Scenes from Chinatown

by Carolyn Jung

A Q&A with Kathy Chin Leong and Dick Evans, authors of a new book that captures the depth and beauty of San Francisco’s historic neighborhood.

As a child growing up in San Francisco, I knew Chinatown innately. It was where my mother would shop for glistening, bronzed roast ducks for dinner; where my dad would pop into a bakery to pick up strawberry chiffon cake in a pink box; where we’d get our fill of dumplings at cacophonic dim sum parlors; and where I’d joyfully run up the iconic wide spiral ramp of the landmark Empress of China on my way to many a Chinese wedding banquet in its expansive hall.

Yet the years went by, and as Chinese restaurants and grocery stores began to proliferate throughout other parts of the City and the Bay Area, Chinatown became a place that largely fell off my radar. Until now.

Leafing through the coffee-table book San Francisco’s Chinatown brought back not only a rush of vivid memories but also a new appreciation for one of the City’s most distinctive neighborhoods, with its flourish of red lanterns, ornate pagoda buildings and jade green Dragon Gate archway entrance. With incisive interviews and compelling photographs, writer Kathy Chin Leong and photographer Dick Evans, both longtime Bay Area residents, chronicle a place that has stood the test of not only time but also discrimination, deep-seated poverty, overwhelming congestion and incessant development pressures threatening its endurance as the oldest Chinatown in North America.

Evans and Chin Leong invite readers to refamiliarize themselves with this singular neighborhood founded by Chinese emigres who arrived during the Gold Rush. The book is a philanthropic endeavor, with proceeds to be split between Heyday Books, the book’s independent Berkeley publisher, and the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, founded in 1965 to promote artists and social justice initiatives.

Dick, was this book more challenging than the ones you did on the Mission District and the Haight-Ashbury? DE: It was more work, with a lot more literary content. It took three years to do. I needed someone to write while I took the photographs, so that’s where Kathy came in.

Kathy, why did you get involved? KCL: I wanted to bring my experiences of being an American-born Chinese. I remember visiting my grandma, who worked in a sweatshop in the garment industry, in her single-room-occupancy hotel in outer Chinatown. My dad was born in Chinatown. I was born in the first Chinatown hospital. Even when we moved to the Sunset District, we would go shopping in Chinatown every weekend because Safeway didn’t sell fresh garlic or fresh ginger then.

Kathy, what surprised you most upon returning to Chinatown? KCL: It forced me to come to terms with my culture. I had wanted to get away from Chinatown as much as possible. A lot of American-born Chinese felt that way. But I realized that in all the things I wanted to get away from, there is value. It’s not low-class or ghetto. I was very proud to show off my culture.

Have you been dismayed by the pandemic’s effect on Chinatown? DE: I saw business plummet even before shelter-in-place because there was this fear and this hype that the Chinese were to blame for COVID-19. A young woman who worked at the Chinese Culture Center was yelled at and spit upon while coming to work. It’s a reminder of how racism can rear its ugly head again.

What has been the response to the book? KCL: One friend shared the book with her dad, who has Alz-heimer’s. Opening the book, he recognized Chinese characters and the photos of the old lampposts. She could see the spark in his eyes. To be part of an interaction like that just warms our hearts.

What are the three things in Chinatown that people should experience when life gets back to normal? DE: The Wok Shop. The woman who runs it is 82. She will give you an earful on which wok is best to buy. The Comfort Women statue, Column of Strength, in the St. Mary’s Square annex, and the Goddess of Democracy statue in Portsmouth Square. You’re in the middle of China-town and you have these powerful contemporary social justice statements. Lastly, a visit to one of the new restaurants such as China Live, Mister Jiu’s, Dim Sum Corner or Z&Y Bistro.

KCL: Definitely visit the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum to get your bearings. Have the coffee crunch cake at Eastern Bakery. And enjoy a tasting at Red Blossom Tea Company. It’s the real deal with an experience that’s almost like a wine tasting.

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