Why do you go to Chinatown?
A decade ago, I used to shop for groceries in San Francisco Chinatown. I would bike through the Stockton Street tunnel, buy meat and vegetables at the markets on the corner of Jackson Street and then turn right back around toward my apartment in SOMA. It was 45 minutes round trip, the price was right and I wasn’t making any cultural stops.
These days I linger, much more aware of the history around me, even as I drop in at Red Blossom Tea Company or browse the aisles at Ming Lee Trading. It’s the result of reading books like Iris Chang’s The Chinese in America, wandering the galleries at places like the Chinese Historical Society of America and hearing talks like Richard S. Lee’s “Why Chinatowns Speak Cantonese.” History brings the neighborhood to life.
If you usually only visit Chinatown long enough for a meal or to visit a particular shop, then perhaps you would enjoy making your next trip a bit longer, too.
I started rediscovering Chinatown three years ago when I visited the Chinese Culture Center, housed on the 3rd floor of the Hilton Hotel on Kearny Street. Take their Chinatown Heritage Walk and you’ll start to see things you missed before. Visit like I did when the crowds are light and you can carry on a conversation with your tour guide along the entire route. Chances are good you’ll be speaking with a longtime neighborhood resident.
Once you’ve heard the stories about the old Chinatown telephone exchange, the Tin Hau temple on Waverly Place and the social work at Cameron House, you’ll be ready to visit a place like the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum up the hill on Clay Street to start stitching together in your mind the Chinese American story dating back to the Gold Rush. Whether you’re visiting a Chinatown in San Francisco, New York or Los Angeles, you’ll be inspired to read more, learn more and come back again.
You can do all of this in Chinatown before lunch. Or if time’s short, you can save lunch for next time.
What about you? Are there any sights or memories from your own visits to Chinatown that are particularly important to you?