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San Francisco's Chinatown

Dragons slither through San Francisco as lions dance and lanky deities saunter amid popping firecrackers and resonating gongs. Time to frighten away evil, encourage good luck, and celebrate Chinese heritage. Time to welcome the Year of the Rabbit.

San Francisco Chinatown, image
Photo caption
Banners strung across the street add an air of festivity to Chinatown.

Happy Lunar New Year!

The Lunar New Year (February 16 this year) is a time for reunions and shopping for traditional symbols of good luck. Narcissus and plum blossoms fill homes and shops. New Year’s signs and red scrolls ofcalligraphy decorate doorways. Everywhere women carry bags heavy with oranges, tangerines, and pomelos.

Some believe Lunar New Year’s Day contains omens for the following 12 months. On their best behavior, celebrants wear new clothes, pay debts, and make amends. Children receive good luck money in small red envelopes. It’s an auspicious time to have fortunes told. 

In San Francisco’s Chinatown, the holiday culminates with the Chinese New Year Parade on Saturday, February 27. The evening parade integrates features of an American-style parade with the Chinese Lantern Festival. Dragons, frightening away evil spirits, star in this procession of lion dancers, drummers, beauty queens, tall Immortals, floats, and folk dancers. So bring a Chinese carryout dinner and enjoy the sights and sounds of a culture over 4,000 years old. For more information on this year’s parade, call (415) 391-9680.

February 27-28, the Chinese Culture Center, 750 Kearny St., holds the Spring Festival, featuring New Year foods, displays, folk arts, martial art and ethnic dance performances. Call (415) 986-1822.

Finding Good Luck

They say evil travels in straight lines. Maybe I keep that in mind, subconsciously, as I wander through San Francisco’s Chinatown. I can’t seem to stay on Grant Avenue, the main thoroughfare of shops and restaurants. Instead, I stray off into parks filled with Cantonese conversations, linger in incense-scented alleys, or duck into side street shops crammed with exotic medicines.

Everywhere I turn, I come upon symbols of good luck. Nearly every store offers traditional emblems—tiny Buddha statues, red rearview mirror charms, fish-shaped ornaments, jade pendants. But there are other, less obvious signs warding off bad luck, such as the concrete foo dogs guarding Chinatown’s main gate or the red-faced deity who protects the herbal shop from his rosewood shrine. Businesses encourage wealth with gold ideograms set into red velvet or a ceramic cat set next to the cash register. Three porcelain wise men—representing prosperity, longevity, and happiness—reappear constantly. Chinatown wraps around all these hopeful talismans like a protective dragon, attempting to ward off hardship.

It’s easy to understand why. The Chinese have lived in San Francisco ever since the Gold Rush, but rather than striking gold, many built railroads, toiled in laundries, restaurants, and shops. Since then, San Francisco’s Chinatown has become one of the oldest and largest Chinese settlements outside of Asia, though many Chinese now live throughout the city. Roughly 100,000 Chinese and Chinese-Americans live in San Francisco—more than one eighth of the city’s total population.

Exploring this expatriate community, I meander down Wentworth Street, once known as Salt Fish Alley for the vats of fish and shrimp curing in salt, to find the odor completely vanished. Troops of Chinese-American children giggle and chatter as they pass me on their way to classes in language, writing, dancing, and traditional music. Though many Chinese have moved out of Chinatown over the last 50 years, they still return to educate the younger generations, shop, see movies, celebrate traditional festivals, and visit temples.

In the alley named Beckett Street I enter the Ma-Tsu Temple, where gold dragons wrap around columns and gods and goddesses rest among the incense tendrils and fruit offerings. This is a place for seeking blessings and influencing fate. Charm bracelets and red amulets offer protection and good luck. There’s an altar for consultations and fortune-telling sticks.

Much of the non-tourist trade, such as family associations and the garment industry, takes place in alleys. Ross Alley, once notorious for gambling, now offers a few shops and the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, where women pick disks of hot cookie off the press, quickly insert fortunes, and fold. The scent of hot vanilla lures me inside the cramped entrance.

In Spofford Alley, the soft clatter of mah jong tiles emanates from behind closed curtains as men try to boost their prosperity through the game. In the hush of the afternoon, I imagine that ghosts of past luck may linger in this narrow alley. In the early 1900s, Dr. Sun Yat Sen (first president and father of the Chinese Republic) planned the overthrow of China’s Manchu Dynasty, last imperial rulers of China. He met with the Chinese Masons at 36 Spofford, sharing his dream for China. Today, his statue faces the tai chi practitioners in St. Mary’s Square.

