I‘ve been feeling homesick in my own city. How can that be? For more than twelve months I’ve been nowhere but home. After a year of Covid lockdowns, I miss my city. The whole city. I miss the bustling street life and vibrant diverse neighborhoods that make San Francisco great.
In late winter the pulsing energy of Chinese New Year usually bursts out from the 24 square blocks of Chinatown to bring joy and excitement to the entire city. But this year, at the tail end (we hope) of the coronavirus pandemic, the usually noisy San Francisco streets were quiet. Only the red banners hanging from street lamps reminded us of the Year of the Ox and of Chinatown itself.
The 2020 Chinese New Year Parade that ushered in the Year of the Rat was the last big public event in San Francisco before we locked down in mid-March. Like good turtles we all retracted into our own homes and neighborhoods. Chinatown, usually a vibrant destination for visiting tourists, local shoppers, hungry diners and schmoozing neighbors, dozed off into a fretful pandemic sleep.
Now, a year later, as the days inch longer and the cherry trees blossom, I’ve been nostalgically clicking through images of Chinese New Year parades gone by to remind me what we’ve been missing during this long, isolating year.
Sightseeing at home
Finally fed up viewing the world through a screen, David and I decided to venture downtown to see what’s going on in Chinatown. Within Covid restrictions, we became tourists in our own city.
Feeling timid at first—a year of staying home has its psychic consequences—we started our exploration with a stop to see the red and gold parade float sponsored by Southwest Airlines on display at the Embarcadero.
Thoughtfully, the organizers of the city’s 2021 Lunar New Year festivities figured out that the best way to celebrate was to turn the idea of a parade inside out. It took me a minute, but I finally got it. If people can’t mass together to watch a parade, they can come, family by family, to see the float and a dozen brightly painted ox statues placed strategically around the city. Instead of a parade, we enjoyed a citywide treasure hunt.
Chasing down the oxen was fun, but it didn’t tell us much about what was actually going on in Chinatown. Curious to learn more, I called my friend Nancy Warner, whose photo studio fronts on Grant Avenue, Chinatown’s main drag. “In the beginning of the pandemic I was disturbed because so many shops and restaurants were closed,” she told me by phone.
Nancy described seeing people line up early in the morning at the local school and the YMCA for groceries. In addition the Chinatown Community Development Center sponsored Feed + Fuel Chinatown, an initiative that paid restaurants that had shuttered to prepare meals for needy families and seniors who live in single room occupancy buildings with communal kitchens, which are difficult to use in a safe, socially distanced way.
Before we got off the phone, feeling bummed that we had to postpone our annual new year’s lunch, Nancy said, “Chinese New Year is very subdued this year, but people are adapting.”
San Francisco’s Chinatown has always adapted. Settled in the 1850s by Chinese who rushed to California to try their luck in the Sierra gold fields, the enclave has weathered enormous changes in fate and fortune—growth from the laborers who built the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, deep discrimination exemplified by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the physical destruction caused by the 1906 earthquake and fire, and rebuilding the community in 1908. It has always served as an immigrant gateway where newcomers find help and jobs as they begin their American journeys.
Chinatown has been hard hit by the economic fallout from the coronavirus. First there was the tragic—and ongoing—demonization of Asian people because the virus originated in China. Then there was the financial devastation that small businesses around the city and around the country faced. Restaurants were particularly hard hit. Newspaper accounts lamented the closure of banquet halls and described restaurants that morphed into markets.
Discovering Chinatown today
As David and I approached Chinatown, we wondered what we would find, what the mood on the street would be. Parking was a breeze. That was a clue. We walked up the center of Grant Avenue, now closed to vehicles during the weekend. Many stores were boarded up, whether closed for good or just for now, I couldn’t tell. Several shops displayed colorful facemasks in their windows, marking this moment in time with new, up to the minute souvenirs.
We stopped by the Wok Shop, one of my favorite Grant Avenue stores. I wished I needed something, but the wok David and I bought there decades ago is still going strong. The owner, Tane Chan, greeted me warmly, almost as if she remembered me.
