It's 2008, and it's summer. That means one thing: Olympics in Beijing! Yes, despite some setbacks for host country China, such as multiple protests against human-rights violations and the catastrophic earthquake, the Summer Olympic Games are slated to begin on August 8. More than half a million people will be trekking to China to catch a little dim sum between the freestyle wrestling and trampoline competitions. Do you have your ticket? Or will you be here, in San Francisco, working and wishing you weren't?
If you can't make it to Beijing this summer, you can do the next best thing: Spend a day in Chinatown. Don't just stop in for a quick bite or to purchase a pretty paper fan for your hot-flashing mom; plan a whole day on the streets of this truly fascinating place.
Chinese immigrants first arrived in San Francisco in the mid-19th century, looking for gold and fleeing famine and natural disasters. Once a small, heavily-discriminated-against minority, today nearly one-third of the city's population is Asian, a large percentage of Chinese origin. But many live in other neighborhoods — the Richmond, the Sunset, or with their Mexican-Irish-Jewish significant others in the Castro or Mission — and so most people now think of the old Chinatown as a tourist destination.
Beyond the Dragon's Gate, there is still a sense of the old country. Non-English-speaking immigrants live in narrow alleys, work long hours, and spend their free time in the local parks playing cards or mah-jongg. Chinese tradition marks the streets with inexpensive open-air markets, natural medicinals, and pagoda-style roofed buildings and temples. There is still plenty of culture in these colorful streets, and if you make an effort to immerse, a day in Chinatown can feel almost like a day in China.
Try these top 10 must-dos.
1. Eat Chinese sweets
Almond cookies, moon cakes, sesame balls, Chinese tamales, and butter cream buns — it's hard to get enough. There are places on every single block, but one of the best is Eastern Bakery (720 Grant at Sacramento), on the first block just past Dragon's Gate. With free samples of gooey things at the door, lots of tourists stop at this place, but the line moves fast. Deciding what you want to order, however, will take some time.
2. Go tea tasting
Most guidebooks will point you to the traditional Ten Ren Tea (949 Grant at Washington), but those who really want to learn something about all the tea in China should check out the newer Vital Tea Leaf (905 Grant at Washington). It's actually part of a chain, but the staffers are Chinese-tea scholars who will give you a thorough sampling of their huge selection while telling you everything you ever wanted to know but didn't think to ask about tea. Ask for Herman.
3. Buy Asian erotic art
With a gazillion tchotchkes in Chinatown, you might need some help finding the naughty ones. Hop inside Old Shanghai, a home decor and Asian fashion store at 645 Grant (at California), for an unexpected treat. Walk past the kung fu slippers, turn left after the satin diaper bags, and just before the embroidered pillowcases, in a glass case, you'll find a wide array of figurines and small painted dishes with people doing the dirty. In some cases, the very dirty.
4. Eat dim sum
A combination of petite Chinese goodies from turnip cakes to shrimp dumplings to miniature custard pies, dim sum is a tapaslike breakfast or brunch meal. If you want the traditional service, where a cart from which you get to pluck your snacks is wheeled around a giant room, go to New Asia (772 Pacific at Grant). A much cheaper and more cafeteria-style spot, where you order from a counter and get served on a plastic tray, is You's Dim Sum (937 Stockton at Washington).
5. Eat Buddha-style
If you're a vegetarian, dim sum will leave you either bloated and overstuffed with bread and pastry products, or starving. For a good meal, hit Lucky Creation Vegetarian Restaurant (854 Washington at Waverly), which has a full menu of savory meatless chicken dishes, taro-root delicacies, and bean-cake concoctions. The nondescript restaurant has about eight teal-covered tables of various sizes around a statue of the Chinese representation of Quan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy.
6. Buy Hello Kitty ... anything
True, Sanrio is based in Japan, but Hello Kitty mania is hotter than Olympic fever in China. At Ben Li Int'l Trading (836 Washington at Waverly), you'll find everything from feline-speckled stickers and staplers to magnets, fuzzy pink lunchboxes, and toddler drinking cups. Kitty's pals Chococat and Badtz-Maru can also be found adorning loads of fun crap. The products are cute and cheap, but if you try to take photos in or anywhere near this shop, you will get yelled at by the very un-Kittylike manager.
7. Learn how fortune cookies are made
In a single dimly lit room at 56 Ross (at Jackson) lies the famed Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, where women work tirelessly at decades-old fortune cookie–making machines for ungodly hours every day. It's hardly a bona fide museum, but is worth a visit if just to see how those senseless little paper prophecies find their way into your postprandial treats. Inside are three machines, which have mini conveyer belts that pour dough out through a spout, compress it into circles, and cook it sandwich-maker–style. Then the employees pick off the warm rounds with a sharp metal instrument, add a fortune, and fold the cooling dough over a little metal contraption. It'll cost you 50 cents to take a photo here. Give more if you can — or these women may never retire.
8. Take a wok
Seasoned woks, hand-hammered woks, nonstick woks — The Wok Shop (718 Grant at Commercial) has them all. This store is the real deal, and the women who run it know their trade. On the flip side, they don't speak English too well, but they are happy to use miming, gesturing, and smiling to communicate their knowledge. When all else fails, just buy what looks good, take it home, and start cooking.
9. Get a foot massage
Spending the day in Chinatown means being on your feet all day — the streets are too crowded to park a car. The experts at Lucky Foot Massage (770-C Sacramento at Grant) specialize in a nice long foot rub, the traditional antidote to aching arches. For only $25, you get a 40-minute (including a 10-minute soak) acupressurelike foot massage that feels as good or better than what you might get at a fancy nearby downtown spa. The masseurs are from different parts of southern China and don't speak much English, but that's a great excuse to close your eyes and enjoy the rub.
10. Watch the Olympics
Surprisingly — or maybe not so surprisingly — the locals in Chinatown don't seem to care a whole lot about the Olympics, if they even know it's coming up. In all fairness, most of them work long hours and are more concerned with the day-to-day, as well as trying to get help to the earthquake victims on the mainland (Silicon Valley Tsinghua Network's relief fund is a good place to send money, by the way). There are three main bars in Chinatown where watching the games might be an option: the front bar at the popular Far East Cafe (631 Grant at California), a smoky little bar called Red's Place (672 Jackson at Grant), and dive bar Li Po Cocktail Lounge (916 Grant at Washington). No employees or bar owners could guarantee the Olympics would be shown, but, when asked, they all nonchalantly reasoned, "Probably. We have a TV, right?"
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