Discover the Real Chinatown
- A Walking Tour of Chinatown
By Lynne Christen
your idea of a trip to San Francisco is spending hours
at Fisherman's Wharf, fighting your way onto a Cable
Car, and shopping at Pier 39 or Ghirardelli Square,
you have missed a unique treat and the opportunity to
take something home with you besides sourdough bread
and a souvenir T-shirt.
Walking through the auspicious gateway to Chinatown,
at Grant Avenue and Bush Street, is like a visit to
another country. Often referred to as "Hong Kong
on the Bay," San Francisco Chinatown is home to
the second largest Chinese population in the United
States. (New York City Chinatown is the largest Chinese
community, but lacks the vibrant energy and visual appeal
of the San Francisco community.)
Maybe you think you've been there - done that, because
you walked the main streets of Chinatown and purchased
souvenirs at gaudy shops along Grant Avenue. That's
what we thought. Jaded travelers that we are, after
numerous trips to San Francisco we believed we knew
it well. Then, surfing the Web in a quest for an off-the-beaten
path adventure on a long weekend trip, led us to www.wokwiz.com
and one of the most delightful, delectable discoveries
in our travel experiences.
Shirley Fong-Torres founded Wok Wiz in 1986 with a simple
photocopied black and white brochure describing her
tours. Word about Wok Wiz and Shirley's enthusiasm,
expertise, and sparkling personality spread quickly
and visitors grew by the day. Today, she and her team
of 15 guides lead scores of visitors on a variety of
tours. There is a daily two-hour walking tour with lunch
and a weekend four-hour eating Discovering the Real
("I Can't Believe I Ate My Way Through Chinatown.").
A Yin Yang tour features a short version of the Wok
Wiz daily tour without lunch. There's an evening Chinatown
Ghost Walk and another longer walking evening tour focusing
on Chinatown's history, the art of feng shui, Chinese
customs and folklore. Guests on this evening tour share
a lavish Chinese banquet after the walk.
After much debate over which Wok Wiz tour will be best,
we book the Wok Wiz Daily Tour via the Internet for
the second morning of our trip. The weather gods smile
on us and the morning dawns with no rain or fog, just
the brisk chill in the air that often surprises visitors
to San Francisco. Tucked away at 654 Commercial Street,
the Wok Wiz Tour and Cooking Center is easily missed.
No neon lights or flashy signs. We walk past it twice,
before realizing we are there.
Waiting for other tour guests to arrive, we admire the
Wok Wiz wall of fame covered with dozens of photographs
of celebrities who have interviewed Ms. Fong-Torres.
Another wall holds a large world map studded with stickpins
denoting the hometowns of past tour guests. From Alabama
to Australia and Montana to Mozambique, Wok Wiz has
hosted visitors from every corner of the globe.
Soon, there is standing room only. We wonder if we've
made a mistake and booked another of those tours with
so many people it is difficult to see or hear the guide.
We breathe a sign of relief as we are divided into small
groups of ten to twelve and paired with tour guides.
Our guide, Bernice Fong, is a Chinatown native with
a wealth of history, personal wit, and wisdom to share.
Our tour begins with a stroll to Portsmouth Square,
where Chinese immigrants first landed in the New World.
Today it is a bustling meeting place for old and young
alike. Children play chase supervised by mothers and
grandmothers exchanging daily gossip. Elder Chinese
men sit stoically on park benches and at tables, playing
Chinese chess, Russian poker, or reading the news. There
are no USA Today copies here. Newspapers are in Cantonese
or Mandarin. At one side, a graceful group practices
Tai Chi. Bernice seems to know everyone in the square.
It is obvious she is a respected and well-liked member
of the community.
We leave the square and begin our adventure through
a maze of small streets and alleyways that make up the
essence of Chinatown. As we walk, Bernice points out
landmarks and enthralls us with stories about the past
and present. She tells us to experience Chinatown with
all our five senses and we quickly see that she is right.
We are in sensory overload as she points out the Bank
of Canton with its ornate pagoda style curved roofs.
