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As you pass through the dragon-topped Chinatown Gate on Bush St. at Grant Avenue, you are entering another world. Just steps from the tall skyscrapers of the financial district and the upscale shops of Union Square lies a crowded neighborhood of temples, herb shops, restaurants, fish markets, bookstores, produce markets, banks and bakeries that cater to both the tourists who come to visit and the Chinese and other Asians who call Chinatown home.
The only way to see Chinatown is on foot. Streets are crowded, parking is impossible, and only by walking around will you be able to experience the sights, the sounds, and the smells that bring the neighborhood to life. Because most visitors enter at the Bush St. Gate, the shops along the first few blocks of Grant Avenue are quite touristy. Just keep walking and you'll get to the real Chinatown.
You may want to start your tour with a visit to the Chinese Historical Society of America (650 Commercial St. between Montgomery and Kearny), with photographs and documents that trace the history of the Chinese in America. From there it's just a few steps to Portsmouth Square where you'll often find people playing mah jong or practicing t'ai chi. The Chinese Cultural Center (in the Holiday Inn at 750 Kearny) offers art shows and entertainment programs as well as guided walking tours on Saturday afternoons. Other walking tours are available from Shirley Fong-Torres, the "Wok Wiz" and several other sources.
The best strategy for exploring Chinatown on your own is simply to wander. As you make you way up the narrow alleys and along the crowded streets, keep your eyes open for dragon-entwined lampposts, elaborate pagoda roofs, and street signs with Chinese calligraphy.
Do take the time to explore the many herb shops and food markets. Both Chinese and Caucasians come to Chinatown to shop for everything from fresh meat, fish and produce to handmade noodles to exotic herbs and spices, often at bargain prices. Most shopkeepers are willing to answer questions, even if you aren't likely to buy much. And you never know when you might need some red dates or ginseng or perhaps some oolong tea.
For a look at fortune cookies being made, poke you head in the door at 56 Ross Alley, the home of Golden Gate Fortune Cookies. When you're ready for a break, stop by the Imperial Tea Court at 1411 Powell for a restorative cup of perfectly brewed tea in an atmosphere fit for a Mandarin.
Chinese Historical Society of America
650 Commercial St. parallel to Clay
Open Tuesday to Friday, 10 to 4 pm
Admission is free
Chinese Culture Foundation
In the Holiday Inn at 750 Kearny
Open Tuesday to Saturday 10 am to 4 pm
The Foundation offers two walking tours of Chinatown:
Chinese Heritage Walk
Saturdays, 2:00 pm
$15 adults, $5 children under 18
Chinese Culinary Walk/Luncheon
Fridays, 10:30 am
$30 adults, $15 children under 12
Minimum of 6 people
WOK WIZ CHINATOWN TOURS & COOKING CO. 415.981.8989
Tours leave from the headquarters of WOK WIZ, 654 Commercial St., daily at 10:00 a.m. Tours with dim sum lunch: $40 per person, ends around 1:15 p.m. Tours without lunch: $28 per person, ends at 12:00 noon Reservations are REQUIRED Cash, travelers/personal/business checks only.