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Inside Chinatown

Beyond the dragon gates, finding the heart of the mystery.

March 25, 2007|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — IT'S Chinatown. You've been there and done that, strolling vaguely under the dragon gate at Grant Avenue, dawdling past the kitschy gift shops, then strolling out again, maybe not much wiser, maybe not much merrier. Me too.

But this, it turns out, was our own fault. Early this month, for reasons that will become clear and for the first time in 30 years of visits to San Francisco, I gave this Chinatown some serious time and attention. In 48 hours, I left only once, for a 10-minute cable-car ride. In return, Chinatown delivered joy, intrigue, retail temptation, good cheap food and a bracing glimpse into harsh history and contemporary poverty, all in the space of about 24 blocks.

Yes, the storefronts along the first few blocks of the main drag were peddling enough T-shirts, key chains and tchotchkes to bury again the terra-cotta warriors of Xian. But here's the solution: You walk a little farther. You sip some premium tea, browse the kite shop, gorge on dim sum. Or swallow a little Californian pride and sign on for a tour with somebody who knows the neighborhood, preferably somebody who speaks Cantonese, the area's dominant dialect.

You're apt to learn where to buy live frogs for $2.99 a pound (Luen Fat Market, 1135 Stockton St.) or discover what waits at the top of the fragrant four-story stairwell at 125 Waverly Place. (It's the Tien Hau Temple, one of the oldest Chinese temples in North America. Its tiny space is cloudy with incense, its balcony altar eerily aligned with the spire of the Transamerica pyramid.)

There is, however, a risk to this approach: Much of what you thought you knew about Chinatown may be destroyed.

That atmospheric entrance gate above Grant Avenue, for instance. That always looked to me like a handsome relic from years gone by. Turns out it went up in 1970, about 120 years after the community began taking shape. Most of the 900 buildings in Chinatown are older than that gate.

Then there's Grant Avenue itself, which may be the oldest street in San Francisco and certainly looks to a newcomer like the commercial hub of the neighborhood. But for 20 years, increasing rents have been pushing the community's produce shops, fish merchants, butchers and other workaday businesses a block away to Stockton Street, which runs parallel to Grant. Now the move is nearly complete: one main street for tourists, another for locals.

This is a great annoyance for locals, I'm sure. But in the context of Chinatown history, it's barely worth mentioning. In leaving behind the violence and hunger of China's Guangdong Province in the 1850s to join in the California Gold Rush, the first Chinese immigrants here found themselves deterred from mining because of steep taxes on foreigners and barred from many other businesses by less formal means. So those who didn't end up working on the railroad often took on the other jobs that California's white men weren't interested in: running laundries, for instance, and restaurants.

By 1870, the streets around Portsmouth Square were full of Chinese businesses. And by 1905, despite widespread anti-Asian prejudice and federal laws forbidding the arrival of new Chinese laborers and blocking these immigrants from naturalized citizenship, a strange but lively community had bloomed. Its population was mostly male, its margins occupied by opium dens, gambling parlors and brothels whose customers often were from outside the neighborhood.

Then came the quake and fires of 1906, which leveled the place, and a proposal by San Francisco's movers and shakers to take over the valuable real estate of Chinatown and move the Chinese elsewhere.

This is more or less what would happen 30 years later in downtown L.A., where Chinatown was leveled to make room for Union Station and then rebuilt a few blocks away. But in San Francisco, it didn't happen that way. Instead, the Chinese family associations that ran the community -- you can still see their fancy balconies overlooking Waverly Place -- raced to design and rebuild the district to double as a tourist attraction. Up went tile roofs and street lanterns, curving eaves and stylized facades.

So a destination was born, then sustained for decades, often with minimal help from local government.

Thus, by the time I showed up a few Fridays ago with my wife, Mary Frances, and our daughter, Grace Li Qi, the neighborhood had spent two-thirds of its history living a double life as a crash pad for immigrants and a stage set for tourists.

Maybe that all amounts to more background -- and more strife -- than some tourists need. But in my house, we're in the early stages of learning how to be an Asian American family. Grace Li Qi, who will be 3 in May, was born in the Sichuan province and came home with us in July 2005. The more Chinese history we can find and touch in California, the better.

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