Until 1949 this building was the Chinese Telephone Exchange.
It was the only foreign language telephone exchange
in the United States. Operators spoke English and five
dialects. They had to know everyone's telephone number
since callers asked for people
by name believing it was rude to refer to people as
numbers. We are attentive students as she explains that
the colors of red, green, and gold, seen through Chinatown,
are important to ensure love, happiness, prosperity,
and keep evil away. (We'll redecorate when we get home!)
The sounds of blaring horns, a band, and police whistles
signify that a funeral procession is coming. A white
convertible leads the procession with a portrait of
the deceased. It is followed by a band and the family
walking beside the hearse and riding in more convertibles.
"Play money" is tossed by the mourners to
show the generosity of the deceased and placate evil
spirits who might bother him in the afterlife. Bernice
tells us the procession will wind through Chinatown
passing the deceased person's favorite shops and restaurants
for a last visit. It seems more of a celebration of
life than mourning a death.
The heady smell of incense welcomes us to the Ma-Tsu
Temple. As we learn more about Chinese gods and goddesses,
we make a small contribution in return for assurances
of good fortune. A visit to an herbal shop offers a
glimpse of the doctor seeing patients in the back of
the shop. Two ancient herbalists create preventives
and remedies from hundreds of drawers and jars holding
herbs and potions from such intriguing things as bird's
nests, clouds' ears, deer antlers and sea slugs. Charges
are tabulated with an abacus. Stops
at several markets introduce us to varieties of colorful
fruits and vegetables with exotic names. Other markets
offer fresh (squirming and wriggling) seafood and delicacies
such as shark's fin and thousand-year-old eggs. We decide
our Occidental groceries and food tastes are pretty
Candy shops are packed with tempting jars sweet treats.
Samples are plentiful. No Hershey Bars here! A tearoom
entices us to savor a cup of fragrant jasmine tea. During
a quick visit to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory,
we are enveloped in the aroma of freshly baking fortune
cookies. These treats are hand-folded with speed and
dexterity by a two-woman assembly line. Here's some
trivia for you. Fortune cookies were first introduced
in San Francisco, but the inventor did not patent them
and they were quickly copied by Chinese restaurants.
Today, fortune cookies from this factory are still shipped
to places all over the world, including China.
Negotiating our way through a narrow alleyway, we hear
the clatter of mahjong tiles and catch an unexpected
glimpse through the open doorway of a mahjong gambling
parlor in full swing. This is not a scheduled visitors'
stop. Action slows. We are eyed with suspicion, unwelcome
intruders. As we quickly move away, the noise and good-natured
chatter resume. Later, I buy a mahjong set, only to
discover it is much more complicated that a game of
dominos. Don't guess I'll enter the parlor competition.
It has been a fast and eventful two hours. As our tour
draws to a close, our education is not complete without
a dim sum lunch at one of Shirley Fong-Torres' favorite
restaurants, Lim's Four Seas. Carts roll out bearing
savory and exotic offerings.
This is not your typical spring roll and fried rice
lunch. We are treated to a variety of dim sum (translated
means "heart's delight") and other delicious
and delectable delights. The bravest among us try the
jiggley jellyfish and even braised chicken foot. (Very
chewy and gristly
a taste that must be developed
and probably will not be a dish for my next dinner party!)
As our lunch draws to a close, Shirley Fong-Torres appears
to bid us farewell and good fortune. We believe new
knowledge is the best souvenir to take home. During
this short two hours and delightful lunch, we learned
a lot, laughed with new friends, and most of all developed
a deep profound appreciation for the real Chinatown.
No doubt we will return and try the evening tour next
or call 650-355-9657 for information on all of the ten
tours and classes offered by Wok Wiz. Current prices
range from $25.00 to $85.00. Tours fill quickly. Avoid
disappointment and book reservations well in advance.
Lynne Christen is a freelance travel writer and speaker.
She is author of Travel
Wisdom: Tips, Tools, and Tactics for All Travelers
, which was the Travel Writing Pick-of-the-Month
in the May issue
of The Traveler.