San Francisco’s Chinatown’s Secrets Revealed

San Francisco's Chinatown has many interesting secrets that are unlocked on a local's tour. Max Hartshorne photos.
San Francisco’s Chinatown has many interesting secrets that are unlocked on a local’s tour. Max Hartshorne photos.

Chinatown’s Mysteries Unlocked When a Local Gives You the Tour

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

If you’ve ever wandered through San Francisco’s Chinatown, you probably did what we did last time. We had no idea where to go, what to see, and ended up in a souvenir shop with no clue about what to see or do.

Dorothy Quong explains some of Chinatown’s history during the Wok Wiz Chinatown Tour.
Dorothy Quong explains some of Chinatown’s history during the Wok Wiz Chinatown Tour.

We wanted to know more about the history and to find more out about the 15,000 people who live in this 24-block neighborhood. So we joined Wok Wiz Chinatown Tours’ most experienced tour guide, Dorothy Quong, and got the scoop.

Quong is small of stature but a big personality–she is outspoken about her strong beliefs against discrimination and feels deeply about how her relatives have been treated over the years since she was born in Chinatown 86 years ago.

Portsmouth Square Park, Chinatown’s Living Room

In her bright red headband, she led us first to what she called the Chinatown Living Room–Portsmouth Square Park.

Luo Wen Jing shows us his calligraphy skills in his Chinatown shop.
Luo Wen Jing shows us his calligraphy skills in his Chinatown shop.

The park was dotted with groups of older men, intently watching games of Russian poker being played on park benches.  Dorothy said that later on in the day, we’d see more women of the same age here.

Many of these men live in tiny rooms, some doubling up, and this park is where they go to relax, get outside, and enjoy time with their friends.

Most from Canton Province

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She added that eight out of 10 Chinese immigrants here came over from Guang Dong, known as Canton province in the west.

The language they speak here is not the more common Mandarin but Cantonese.

Li Da Ying’s shop, called Impressions, on Grant Ave is the place to find lovely paintings and these tiny baskets.
Li Da Ying’s shop, called Impressions, on Grant Ave is the place to find lovely paintings and these tiny baskets.

Chinatown is full of alleys, and our tour took us through many of them. Because last night was Chinese New Year, the rapid loud blasts of firecrackers could be heard going off outside many shops around the neighborhood.

“Happy New Year!”

“Happy New Year” was a common greeting we heard; in one tea shop a woman was dropping off gifts of fruit and a card to celebrate. Some of the shops were closed for the holiday.

We stopped by many typical businesses here…at a stationery shop, we met a woman who is trained in the ancient art of weaving bamboo threads together into tiny baskets.

Tea Tasting at the Red Blossom Tea Company in Chinatown.
Tea Tasting at the Red Blossom Tea Company in Chinatown.

Li Da Ying’s shop, called Impressions, on Grant Ave is the place to find lovely paintings and these tiny baskets.

Across the street, her husband Luo Wen Jing showed us calligraphy, deftly creating a work of art out of someone’s name and birth year, complete with his special red stamp marking it as his own.

shopping in Chinatown
Shopping for pottery in Chinatown.

Dorothy led us through back alleys and main thoroughfares, taking us into shops and past businesses with signs in Chinese that baffled us.

The East-West bank built to look like a Chinese pagoda, The Red Blossom Tea Co where we sampled green tea and learned about the tea trade, the fish alley where a big fish market was once located, and Ross Alley, the home of the Chinese Free Mason’s society.

Mah Jong Tiles Cracking

Here we could hear mah jong tiles cracking as games were played in the apartments inside, hidden from view.

We visited a tofu and bean sprout shop, a purveyor of carved jade, and we topped it all off with a dim sum lunch at the oldest Chinese restaurant in the city.

It’s Better on the Second Floor

You know it’s going to be good when it’s on the second floor, I’ve always believed in dining in Chinatown and other Chinese neighborhoods.  At the circular table, a big lazy susan allowed us to partake of the delicious savory dumplings, beef chow fun noodles, bean curd rolls with pork and wonton soup.

Dim sum dumplings are part of the tour. A tasty finish!
Dim sum dumplings are part of the tour. A tasty finish!

Wok Wiz Chinatown Tours is a great way to discover a neighborhood that most people who visit San Francisco know nothing about. $50 per person including lunch.

Chinatown santa plays the violin
Chinatown Santa plays the violin

Here are some of the guest’s comments about Dorothy’s Wok Wiz Tours.

“This tour is a nice combination of local and national history with an interesting variety of food choices at lunch. Our guide was well-read and grown up in the area which added to our walk through the neighborhoods. A very pleasant morning.”

Dorothy explains the many healing properties of ginger at a local market in Chinatown.
Dorothy explains the many healing properties of ginger at a local market in Chinatown.

“My wife, my adult son, and I could not have enjoyed the Wok Wiz tour more! Quock Dorothy: Nae Ho!

“Our tour guide gave us a warm, dynamic, and incredibly informative tour explaining the depth of the culture and history of Chinatown, Chinese culture, and the history of San Francisco.

“We finished with a Dim Sum lunch that was the best Chinese food I’ve ever had, aided by Dorothy’s good-humored chopstick coaching.

The tour was a high point of our vacation. This should be a Do Not Miss for anyone visiting San Francisco.”

Get tickets at www.wokwiz.com, 650-355-9857. Ask for Dorothy Quong to be your guide!

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