You are here

January 22, 2020

How I See Chinatown: Linda Lee

There's a saying in San Francisco: "Wait a few days and a new neighborhood, or "micro-hood, will be born." The reality is, whether you've been here once, twice or 20 times, San Francisco is never the same. The same can be said about its Chinatown, one of the city's most iconic neighborhoods. You've probably walked down Grant Avenue, starting at the Chinatown Gate and strolled the entire length through to Columbus Avenue, taking in the smells and sights, tchotchkes and architecture. However, the neighborhood is much more than this one street.

See Chinatown through the eyes of Linda Lee, whose family opened up one of the very first travel agencies in the neighborhood more than 50 years ago. Following in her family's footsteps, Linda started her own walking tour company called All About Chinatown. This is how she sees Chinatown.

Describe your perfect day in Chinatown.

I would start the morning with a visit to Portsmouth Square to see the residents enjoy this historic park. There’s always something to watch: seniors doing tai chi, children at the playground, men and women playing cards and Chinese chess, or chatting with local residents who come out to enjoy San Francisco’s year-long Mediterranean weather. At 11 a.m. I would head to City View Restaurant, 662 Commercial St., a hidden gem in an alley and be the first to enjoy the tranquility of the restaurant and their delicious dim sum before the crowd comes.

After brunch, I would head to the Stockton Street food markets to buy fresh foods: seasonal greens and fruit, meat and poultry, and live seafood brought in daily. Next comes purposeful visits to my favorite places to buy take-out dim sum and roast duck on the myriad of cross streets between Stockton Street and Grant Avenue.

I would end up on Grant Avenue, Chinatown’s main street of stores, restaurants and buildings of architectural interest. If I’m lucky, there is no line at Golden Gate Bakery, 1029 Grant Ave., where I would buy a dozen of the best egg custard tarts to bring home for family and friends. Next, I would cross the street to visit the Vital Tealeaf tea store, 1044 Grant Ave., to invigorate my day with aromatic teas and chat with friends. At the tea shop, we often meet people who come from all over the world to visit Chinatown. To top off a perfect day in Chinatown, I would end my visit at my favorite massage spot, Fung Soong Massage, 651 Kearny St., where the spa is clean, brightly lit, reasonably priced and offers three kinds of massages: chair, foot and body. I go for the full package every time.

What should every visitor to Chinatown do at least once?

If you really want to see the real Chinatown, stroll through the Stockton Street food markets. It’s where the residents shop, where the Chinese Americans shop for foods not found elsewhere, and the variety, quality and price of foods are incomparable. The most important quality? Freshness. When the Chinese select foods, the freshest foods are important because of texture, color, aroma and the most important, taste. If you are a visitor, it’s impossible to resist seasonal exotic fruits from all over the world. Depending on the season, you'll find everything from loquats, dragonfruit, dragon eyeballs (longan), rambutan, jackfruit, and durian.

What’s your favorite place to take a photo?

Waverly Place is the most interesting alley to view because of the buildings. Most visitors stop at the iconic gate on Grant Avenue and Bush Street that welcomes visitors to Chinatown, but Waverly Place is worth the stroll to see the buildings. On my tour, I highlight the significance of the architectural details and more importantly, the history of the buildings. I grew up on Waverly Place and every building evokes a story of who lives here, what kinds of businesses the residents needed, and why people still come here. Check out this list of businesses that this short alley offers: laundries, restaurants, private clubs, dentists, accountants, barbers, temples, churches, a recreation center, a feng shui store, TV repair store, travel agencies, jewelry stores, grocery stores, candy stores, toy stores, print shops, music stores, bubble tea shops, live poultry market, and our newest resident, Mister Jiu’s Restaurant featuring celebrity chef Brandon Jew.

Where do you indulge your artistic side in Chinatown?

I’m not blessed with the talent and skill to be an artist, so I love visiting the stores in Chinatown to view merchandise sold by a country that flourished artistically for thousands of years. On Grant Avenue you can find antiques, two-sided embroidery, glass bottles with paintings on the inside, exquisitely carved jade, cloisonné, paintings, calligraphy and more. As you stroll, you often hear erhu musicians playing on the street.

What’s your favorite event that happens in Chinatown?

The Chinese New Year celebration is a two-week event where the stores offer merchandise for shoppers to decorate their homes and buy symbolic foods to ring in the new year with family and friends. Children wear red for good luck, and red envelopes and banners decorating storefronts create a colorful and festive mood. The Chinese give children red envelopes filled with money to signify that the new year will be prosperous for all. Streetwide celebrations continue with firecrackers and lion dancing, culminating with the Chinese New Year Parade, considered one of the world’s top 10 parades. Parade viewers enjoy more than 100 elaborately decorated floats with people in costumes, school marching bands, lion dancers, local community groups, and the grand finale with the Golden Dragon, which is more than 200 feet long.

Where and what would you choose for your last meal in Chinatown?

Capital Restaurant is the restaurant Chinese Americans flock to for good, down home meals that remind us of what mom would cook at home. The food selections are reasonable and delicious. Diners come here for the comfort food, and it’s not possible for me to dine here without running into my friends. Make sure you try the salt and pepper chicken wings.

Which restaurant is still on your list to dine in Chinatown?

I don’t want to eat the same foods every day, so here is my list of restaurants for my ever-changing palate:

  • City View and Great Eastern for dim sum
  • Capital Restaurant for a good lunch or casual dinner
  • R&G Lounge for an elegant, family style banquet
  • Bund Shanghai and Z&Y Restaurant for my Northern style food fixes
  • The House for Asian fusion

Who do you follow to keep up with San Francisco news?

I subscribe to the paper edition of the San Francisco Chronicle to read the front page to the last. I never miss the columns of C.W. Nevius, Matier and Ross, and Willie Brown. Online, I read Hoodline, for up-to-date news about happenings in San Francisco’s neighborhoods.

Any last advice for travelers in Chinatown?

  • If you are driving, the best place to park is the Portsmouth Square Park Garage.
  • After strolling along Grant Avenue for gifts and Stockton Street for foods, get off the beaten path to find less crowded streets.
  • Find a temple and wander in.
  • Find an herbal pharmacy to view unusual products to use as medicine.
  • Want to know more about the history of how the Chinese helped to build this great nation? Stop in at the Chinese Historical Society Museum, 965 Clay St., to view exhibits and bring home a book from their extensive collection to share with others.
  • Buy a mahjong set and learn how to play with friends.
  • Get your name written in Chinese and have a signature chop made with it.
  • Get a foot massage.
  • Don’t leave without eating authentic Chinese food.