“We felt a big decrease in traffic during the pandemic,” Tane said. “Fortunately we are online. Since everyone has been sheltering in place and discovering that they needed to cook, they went online and found the Wok Shop.”
Always ready with a bilingual pun, Tane added, “Woks are for all walks of life. You don’t have to cook Chinese; you can cook spaghetti sauce, deep fat fry or steam a nice salmon.” Indeed, you can.
Just then two police officers on the beat stopped by to say hello. After the escalating reports of anti-Asian violence, their presence was comforting. “We’re beginning to see more traffic, more activity, especially on weekends,” Tane explained. With Covid numbers decreasing in San Francisco and the number of vaccines increasing, Chinatown was slowly waking up.
Chinatown-born Gimmy Park Li, an acquaintance from my PR days at the San Francisco Zoo, added more perspective. She was born at Chinese Hospital. “The hospital was built in 1924 because Chinese people were not welcome in other hospitals, so we had to create our own institutions,” said Gimmy, retired after 38 years at popular radio stations KNBR and KFOG. Now she brings visitors to Chinatown as a tour guide for Wok Wiz, which introduces Chinatown and its delicious tastes to visitors from around the world.
Although Wok Wiz tours won’t resume until mid-April, Gimmy visits Chinatown about once a week.
“All the food stores on Stockton Street are open so residents can buy their Chinese vegetables, meat and fish,” she said. “Other stores are opening up, and we have outdoor dining again.” In the weeks since our call, limited indoor dining has also resumed.
I asked Gimmy where visitors fit into the mix. “Tourism is an economic engine for both Chinatown and San Francisco. As intrusive as tourists can be, they bring in the revenue, and that’s a good thing.”
Chinatown has been a draw for visitors from the old gambling days of the 1880s, through decades as a nightlife hotspot to its current popularity as one of San Francisco’s most visited tourist destinations. That commerce was encouraged, especially after World War II when the Cold War and fear of communist China cast doubt on Chinatown’s residents.
Community leaders, through their influential family associations, courted San Francisco and national political leaders. They invited them to lunches and dinners at the area’s grand banquet halls. And they honored them as special guests during the annual Chinese New Year Parade, which has long been an event for more than just the Chinese community.
“The parade gives such joy. That’s what I’m missing right now,” Gimmy added. “For tourists, there’s a lot to see— lots of color, gorgeous acrobatic dancing and marching bands from all over the Bay Area. We’ve been able to retain our Chinese identity with these events and invite the community to enjoy them as well.”
Her comments made me nostalgic for pre-pandemic days as David and I settled into lunch in one of the parklets that now line Chinatown’s side streets. The early spring air was brisk and the food was warm and good.
Suddenly, from around the corner, the cascading crackle of firecrackers interrupted our quiet lunch. The barrage was followed by rhythmic drumming that could only mean one thing: a lion dance. We quickly finished lunch and headed back to Grant Avenue, where Norman Lau’s Lion Dance Me troupe was setting up right in front of the Wok Shop.
Passersby pulled out their phones as they gathered around to watch the drumming and acrobatics. We watched as yellow and red lions shook their fluffy heads, flirted with spectators and climbed on platforms and stretched tall enough to reach the lanterns that cross Grant Avenue.
“Lion dancing is both an active sport and a cultural art,” explained Norman, a martial artist since the age of nine. He started his school, which sponsors programs at five San Francisco high schools, in 2012. Private bookings for birthdays and parties pay the bills. “It’s nice to see more people out this weekend. It’s going to be a long struggle to get back to normal.”
The Chinatown lion shakes itself awake
During four Saturday afternoon visits to Chinatown in February and March, we watched the lion of Chinatown yawn and begin to stretch itself awake. Each week parking became more difficult, the restaurants a little more crowded. As we wandered around we discovered new shops opening into the headwinds of the pandemic, their proprietors guardedly optimistic about the return of tourists.
