San Francisco Chinatown: Fun Things to Do on a Budget


Chinatown 8

One of my favorite movie musicals as a child was Rogers & Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song, mainly because it was the first movie I ever saw that had Asian and Asian-American actors in leading roles. It didn’t matter to me that the plot was ridiculous or that some of the actors weren’t even Chinese (or even Asian in some cases).  I just remember being proud of the fact that people who somewhat resembled people in my family had made it to the big screen.

One of the most memorable songs was the song called “Grant Avenue”.

A western street with eastern manners,
Tall pagodas and golden banners
Throw their shadows through the lantern glow.

You can shop for precious jade
or teakwood tables or silk brocade
Or see a bold and brassy night club show,
On the most exciting thoroughfare I know.

We call it
Grant Avenue, San Francisco,
California, U.S.A.
Looks down from Chinatown
Over a foggy bay.

I had this romantic notion of San Francisco’s Chinatown as a child.  I thought of it as an exotic, bustling thoroughfare of commerce and cable cars in the town where they invented Rice-a-Roni, quite possibly on Grant Avenue itself.  I think I made up that last part, but it made sense to me, since that was all I knew of San Francisco as a kid in Ohio in the 1960’s was what I saw on television.  When I was about five, I used to stomp around the house singing “Grant Avenue! San Francisco! Cal-i-forn-i-a! U! S! A!” until my mother informed me that we were not Chinese and I needed to knock it off.

Anyway, San Francisco’s Chinatown holds a special place in my heart.  Last weekend, we did a little mini-vacation and spent the weekend in San Francisco.  We stayed at the Orchard Garden Hotel, courtesy of the We Blog Travels Travel Writing Contest that I won last year with this post about San Francisco for kids.  We decided to see what we could do in San Francisco on a tight budget, and we started off with a walk through Chinatown.

Chinatown 3

The Orchard Garden is located next to the the Chinatown Gate, on Bush and Grant Avenue.  We were able to walk down the famed Grant Avenue, checking out a thousand and one souvenir shops, selling everything from silk purses to shoes to sculptures to tourist trinkets.  I have to admit, I had the “Grant Avenue” song stuck in my head as we walked along, stopping at nearly every souvenir shop along the way.

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Althought it’s called “Chinatown”, the wares sold on Grant Avenue are sort of Pan-Asian, so you can find imports from Korea, Japan, India, and Thailand as well as China. Some of the best buys are comfy shoes and slippers, porceline dishes, and souvenirs of San Francisco. Alex salivated over racks of reproduction Samurai swords in one shop, and we beat a hasty retreat out of another that featured posters of nude Chinese women from the 1940’s.  Every time my mom comes to town, we go jewelry shopping in Chinatown. The jewelers are usually open to bargaining on prices if you chat with them, and will usually throw in a jade bracelet or earrings if you press them.
Chinatown 6

Some of the shops feature upscale artwork, Buddha sculptures, pottery, and fake designer bags.  I like the more Zen-inspired ones, with incense, stone garden Buddhas, and inspirational paper weights.
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I have to admit, I think most of the Chinese food in Chinatown is pretty terrible, especially on Grant Avenue.  They tend to dumb-down the menu for the tourist palate and all seem to use the same ready-made frozen food supplier.

If you go just a little off the beaten path, however, you can find wonderful, inexpensive dim sum.  This time, we tried the Hang Ah Tea Room.  If you’re on Grant Avenue, walk up the hill at Sacramento Street until you get to 1 Pagoda Place, just past the Willie “Woo-Woo” Wong playground, and turn right.  Nestled on this little side street is some tasty and cheap dim sum in a fairly nondescript setting.  They don’t have the steam carts rolling around between tables that you have to flag down like other dim sum places, so you just order off the menu.  Try  the Crispy Shrimp Balls, Siu Mai (pork & shrimp dumplings), Vegetarian Egg Rolls, and Barbecue Pork Buns.
Chinatown 15

Another tucked away place we enjoyed (along with about 40 other tourists crowded into a very small space) was the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley.   When you walk in, the manager hands you a fresh-off-the-conveyer-belt flattened fortune cookie to taste and you can watch the workers insert the fortunes and fold the cookies by hand.
Chinatown 16

If you want to take a picture, you have to pay 50 cents.  There’s not a lot to see here, but it was fun to see how these ubiquitous treats are made. Fortune cookies are not actually Chinese, but were invented in Japan and based on a Japanese cracker.  Most fortune cookies are consumed by Americans, and you won’t normally find them in restaurants in Beijing or Taipei. Unlike Rice-a-Roni, fortune cookies really are a “San Francisco treat.”
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We enjoyed our walk down Grant Avenue, and though we didn’t buy any trinkets or jewelry or reproduction Samurai swords, we took home some great memories of San Francisco and didn’t spend a lot of money.  While native San Franciscans will likely give a big hipster eyeroll at the thought of all the tourists crowding Grant Avenue, its a place I love going to time and time again.  You never know just what you’ll find there.

You know you
Can’t have a new way of living
Till you’re living all the way
On Grant Avenue. –Where is that?–
San Francisco, That’s where’s that!
California U.S.A.

-Rogers & Hammerstein, “Grant Avenue”

Glennia Campbell
Glennia Campbell has been around the world and loved something about every part of it. She is interested in reading, photography, politics, reality television, food and travel and lives in the Bay Area of the U.S.

She blogs about family travel at The Silent I and is also the co-founder of MOMocrats Beth Blecherman and Stefania Pomponi Butler, which launched out of a desire to include the voices of progressive women, particularly mothers, in the political dialogue of the 2008 campaign.

She found her way to Democratic politics under the tutelage of the late Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Cora Weiss, and other anti-war activists and leaders in the anti-nuclear campaigns of the 1980's. She has been a speaker at BlogHer, Netroots Nation, and Mom 2.0, and published print articles in KoreAm Journal.

Professionally, Glennia is a lawyer and lifelong volunteer. She has been a poverty lawyer in the South Bronx, a crisis counselor for a domestic violence shelter in Texas, President of a 3,000 member non-profit parent's organization in California, and has worked in support of high-tech and medical research throughout her professional career.
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