I had the pleasure of taking a guided walking tour of Chinatown in San Francisco yesterday. This tour was led by historian, Rick Evans. Rick is a wonderful tour guide with insights galore into the history of the different neighborhoods of San Francisco.
My Mom and I have been on Rick’s Financial District Architecture Tour and loved it, so decided to give the Chinatown Tour a try as well.
Start of the Tour
We met at the Starbucks at the intersection of Grant and Bush directly in front of the entrance to Chinatown. Rick showed us a map of where we would be heading for our tour. He pointed out that for the first two blocks of Chinatown, there were no Chinese restaurants. I had never noticed that before, but its true.
The real Chinatown starts two blocks after the main entrance. When you see red lanterns hanging above you, Chinatown officially begins.
Once we entered Chinatown, we walked about one block to St. Mary’s Square where we learned about
Sun Yat-sen. Sun Yat-sen is a very important person in Chinese history as he was the founding father of the Republic of China. He is considered to be the first to introduce the democratic revolution to China. There is a very large statue of Sun Yat Sen in the square.
What struck me about the St. Mary’s Square is that it is off the beaten path. If I hadn’t taken this tour, I probably never would have visited this square. It is definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.
The Old St. Mary’s Church, built in 1854, is the first Catholic Cathedral in the West. Very beautiful and peaceful inside. Our tour guide explained that they are able to keep it going due to the weddings that are booked there every weekend.
Visit to Tien Hou Temple
We visited a Taoist temple on Waverly street. This is the oldest Chinese Temple in the US. You have to walk up four flights of stairs to get to it, but it is worth it. The stairs reminded me of the movie with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, Barefoot in the Park. The stairs to their apartment in that movie are so steep , all of their visitors are out of breath when they arrive. 🙂
Steeped in history and incense, the temple is pretty neat to visit. When you first walk in, you are supposed to put your incense stick into a bowl of gravel to announce to the gods that you are there. It is nice to bring fruit to put at the altar to feed the gods.
There are lanterns hanging from the ceiling that people will purchase at the Chinese New Year for good luck. The more you donate, the closer your lantern will be placed to the altar and the gods, and, the greater fortunes you will receive that year.
I thought their tradition of burning paper items in a big furnace for their deceased loved ones was especially interesting. It is best to explain this tradition with an example. Let’s say your uncle recently passed away. It is believed that you need to send him money in heaven to pay off the devil from chasing him. The way to do this is to buy play paper money and throw it into the furnace, so that it can burn and go straight up to you uncle.
If you have not come to visit the furnace in a year or so, they have play paper credit cards, you can burn to send up to you uncle. This way, he will not run out of cash to pay off the devil from chasing him.
In the several of the stores in Chinatown, you will see packages of paper items to send to you loved ones including paper cell phones, credit cards, money, jewels etc… Very interesting tradition.
The views from this temple are quite extraordinary.
Great Wall Herb Store
The Great Wall Herb Store is the best in Chinatown, according to our tour guide’s opinion. You can go to this store and visit the diagnostician in the back of the store and describe your ailment. She will then prescribe an herb blend that will help you heal.
This was an amazing place to visit. There were probably 200 wooden drawers behind the counter that looked like old card catalogs from a library. Each of these drawers has special herbs and ingredients to create your healing medicine. One of the drawers that was out while we were visiting was locust shells. :0
Once you have gathered you ingredients, then you take your bag home and boil it in water. You then drink the tea that is created. This store was VERY busy and it appeared to be a thriving business. Eastern medicine has been around far longer than western medicine, so I’m pretty sure they have some very valuable insights into maintaining balance and health. I want to visit the diagnostician about my lower back pain. I’ll report back and let you know how it goes.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
It was really neat to visit the fortune cookie factory and check out the machines that create these unique cookies. You can see in the picture to the right, that the machines are very efficient and create perfect circles of dough that the technician will then fold very quickly into a fortune cookie shape. The folding has to be super quick so that the dough does not dry.
We were treated to samples during our visit of some of the cookies that dried in a circle before they had a chance to be folded. I also bought some delicious almond cookies.
Ten Ren Tea
The Ten Ren Tea shop was delightful to visit. We were taken to a tasting table where our tour guide
treated us to Hibiscus Spice Tea. SO delicious. It was red and had the perfect amount of spice to it. I bought a package of this one and am enjoying one glass a day of this beneficial tea.
Portsmouth Square was the last stop on our tour. This square is known as “Chinatown’s backyard”. The residents of Chinatown converge here every day to enjoy the breezes from the Bay and to play poker.
The women play for pennies and the men play for dollars. Its neat to see the social groups in their separate huddles playing cards. This has been a long time Chinese tradition and is quite evident in this square.
Walking Tours are Great
I think walking tours in big cities that are rich with history are just fantastic. I believe they are the only way to truly understand the city and to get into the nitty gritty details of the history. This tour really opened my eyes to the grand history of San Francisco and Chinatown specifically.
This post just touches on some of the highlights, but many more details and stories were covered by Rick as he took us on a journey to the past. I think delving into the past makes us really appreciate our city and better understand the ins and outs of the different neighborhoods, which are all worlds of their own.
Last, but now least, I have to mention where we ventured after our tour for a delicious dinner. R&G
Lounge, which is around the corner from Portsmouth Square serves authentic Chinese food and is wonderful.
From the entrance, you walk down a long stairway to the basement restaurant. You will notice that the Salt and Pepper Crab is ordered quite a bit by glancing at patron’s plates. We were not in the mood for crab this time, but what we did order was delicious.
Pineapple and Shrimp Fried Rice and Chicken Cashew was really, really yummy. 🙂
So, get out there and take those walks, learn a lot, and finish your informative day with a delicious local dinner. Enjoy!