"To live in the world without becoming aware of the meaning of the world is like wandering about in a great library without touching the books.".....The Secret Teachings of All Ages

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Chinatown—San Francisco

Although I have been to San Francisco many times, I have never had the opportunity to visit Chinatown. So, Father's Day weekend, when my husband and I planned our yearly trip to Vallejo, CA for the Northern California Pirate Festival (of which we are participants) we drove down a day early, and spent the preceding Friday exploring this very interesting community.

Since we were staying at a hotel in Benicia, our day started with a ferry ride from the Vallejo ferry terminal, to Pier 1 in San Francisco, an enjoyable trip of about 45 minutes. We were traveling with four other pirate buddies who had come early for the festival, and like us, were playing tourist for a day. Three of us headed off toward Chinatown, and the other three stayed on the Ferry, heading for Fisherman’s Wharf’s Pier 41.

Once off the ferry, we walked...and we walked...and we walked—through the financial district, past the famous giant winged pyramid building, on up the hill to Chinatown. It’s easy to tell when you’ve arrived. All the store signs change from English to Chinese. The people around you are all speaking Chinese. Well mostly, but since Chinatown is a huge tourist attraction, we also heard people speaking French, German, Spanish, and East Indian. What struck me most, though, was that despite its touristy popularity, it is still very much a neighborhood community.

The main street, from the Chinese Gate to where things start changing to the North Beach Greek and Italian neighborhoods, runs maybe a little over a mile? Within that core, there are the usual tourist traps selling...well, junk. But there are also markets where I saw everything from pressed ducks hanging in the windows ( it turns out they were actually roasted ducks, but they were so flat they looked pressed to me!), Chinese BBQed pork also hanging in the windows, barrels of dried whole fish or just fish heads, packaged dried herbs from China, and dried mushrooms. The mushrooms fascinated me—from tiny little things to giant sponge-like specimens the size of a dessert plate, amazing mushrooms were everywhere.

We passed a fish market, where a very busy shop owner was selling live, still flopping, fish to customers, who took them away in clear plastic bags. Bins of fresh produce lined part of the sidewalk, the peaches and melons looking like jewels among the corn and greens. So many scents filled the air it was impossible to identify them all—a heady mix of ripe fruit, fish, strange spices, tea, cooking food from the many Dim Sum shops, and maybe incense, but so much more. I loved it.

Lunch was at the Oriental Pearl Restaurant, where we ordered the Dim Sum variety for three, along with a pot of tea, and a bottle of Chinese beer for our friend. The food, brought in sets of threes, was fascinating, both in looks and presentation. One dish, wrapped and tied in lotus leaves, was rice, bean paste, and a wonderful Chinese sausage. I kept getting behind because as I ate each little package I was trying to figure out what was in it and how they were made. The last treats were small custard tarts, a perfect ending to a lovely meal.

After lunch we walked around a bit longer, exploring the import shops, where they sold everything from wind chimes to rice bowls, wood carvings to jewelry, and everything in between. I was hoping to find more pieces of the Phoenix and Dragon china I had started collecting when I lived in Southern California and used to visit the Chinatown district in Los Angeles. No luck with that, unfortunately. The three of us visited a tea shop, sampled some of the tea for sale, and were amazed at the prices on some of the jars. Rosebud tea for $800 a pound. Our friend bought a canister of tea (I don’t remember what kind it was) for around $25. After he paid for it, they put it in a lovely shopping bag with a string handle. I bought some pressed tea wrapped in paper (mainly for the novelty factor) which cost me only $4. When I paid for it, they put it in a plain plastic grocery bag.

By this point it was late afternoon, and we hadn’t heard anything from our other three companions. We decided to head toward Fisherman’s Wharf. To get there, we walked...and we walked...and we walked. Through North Beach, then down the hill through a residential area, and finally to the mega-tourist area around Piers 39-41. At the Clam House we went upstairs for a drink in the bar, contacted our friends by cellphone, who were still exploring and not ready to head back to Vallejo. We took the ferry back to Pier 1, relaxed with another round of drinks at a sidewalk cafe waiting to see if our friends would turn up. They didn’t, so we hopped back on the ferry and returned to Vallejo.

Many things fascinated me about Chinatown. I liked that it was still a thriving community where people lived, worked, and shopped despite the fact that their neighborhood had become a form of entertainment for thousands of others. I was surprised at how clean the neighborhood was, and how polite the people were. And although I know it’s not the same thing as going to someplace like, say, Shanghai, I liked the feeling that I had visited, in a much condensed version, a foreign country.