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May 20, 2011 > Travel: Chinatown Tour

Travel: Chinatown Tour

By Denny Stein

San Francisco's Chinatown is an integral piece of the city's history. Situated at the edge of the 19th century harbor, the location was a prime position for catering to the needs of sailors and travelers. In the early 1800s, most of the Chinese immigrants were men from the Guangdong Province in the south of China. The discovery of gold in the California hills lured thousands of Chinese immigrants, just as it did Americans and Europeans from the east, all looking for the strike that would change their lives. But I'm not in the historical tour business. For that you need to walk through today's Chinatown, to see the Chinatown of yesterday, with Rick Evans.

I learned that when you walk through the fabled Dragon Gate of Chinatown, you are not really in Chinatown. You are at the corner of Bush St. and Grant Avenue, but the real, historical Chinatown officially starts when you cross California St. Note that a prominent store on Grant (the tourist street) is called "Asian Images" and that's all you'll be getting, unless you have the knowledge and guidance of Rick Evans, owner and creator of Chinatown Walking Tour. Like the Jasmine Fairy Maiden tea bud that flowers when you pour hot water over it, Chinatown's life and secrets become visible as you walk the streets with Rick Evans. We were lucky enough to get a Groupon coupon for the walking tour, though the usual $40 per person fee is well worth the money.

Dressed in comfortable shoes and clothes, we enjoyed every minute of the three hour walk. Crisscrossing the main streets, diving down alleys and side streets, and stopping at squares and churches that we had never before noticed, the three hours evaporated before we knew it.

Chinatown is a world unto itself, with its own rules (mahjong gambling doesn't count as illegal), its own traditions (women play poker for pennies, men for quarters), its own architecture and cuisine. The trick to really knowing Chinatown is separating the fake from the real, the new from the historical, and understanding the rift created by the 1906 Earthquake, Chinese politics, and tragic human bigotry. The ground on which Chinatown stands has undergone immense changes, from sea port property, to ghetto, to coveted prime financial district real estate. Who lives there now, who owns that real estate, who profits and who loses are all questions to be asked. Evans provides the foundational answers to these inquiries, while pointing out the divided nature of this historical San Francisco neighborhood.

Few people, outside of Chinatown, know that the roots of modern China sprang from these streets and alleys in San Francisco. The evidence of this still separated homeland flies overhead today, if you know where to look. Quiz: What famous sculptor, whose statues grace the ground of Fremont's Kaiser Permanente, and the Chapel of the Roses, has a work depicting the father of modern China, in Chinatown? And who is that famous Chinese leader? This is where we hum "It's a Small World After All."

Intermingled with the true and serious stories, though, are stops at a fortune cookie factory, a Daoist temple, restaurants, and a tea tasting shop. It is clear that Evans has a good relationship with his hosts, as we were politely greeted, or discreetly ignored, at every stop, and given a chance to buy or look as we wished.

By the end of the tour, you will have learned a great amount of fascinating facts, and be ready for tea and good Chinese food. Mr. Evans recommendation, the R & G Restaurant, was safe and authentic, but not as delicious or exciting as it could be. I have to admit that our Tri-City area has, in my opinion, better Chinese cuisine. And our local restaurants are much less expensive.

In order to fit everything in three hours, there was no time for emporium rapture. Evans supplies you with a map and notes, after the tour, so you can retrace your steps and spend all the time you want exploring the tour sites and surroundings. The next time we went, we felt an entirely new relationship with these streets.

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