Sunday, May 16, 2010

Five Senses of San Francisco's Chinatown

As I am currently lacking the time and money to travel internationally, today I explored some back streets of the old Barbary Coast. Boasting the title as the largest Chinese enclave in the USA, San Francisco’s Chinatown seems like another country. (A google search unveils two different answers to the question of which is the biggest Chinatown in the USA— New York or San Francisco. A common explanation is that San Francisco has the most people in their Chinatown, and NYC has the biggest geographical area for their Chinatown).

Chinatown is full of vegetables, music, dining experiences, games, and customs that are unfamiliar to me. Most signs are written in Chinese script, and even when things were written in English, I still didn’t know what they were. “Dried Medlar” anyone? So I engaged all five senses for a few hours and this is what I experienced.

While walking through Chinatown…


I HEARD: restaurant workers banging pots and laughing and joking in Cantonese; the nauseating sound of extensive throat clearing and the frequent hocking of loogies; older Chinese women cackling over snacks and cards



I TASTED: Longan ice cream textured with chunks of what tasted like sweet cream cheese; a fluffy, hot, steamed lotus bun




I SMELLED: the super sweet aroma of fresh baked fortune cookies; open bins of dried fish and shellfish; incense wafting from the Buddhist temples and the gift shops







I SAW: dried shark fins, sea slugs, chitons, and seahorses in jars; an enormous fortune cookie the size of a large grapefruit; narrow Spofford Alley, historical home of Chinese revolutionaries who plotted to overthrow the government in China; men gathered in tight clusters playing games with round tiles and playing cards in Portsmouth Square


I TOUCHED: the smooth, worn wooden beads of an abacus that a merchant still uses to calculate purchases; leafy sprigs of bamboo plants; bricks from the Chinese Baptist Church that was erected in 1888, destroyed by the 1906 earthquake fires, and then rebuilt in 1908

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