It is pure, happy chance when I wander into Waverly Place, also known as Temple Alley. Brightly painted temples, the drifting fragrance of incense, no traffic. While looking up at the yellow and red balconies, I find the Tien Hau Temple, built in honor of Tien Hau, Queen of Heaven and Protector of Travelers. This is the oldest Taoist temple in the U.S., built in 1852 by men freshly arrived in Gum San(or "Gold Mountain," as they called California) for the Gold Rush.

I climb the four flights of stairs to the temple and admire the ornate shrines with various deities through the haze of burning joss sticks. The only sounds come from two women folding gold embossed joss papers while someone sings along to traditional instruments two flights down. Mounds of oranges are piled in offering; calligraphy dances down strips of paper; antique tapestries, urns, and gilded trellis panels decorate the temple. The line between Hong Kong and San Francisco has blurred. Pink slips of calligraphy dangle from red-fringed, gold lanterns. One of the women explains that families donate the lanterns to ask for long life and happiness. While visitors are not allowed to take photos, donations or offerings to the gods—tea, oranges, tangerines—are accepted. I leave a few dollars.

Waverly Place also had connections with the tongs—infamous for gambling and smuggling activities. In 1897, Fong Chin, who operated a powerful tong and was well-liked by non-Chinese San Franciscans for his strong hold over Chinatown, was killed in Waverly Place while waiting for a shave and haircut.

Aside from all the Taoist and Buddhist temples and religious shops, I also pass many churches. Christian missionaries helped early immigrants learn English and adjust to life in the United States. One of the most famous churches is St. Mary’s Catholic Church at California and Grant. Built in 1854 by the Chinese, St. Mary’s has survived two major earthquakes.

In little St. Mary’s Square, tucked away from Grant Avenue, older Chinese practice tai chi in the cool morning sun. It’s one thing to sit around and hope for longevity. It’s another to practice your exercises daily, drink your bitter medicinal teas, and eat plenty of fresh vegetables.

Men in billed caps and jackets sit in clusters in Portsmouth Square, reading Chinese newspapers (there are four published in Chinatown), playing chess or watching people walk past. Beyond, their grandchildren play on the swings, slides, and jungle gyms under their grandmothers’ watchful eyes. Tall banks rise up above the square. Surrounded by some of the wealthiest districts of San Francisco—the Financial District, Union Square shopping area, Nob Hill—the 11,000 residents of Chinatown still search for a better life. Much of the community is elderly, or young immigrant families, who live in cramped apartments, work low-paying jobs, and face language and cultural barriers. Yet many of these residents set their priorities on family, respect, and education.

I’ve been told of a man who carves soapstone chops (stamps) for a Chinatown art gallery. For years the chop carver woke early in the morning to clean city streets. Then he changed into a suit for his job teaching Chinese language and writing to young students. At the end of the day he sold evening newspapers while carving Chinese characters into the bottoms of the stone chops. All five of his children finished their masters or doctoral degrees at Berkeley. Good luck takes more than wishful thinking.

New Year's Shopping List

Bright red "lucky money" envelopes (lai-see),available in stationery stores, such as Fat Ming & Co. at 903 Grant Avenue.

Plum blossoms for courage, hope, and long life, and narcissus for good fortune and prosperity, found at the flower market held in Chinatown February 13-14.

Red, diamond-shaped paper with the Chinese character for fortune (fook)to display in homes and stores. Also, spring couplets, short poems written in calligraphy on red scrolls, express good wishes for the coming year. Red symbolizes luck and happiness.

Sweets to sweeten the New Year. One of the most popular desserts for the holiday is niangao,a sweet sticky rice pudding. Mee Mee Bakery, 1328 Stockton Street, has Chinese horoscope cookies representing each animal of the zodiac. Cakes with lotus or bean pastes wrapped in flaky dough, custard tarts, and sesame-coated balls of sticky rice are all savory, inexpensive, and available at bakeries throughout Chinatown.

Citrus fruits, such as tangerines for good luck (make sure the leaves are intact, as this symbolizes that friendship will remain intact), oranges and pomelos for prosperity. Stop by one of the Asian groceries along Stockton.

Crab and fish encourage prosperity and abundance. Markets on Grant and Stockton offer fresh seafood. For the cooked version, try Ryumon Seafood Restaurant at 646 Washington.

