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Talking Up the Hidden Side of Chinatown


SAN FRANCISCO — Teenage tour guide Gloria Chan stands on a street corner in this city's bustling Chinatown and offers an unvarnished history of the community her generation knows as "C-Town."

She motions to a nearby grade school, explaining with a wince that it was founded in the 1880s as the "Oriental School," back when many San Franciscans didn't want their children associating with "Asians and Mongolians," who were thought to be dirty disease carriers.

"I'm sorry, but that upsets me," she says. "I'm Asian. And I'm very clean. I have good hygiene. How could they get away with that?"

Three times a week, the 17-year-old Chan leads a 90-minute walking tour that's equal parts personal history and social commentary. Along with a handful of fellow Chinese American teens, she offers tourists and business groups the other history of Chinatown--reciting transgressions and peccadilloes suffered by her ancestors who settled in the area 150 years ago.

With insights drawn from family stories and research, they stroll the labyrinth of Chinatown, pointing out landmarks not discussed elsewhere. And they dispel such stereotypes that area alleyways are dangerous or that all Chinese people are martial arts experts. And that Asians are a passive people afraid to fight for their rights in America.

At a cost of $8 a head, the Chinatown Alleyway Tours are part of a program sponsored by a local nonprofit organization to raise money to clean up area alleys. Through their tour-guide monologues, these interns also learn something about themselves and their culture.

In a city that's 30% Chinese--with one of the world's largest populations of Chinese-speaking residents outside China--the teens engage in a cultural tug of war.

Many are the first generation of immigrant families to feel more American than Chinese. Though their parents often don't speak English, they live in a fast-paced world of pop culture, drugs and social pressures.

Unlike many others, Diana Pang didn't have to travel to Europe or Asia to investigate her family's cultural roots. All the Bayview-area resident had to do was board a city bus to Chinatown.

"I'm undergoing an identity crisis," says the 18-year-old. "There's just this huge generation gap between me and my parents. They don't understand me. I don't understand them. This is the way I'm reaching out to them. By digging up their roots."

Cultural Connection

Started in 2001, the alleyway tours give many guides a renewed cultural identity as Chinese Americans, coordinators say.

"They see adults listening to what they have to say--their take on some uncomfortable cultural moments," says Jane Kim, an organizer for the Chinatown Community Development Center.

None of the teens or their parents live in Chinatown anymore. Although for generations many arriving immigrant families have first landed there, most eventually relocate to more upscale communities, returning only to visit relatives.

But these eight teens ignored criticism--even from Asian American friends--to return to the old neighborhood to volunteer to clean streets, care for the elderly and lead the tours.

"They've come back to embrace a community they've been taught to be ashamed of," says Kim. "For many, Chinatown has a reputation of being touristy and dirty, a place where people spit on the streets and elderly old women push you around. Their friends say, 'That's disgusting! Why would you want to walk through there?' "

Jennifer Wong was led back to Chinatown by omissions in her high school American history books. "There's wasn't one word about the social struggles faced by Asian Americans," says the 18-year-old. "Just a few lines about how the Chinese came here to build the railroad. That wasn't enough."

City officials understand such anger. "Many historic sites are important because they show the pain of the past," says San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau spokeswoman Laurie Anderson.

Added Rose Pak, a consultant for the Chinese Chamber of Commerce: "These kids are telling uncomfortable truths. I've gone on the commercial Chinatown tours and they're worse--all they talk about are brothels and opium dens. They make me cringe."

The alleyway tours feature a combination of polished oratory and the "ums," "likes" and "you knows" you might expect from teenagers. Meeting in Portsmouth Square, the brick and concrete public park considered the social heart of Chinatown, the tours wander through half a dozen alleyways, each of which has played a role in neighborhood history.

View From the Alley

Along the way, the guides--each of whom has an alley or two of expertise--cover the standard tourist fare: They explain how residents have long used the alleys as shortcuts to avoid the neighborhood's jampacked main drags and how each carries both an English name and one of Chinese significance. They show the spots where crowded fish markets once thrived and where women hung their bok choy out to dry.

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