Mindy Fong’s Jade Chocolates has had an extended soft opening since March 2020, just before the lockdown. She blends spices and tropical fruits into chocolate using her cultural heritage—part Chinese, part Filipino, part Pacific Islander—to make something unique. She sells her amazing chocolates on Grant Avenue just north of California Street.
“I opened in Chinatown because it feels like coming back home,” said Mindy, a fifth-generation Chinese-American. “My family’s roots began here in the late 1880s. ”
The pandemic has been really hard on Mindy’s fledgling shop. “It was pretty horrible. It still is. Weekdays are still like a ghost town here, but the weekends are picking up,” she said. Her future plans include a cafe serving afternoon tea, brunch and pastries, all with a Pacific Island influence. I can hardly wait.
In Wentworth Place, basically a one-block alley originally known for the hawkers who sold dried fish and seafood, we found the brand new, art-deco inspired sign for the Lion’s Den. The door to the new nightclub, consciously modeled after mid-century Chinatown night spots, was open.
Co-owner Steven Lee invited me to come inside and look around. The upstairs bar was just waiting for patrons. Downstairs, at basement level, a small stage looked ready to host live shows. With a wink, I asked Steven whether people our age—i.e., adults of a certain vintage—will feel welcome. “Before 11,” he told me. “That’s when the D.J.s will take over from the musicians.” I must confess that I started fantasizing about a sophisticated, adult, post-pandemic birthday party. Wouldn’t that be fun?
Half a block up Wentworth Place we found Chinatown Restaurant with outdoor balconies overlooking Portsmouth Square, the bustling park known as Chinatown’s living room. I loved the raven’s-eye view with lanterns glowing in the sun, new parklets and San Francisco’s skyscrapers in the background. It reminded me of Hong Kong.
Back on street level, we heard music coming from the park. Of course we went to check it out. Beneath the open-air pavilion, a small ensemble was playing Chinese instruments while two women, wearing puffer jackets, sang Cantonese opera. An appreciative audience listened attentively.
Wilma Pang of A Better Chinatown Tomorrow founded the group about 10 years ago after retiring from teaching music at City College. A Chinatown resident for more than 35 years, Wilma started her organization to share residents’ rich, authentic culture with both the community and with visitors. “Culture, real people’s culture, is what the tourists like to see,” said Wilma, reminding me that tourism is the number one industry in San Francisco.
Wilma explained that the musicians are recent immigrants from Canton (now Guangzhou) in southern China. Most are over 70 years old and speak limited English. “They grew up in the countryside with this music. It was their popular culture.” She provides the instruments and a studio for practice and socializing.
Although there are 20 musicians in the group, only seven played that afternoon. “They’ve finally gotten their shots,” laughed Wilma. “This is the first time they’ve played in public in more than a year.”
Slowly, guardedly, on each visit more and more shops and restaurants are open, more and more people visiting. After a dormant year, the Chinatown lions were roaring back, doing their best to chase the coronavirus away and bring joy back to Chinatown for residents and visitors alike.
A sad epilog: it happened again
On Saturday, March 20, the first day of spring, Portsmouth Square was packed. It wasn’t music that drew people to the park this time, but sadness, anger and grief over the killings in Atlanta earlier that week. Signs like “Hate is a virus” and “Stop AAPI hate” filled the square.
As fear of the pandemic wanes and indignation at violence against the Asian community grows, Chinatown is waking up in more ways than one.
Resources for exploring on your own
JADE CHOCOLATES: 607 Grant Ave @ California Street. Enjoy some of the most amazing chocolates San Francisco has to offer.
LION DANCE ME: Lion dance teams are available for parties and events.
LION’S DEN BAR AND LOUNGE: This modern take on the iconic Chinatown nightclubs of the past is now open according to San Francisco Covid guidelines. Check their website for reservations.
WOK SHOP: This Chinatown fixture is the place to go for woks, steamers and enticing kitchen accessories. And Tane Chan treats everyone like a long lost friend.
WOK WIZ CHINATOWN WALKING TOURS: Tours are scheduled to resume in April 2021 after all the tour guides have received their vaccinations.
To learn more about Chinese New Year, check out Celebrating Chinese New Year in Singapore.