Of course everybody says they love San Francisco.  A city whose image has been splashed at every tourist brochure and travel agency poster for as long as I remember. And what’s not to love?

a. Rolling hills – lots of huffing and puffing!

b. Supposedly great weather -I found this questionable

c. Romantic atmosphere-in a Hollywood sense

d. Diverse cultures – to  a certain degree

And so with these post-card images in mind, I headed out to the city by they bay. My goal: to as much hills as my feet can take me in three days.

Naturally, since I do walking tours in Binondo, I had to do a WOK in one San Francisco’s biggest tourist draws: Chinatown.  And so on my first day I signed up for a walking tour (US$42.00) at a leading tour outfitter called WOK WIZ who lead us through ins and out of this historic neighborhood.

In a nutshell, Chinatown is one of the oldest places in San Francisco having been founded during the early days of the gold rush which turned the city into a rollicking, cash-rich boomtown (think Silicon Valley in the pre-dot com bubble burst).

Let me WOK you through:

The part where most of Chinatown is located — all 24 square blocks- is in a ‘relatively’ flat part of the San Francisco, meaning the hills are easier to walk around  as compared to the more steep parts around the city. Most of the streets intersect each other in a chessboard pattern with the two main roads being Grant Avenue  (tourist strip) and Stockton Avenue (market street)  being parallel to each other. Both are about a kilometer long (i think) and everything in between is considered part of the neighborhood.

Pretty compact and, to the first time visitor, quite BIG.

Grant street- heart of tourist Chinatown. Chock full of Chinoiserie in its most disneyfied form. Think Golden Gate posters, cheongam-shaped champagne wrappers , oversized cloisonne jars, Chinese shoes,  screaming ‘I LEFT MY HEART IN SAN FRANCISCO’ tshirts- a good introduction really to the tourist frenzy of the neighborhood.  And if you ask me, the place to get cheap post cards if your so inclined to send one.

For architecture buffs  (like me), the side streets of Chinatown has perhaps one of the most eye-catching and kitschiest arcthitecture in the city with Chinese details (authentic or otherwise) flaunting their colors and their details seemingly to attact the attention of the passers-by.

There is a certain symmetry in the streets of Chinatown. Almost all buildings have kept their 19th cenutry (?)  height which is three stories.  Still very human-scale and not overpoweringly diminishing.


How San Franciscan can you get with this?

And the grand daddy of San Franciscan chinoiserie architecture! This three storey bank building which used to house the telephone exchange.

I think it looks Japanese.

Our little group with our guide in a red hat to the left in a place called Ross Alley, which if memory serves me right, is called ‘Ku-Lu-Song’ in Cantonese. Then I saw the Chinese characters 呂宋, suddenly and a eureka moment ! Lu-Song is the Chinese name  from where Luzon derives its name from!  It was said that a lot of the Chinese who went to the Americas came from the Philippines. The Manila connection perhaps?

After about 2 hours of walkabout, we ended at a local restaurant where we had a sit down lunch of noodles, dimsum and the like. Here’s a  last bite of the tour with chef Shirley Fong-Torres; local San Francisco celebrity, founder of WOK WIZ tours and coincidentally also the brother Ben Fong-Torres former editor of Rolling Stone Magazine.

Overall, I have mixed reviews of this tour, on one hand, it was a good introduction to SF Chinatown, the guide was perky (enough) to get my attention for a moments and having grown up in the neighborhood certainly helped with a lot of insider stories.   However, I think it would have helped if there was more flow in the overall conducting,  some parts (like the tea shop visit) was interesting but quite dragging. It was sometimes hard listening to guide given all the noice.  And there was also a sense of ‘exoticizing’ everything, why else would you let the group in a store selling live snakes, turtles and what not?  Perhaps because it was a Caucasian group?  Maybe its just a different perspective.

All told, I found SF Chinatown to be a very interesting place to wander around. A totally new experience from our own Binondo whose Tsinoy character is so totally different from her other version across the Pacific.