Viewing San Francisco from Chinatown

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By Simon J. Lau


As a child growing up in Sacramento, we visited San Francisco several times a year. It was the largest city to us, at a time when Sacramento was still a sleepy town, and it was an accessible trip that the family could enjoy together. At the same time, there were at least two hurdles that constrained our adventures: My parents limited working knowledge of the city and their fear of driving through the hills of San Francisco.

Regarding the former point, my parents were unfamiliar with the city and relied on the recommendations of friends and family, many who were just as clueless as us about San Francisco and what it had to offer. Most of these family and friends were also recent immigrants who spent most of their time in San Francisco in Chinatown. It should be no surprise then that Chinatown became the cornerstone to our trips as well. We often parked in the lot below Portsmouth Square and enjoying lunch on Jackson Street before wandering to my mother’s favorite bakeries. We always went a bit nuts on the Chinese baked goods, buying dozens of “dan tat” (egg tarts), “bo lo bao” (pineapple buns), and any other pastries that caught our eye. This experience had such a lasting impact on me that I still find myself practicing this ritual now: I still bring dozens of baked goods for my parents when I visit them in Sacramento today. Although eating here and picking desserts was always a treat for me (no pun intended), anyone familiar with San Francisco can tell you that Chinatown is not representative of the city at large. Still, much of my early experience of San Francisco grew out of my time spent in Chinatown. No matter how unusual it may sound to others, Chinatown and all its quirks — the smallness of the neighborhood and the high density foot traffic of the streets — represented the whole of San Francisco to me then.

Regarding the latter point, the difficult urban driving conditions further limited our reach. It was hard enough for my parents to get to Chinatown where there was ample parking in the public garage, I couldn’t imagine just how much more difficult it would have been for them to parallel park our 1989 Ford Taurus on a hill. That car was a beast: My parents drove it as if it deserved two lanes of traffic and was so heavy that it would roll back on hills on a stop and go. Given these odds, we often stayed within walking distance of Portsmouth Square.

All things considered, it makes sense now why I had such a skewed impression of San Francisco then. Still, I loved these little excursions that my family took together. Although I never gained a balanced view of San Francisco then, it provided me with great childhood memories and an opportunity to rediscover and explore the rest of the city on my own as an adult.