How I See San Francisco: YouTuber Joey Yee
You can call him a Youtuber, a content creator, a video producer—but really, Joey Yee is just a guy who loves showing everyone why San Francisco, the city he was born and raised in, is so awesome. With over a decade’s worth of filmmaking experience, Joey is the sole writer, director, editor, and host of his own YouTube channel.
His short but densely-packed micro-documentaries put the city’s beauty right at the forefront of it all, offering a unique perspective on some of San Francisco’s more underrated spots.
When he’s not in front of the camera though, he’s behind it, working his video-making magic for restaurants, non-profits, and other organizations looking to make San Francisco an even better city.
We asked Joey how he sees San Francisco, and what any traveler should be sure to see and do during their next visit.
You’ve created a lot of amazing videos about San Francisco. Where do you get your inspiration and ideas?
I think the basis of a lot of my videos comes from looking at seemingly ordinary things, and finding something extraordinary about them. I’ll usually ask myself, "As someone who’s lived here their whole life, what would I find interesting? What would fascinate me about a place I’ve seen a million times before?" And the answer is usually some combination of historical context, a heartfelt anecdote, and nerdy statistics-driven analyses of the topic.
If we’re talking external influences here, I think I’m heavily inspired by the dense, educational rabbit holes of Vsauce the methodical pacing and effortless montages of "Better Call Saul"; the cinematic liberties of "Parts Unknown"; and the pitch-perfect soundtrack of every Edgar Wright film ever.
Which video of yours should first-time visitors watch and why?
I highly recommend my Clement Street video. Clement is one of my favorite neighborhoods in the entire city, but can easily get overlooked in favor of the city’s more fashionable areas. I think the video is a great introduction to a smaller, more intimate district and will hopefully entice first-time visitors to check out similar spots.
Which video of yours should a visitor who's familiar with San Francisco watch and why?
I’d suggest watching my Sunset video if you’re already familiar with the city. Even for lifelong locals, the Sunset can be an intimidating plot of land and a place that takes more than just an afternoon to understand. My hope is that it’ll convince you to revisit a side of the city you might have neglected and find a new favorite restaurant. There’s way more in the Sunset than you think.
Which neighborhood, other than your own, do you like to explore?
I’ve been spending more and more time in the Sunset recently. It's like some kind of inflated, bizarro, mirror world of the Richmond. I know they share a lot of similar qualities, but it only makes the discovery of new favorite restaurants, shops, and vistas all the more satisfying. Plus, ever since they closed Great Highway to cars, I’ve been spending more time there than ever before. It’s wonderful.
What's your favorite annual event that happens in San Francisco?
I’m one of the rare Richmond District residents that actually enjoys Outside Lands. I think the excitement and the liveliness that the festival brings to the neighborhood is amazing. For one weekend, it turns one of the sleepiest parts of the city into the hottest location in town. I love seeing all the concert-goers stream down the avenues after each night is over, but I especially love the business Outside Lands brings to all the local shops and restaurants.
Where and what would you choose for your last meal in San Francisco?
Okay, that’s a tough one. If I had to leave San Francisco for good, my last meal would have to be at a place where both the food and the experience is inimitable anywhere else. So I would choose to have a King Henry VIII cut (with all the fixins) at House of Prime Rib. I mean, that’s a no brainer, right? It’s delicious. It’s iconic. It’s infinitely recommendable and moderately affordable.
Which restaurant is still on your list to dine at in San Francisco?
Definitely Mister Jiu’s. The food and the idea behind Mister Jiu’s really speaks to me. Knowing the story of the owner, Brandon Jew, and his Chinatown roots make it seem like such an honest and heartfelt attempt at paying homage to his past. I love restaurants that can inject that sort of personal flavor (pardon the pun) into what they do, and I can’t wait to eat there.
What does a typical day in San Francisco look like for you?
If we’re talking ideal days (because honestly, whose typical day is always interesting?) then we have to begin with coffee. Philz is usually my go-to spot, but Andytown or The Coffee Movement come in at a close second. I might then pick up some croissants over at Arsicault, and head back home for a bit to take care of my birds. My wife and I have a flock of foster pigeons that we care for. Afterwards, I’ll get some work done, either spending a couple of hours writing my next video script or grabbing my camera and going out to film the city.
