus Ave., 362-8193, citylights.com. Ten Ren Tea Company 949 Grant Ave., 362-0656, tenren.com. Wok Shop 718 Grant Ave., (888) 780-7171, wokshop.com.
Cafe Jacqueline 1454 Grant Ave., 981-5565. Great Eastern Restaurant 649 Jackson St., 986-2500. Molinari Delicatessen 373 Columbus Ave., 421-2337. R&G Lounge Cantonese. 631 Kearny St., 982-7877, rnglounge.com. Rose Pistola 532 Columbus Ave., 399-0499, rosepistolasf.com. Caffe Trieste 601 Vallejo St., 392-6739, caffetrieste.com. Victoria Pastry Co. 1362 Stockton St., 781-2015, victoriapastry.com.