One of my friend’s most prized possessions is a broken display of mounted butterflies, gifted to him from friends after visiting San Francisco’s Chinatown. This is just one of the many items he and his friends have collected over the years while trying to explore San Francisco on a budget. As amateur photographers, this group came to Chinatown for its vibrant colors, stayed for the cheap, sometimes bizarre souvenirs, and returned for the pork buns.
Now, whenever these old high-school friends get together in the city, they head to Chinatown with a five-dollar bill burning a hole in their pockets. After drawing names, Secret Santa-style, they embark on a mission to find the most unique items in Chinatown that $5 can buy. Remarkable “winners” over the years have been 20 golden Buddha statues, a pornographic lighter -- with misplaced stars for “modesty” -- and a glass Chairman Mao paperweight.
Ducking into stores and scouring nooks and crannies for the best bargains, I recently participated in the $5 Chinatown Challenge, as I have dubbed it, and came away with a painted lady thimble, a faux snakeskin pillbox, a 420-friendly shotglass and a Golden Gate Bridge tie clip.
A steaming hot pork bun, however, may be the best bang for your buck in Chinatown. You can buy one of these sweet buns, filled with BBQ pork, for just over a dollar at Eastern Bakery (720 Grant Ave.), where Bill Clinton once ate. Inside, a sign states, "Eastern Bakery is the oldest bakery in Chinatown! Since 1924!... Before the Great Depression, The Bay Bridges, World War II, Etc...."
During a recent visit to Chinatown, I heard a young Asian man cheerfully teaching two tourists how to say “one, two, three” in Chinese as he took their picture: “Yee, uhr, sahn!” Although Chinatown draws more tourists than the Golden Gate Bridge, it continues to be the largest Chinese community outside of China. And while it's commonplace for visitors to walk through Chinatown today, this was not always the case. The Chinese Exclusion Act, which limited Chinese immigration from 1882 to 1943, separated families, detained immigrants at Angel Island and excluded Chinese communities within San Francisco. These factors led to the formation of Chinatown as a separate, self-sustaining society.
That fact is reiterated when I talk to an 83-year-old woman who came of age in Chinatown in the 1930s and 1940s. “Chinatown felt like a small town when I was growing up," she tells me. "During the day there were hardly any people on the street. You were either working as a merchant, or in school. When I was a kid, no one came into Chinatown.”
This may be hard to imagine for those who've ever navigated the steady stream of pedestrians and cars running through Chinatown today. You can see this contrast more clearly in the photographs the Chinese Historical Society of America has begun to collect for its Historypin.org database. Looking at Historypin’s map of Chinatown while walking streets like Grant Ave., one can compare today’s views to historical photographs. And with its beautiful location on 965 Clay St., the Chinese Historical Society Museum warrants its own visit.
As San Francisco faces homogenization, historical immigrant communities such as Chinatown become even more important. On its website, Chinatown lists cultural events that are open to all visitors. Feb. 19 marks the Chinese New Year, and the Chinese New Year Parade, touted as "the largest Asian event in North America," is scheduled for Mar. 7.
During this time it is traditional to gift red envelopes filled with money. You may consider giving someone the gift of money meant for spending in Chinatown this year -- although it's good luck to give an even amount of money, so maybe a $4 or $6 Chinatown Challenge would be more appropriate.