In reality though, it’s hard to have a “typical” day when there are so many choices, so many different avenues to explore in this city. Each and every day has the potential to be wildly different from the last.
Where do you like to view sunrise and sunset?
Sunrise (if I can ever make it up that early) would have to be from Nob Hill. There’s something about the sunbeams passing through the high-rises, and looking down towards Chinatown and the Bay Bridge that superimposes a wicked sense of calm over the city.
And for the sunset, I think it’s best seen up at Fort Miley. It may not be the most accessible spot (you’ll have to hike up a hill to get to there, and then back down in darkness) but from the clearing on the hill, you have the perfect view of Ocean Beach, Great Highway, and the horizon. I love it.
How have you stayed in touch with what you love about San Francisco during the pandemic?
I think my interest in filmmaking and telling stories about the city has lent itself very kindly to these difficult times. I’ve spent the last year talking to business owners, non-profit organizations, and other independent creators, and it really has allowed me to get (metaphorically) closer to the restaurants and shops in my neighborhood that I love. The city is nothing without it’s small businesses, and being able to support them through my videos is really what thrills me about the work that I do.
We've all had to forego some of our favorite things to keep our communities safe and healthy. What are some of the San Francisco experiences you can't wait to have again?
For me, it has to be live music. I cannot wait to attend a concert in person again. San Francisco has some of the most beautiful and eclectic music venues in the country, and it’s a damn shame they’ve had to sit empty for so long. Places like The Fillmore, Bottom of the Hill, Great American Music Hall, Cafe Du Nord, and the Rickshaw Stop are San Francisco institutions. When they reopen, I’ll be right there on opening night.
San Francisco prides itself on being a welcoming destination. What has your experience as part of the Asian community been like in San Francisco?
To be honest, living in San Francisco as an Asian American almost feels like a cheat code. There's just so much love and appreciation for different cultures here, that growing up a minority simply felt normal. That being said, my personal experience is very different than most.
My grandfather, having been born in California, loved everything about being American, and in turn, his children and grandchildren did as well. We cooked American meals. We drove American cars. We were a family that, by the 1980s, had in many ways deeply assimilated into the American lifestyle. I was raised in a Chinese family, but never learned how to speak a language other than English—and that was okay.
At the same time, however, I spent my fair share of hours sitting in banquet halls, listening to unintelligible speeches and karaoke. I did my time walking the streets of Chinatown. I watched my dad rise through the ranks of our family association, and I grew more and more interested at the inner workings of the neighborhood’s benevolent societies.
The past three decades has felt like this internal tug-of-war between two concepts: making your own way and forging a path ahead for yourself and future generations, and honoring the deeply historic ideals and traditions that brought me here in the first place. I’m sure there are others who share my experience of being born in San Francisco, with parents and grandparents that seek to retain their cultural identity while also wishing for their descendants to succeed in ways they never did. There can sometimes be a tinge of guilt for wanting to carve your own path.
Tell us about a time you felt most at home in San Francisco.
There maybe isn’t a single moment in which I’ve felt most at home, but I will say that spending any amount of time in Nob Hill brings a huge rush of nostalgia—particularly around the cable car tracks. My family used to live right along the Powell-Hyde line, so the gentle hum of the cable car rails is almost like a lullaby, accented by the sound of cars running over the metal plates on the tracks.
What should every visitor to San Francisco do at least once?
Check out Ingleside or West Portal or Bayview or the Sunset. In other words, go where the people live. The people make up the heart of this city. Seeing where they reside, patronizing the same restaurants, and walking the same ground is the most San Francisco thing you could do.
What’s one part of San Francisco that you wish visitors knew about?
Glen Canyon Park. It’s wild to have huge hills and towering vistas in the middle of a city, but I think it’s even wilder to have a giant canyon running through the center, as well. It offers such a different perspective and feeling of ruggedness that most parks in the city just don’t have. You can get absorbed hiking the steep, rocky trailheads, but then take one look to the left and see the houses on the hills, reminding you that you’re in the middle of a major city.
Any final advice for visitors coming to San Francisco?
Of course seeing all the iconic landmarks is satisfying; but when you’re ready to have your visit be less of a checklist and more of an adventure, let yourself wander. Going from one neighborhood to another, seeing cultures, architecture, and cuisines blend together and change, sometimes within a few short blocks of each other, is a sight unlike any other.