The "tray of togetherness," traditional during New Year's, has eight compartments containing sweets such as dried watermelon seeds, melon slices, sugared coconut, peanuts, dried lychees, and lotus roots. Each component invokes good fortune.

Meat dumplings, or pot stickers (jiaozi),with pork and cabbage filling. These can be found at many dim sum parlors, where servers offer various plates of tasty tidbits—just point to whatever appeals to you. Served for lunch, dim sum includes chive dumplings, shrimp in rice wrappers, steamed barbecued pork buns, custard tarts. The Meriwa Restaurant at 728 Pacific Avenue has a broad selection of pot stickers and other dumplings.

Lions and dragons to scare off evil spirits—all found throughout the streets, alleys, and shops of Chinatown.

Walking for Longevity Walking tours lead groups through the alleys, shops, temples, and restaurants of Chinatown, providing historical, cultural, and culinary information. Here are a few to try:

Chinese Culture Center: The Heritage Walk leaves the Center, 750 Kearny St., at 2 p.m. each Saturday; $15 adults. The Chinese Culinary Walk, with dim sum luncheon, leaves the Center Saturdays at 10:30 a.m.; $30 adults, by reservation only. Lunar New Year Walking Tours leave every Saturday, January 30 through February 26, at 2 p.m.; (415) 986-1822 or

City Guides Tour: This free tour (donations appreciated) leaves Portsmouth Square Saturdays at 10 a.m. and Mondays at 1:30 p.m. Call for information on Lunar New Year walks; (415) 557-4266.

Wok Wiz: The Wok Wiz Tour/Lunch, organized by chef, cooking instructor, and author Shirley Fong-Torres, begins daily at 10 a.m.; $25 per person, $37 with lunch. The "I Can't Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown" tour begins at 10 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays; $65 per person includes meals. Lunar New Year Walk on February 27, including New Year traditions and Chinese banquet, begins at 1:30; $45-$65 per person. All tours start at the Wok Wiz Cooking Center, 654 Commercial Street; (415) 981-8989 or

Art for Happiness Chinese Historical Society: 644 Broadway No. 402 (4th floor). With a new location, this museum has the largest collection of Chinese-American artifacts in the country. Open Mon.-Sat.; (415) 391-1188.

Chinese Culture Center: 750 Kearny St., Holiday Inn 3rd floor. Art gallery, live performances, and gift shop. Open Tues.-Sun.; (415) 986-1822.

Pacific Heritage Museum: 608 Commercial Street. Located in the old treasury building, the museum's two floors of art exhibits are sponsored by the Bank of Canton. Open Tues.-Sat.; (415) 399-1124.

Spending Your Prosperity

Jewelry: Jade ranks among the most precious stones for Chinese, sometimes worn as a talisman. Usually pale green, jade ranges in color from nearly white to brownish green. Be wary when buying jade—there are many cheap imitations. For quality stones, try the Royal Jade House, 731 Jackson.

Art: Convey messages such as "Happiness" or "Longevity" with the red stamp of a stone chop, used by Chinese artists to "sign" paintings or calligraphy. The Kee Fung Ng Gallery at the corner of Grant and Clay has a wide selection of chops, all hand-carved, traditional art, and art supplies. Or, stop by the gallery of Y. K. Lau, 30 Wentworth St., for Chinese ink drawings of birds, fish, horses, landscapes.

Tea: When in Chinatown...enjoy a fragrant cup at the Imperial Tea Court, 1411 Powell St. Though it’s nondescript from the outside, inside you’ll find excellent teas served under painted lanterns and ornate birdcages. Sip oolong, jasmine, chrysanthemum, or green teas to the murmur of water fountains. In the heart of Chinatown, Ten Ren’s Tea at 949 Grant Avenue offers many types of tea in a range of prices. Free samples help novices decide, but the jasmine teas are good starters—they taste of little blue flowers.

Books: The top floor of the Eastwind Books & Art, 1435 Stockton Ave., provides an extensive supply of books in English on Chinese arts, culture, history, and medicine. There are also tai chi videos and pressure point body maps.

Herbal Shops: Chinese doctors emphasize preventive medicine, giving their patients prescriptions that include such exotic ingredients as bird nest, dried cicadas, or deer antlers. The popular ginseng root appears all over Chinatown, either in dried, worm-like piles, preserved in jars, in candy, in teas, or in soda pop. Ginseng is believed to reduce stress and fatigue while enhancing the immune system. Try the World Ginseng Center, 801 Kearny.

Photography courtesy San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau Photo

This article was first published in January 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.