SAN FRANCISCO — There are two Chinatowns in San Francisco, one where tourists can buy conical straw hats and tacky souvenirs, and a second where the locals live, shop and eat.
There are no defined boundaries — you don’t cross a street and step from Tourist Chinatown to Authentic Chinatown. Rather, the two overlap. A visitor can leave a neon-lit store, loaded down with bamboo back scratchers and plastic Buddhas, and a half-block away turn down a dingy alley dotted with shops and businesses where no English is spoken.
“Chinatown is not a closed attraction. Anybody can visit,” said Linda Lee, proprietor of All About Chinatown Walking Tours (allaboutchinatown.com), which has been showing people around for more than 30 years. “Walk up Grant Avenue, the main street, then go to the rest (of the area) for authentic tours.”
What Chinatown is is a bustling neighborhood. On one recent weekday morning, men and women jammed the sidewalks outside markets where oranges and mushrooms and other produce — some strikingly exotic — were sold along with live fish and crabs; an elderly gentleman shuffled down the street, Chinese music blaring from a radio under his coat; laundry hung on balconies and from clotheslines strung over narrow alleys.
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This is everyday life in Chinatown, and visitors are welcome.
Any street in Chinatown will have an authentic shop or business or two. But explore side streets and alleys. For example, Waverly Place, on a long block between Washington and Clay streets, has beautiful architecture as well as a plethora of delightful smells. Cut down Ross Alley, between Jackson and Washington streets, and you’ll find the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, a 40-year-old institution that churns out 20,000 handmade fortune cookies a day (and where a 50-cent donation is requested for photos).
Step into any number of herbal pharmacies or tea shops, and be overwhelmed by the fragrance. The people are friendly and welcoming, even if you don’t speak their language.