Chinatown Walking Tour Spotlights Rich Culinary History During APEC

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A woman waves through a window of a restaurant.
Ying Huang, owner of House of Dim Sum, waves at Steven Lee and Beverly Yip as they lead a Chinatown walking tour for attendees of APEC in San Francisco on Wednesday evening. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)


n his booming announcer voice and wearing a classy black suit and pair of sunglasses, Steven Lee recounted his first memories of dining at Sam Wo Restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

As a 20-year-old San Francisco State University student, he stepped into the establishment with friends after a late night out. With its doors open until 3 a.m., the restaurant satiated the cravings of hungry customers by serving inexpensive, classic Cantonese dishes like chicken jook, wonton soup, chow fun, sweet and sour pork and rice noodles.

Grandparents brought their children to learn how to use chopsticks. Mahjong players, with their minds fixed on a plate of $4 chow mein, filtered in after the parlors closed for the night.

Little did Lee know that decades later, he would be vital in raising money for Sam Wo’s resurrection in a humble location steps away from Portsmouth Square. After more than 100 years of service, a change in ownership and location, the reputation of having the “world’s rudest waiter” and maintaining a place in the ever-changing landscape of the country’s oldest Chinatown, Sam Wo endures.

A group of people walk on a crosswalk across a wet city street.
Steven Lee (center), co-founder of Chinatown nightclub Lion’s Den, leads a walking tour of the neighborhood for attendees of the APEC conference in San Francisco on Wednesday. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

With President Joe Biden and world leaders from the Pacific Rim, including President Xi Jinping of China, in San Francisco for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, it has put neighborhoods like Chinatown in the spotlight.


Lee wants the light to shine on legacy establishments like Sam Wo and the new restaurants reimagining Chinatown. That was the premise behind Wednesday night’s walking tour of the neighborhood’s beloved restaurants.

Lee, the city’s former entertainment commissioner, created the tour with Beverly Yip, an events and hospitality entrepreneur. Together, they led a diverse group of about a dozen summit attendees, some of whom were journalists, to iconic spots while weaving in personal anecdotes, history and stories. At hole-in-the-wall to-go spots, Michelin-star restaurants, chic lounges and revamped eateries, attendees met with chefs, owners and employees.

A hand reaches for one of five dumplings on a dish.
Dishes are served to guests at China Live during a Chinatown walking tour for APEC attendees in San Francisco on Wednesday. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The group started at China Live, which offers an elevated take on Chinese cuisine and is known for its Peking duck. Next was Osmanthus Dim Sum Lounge. The tour stopped at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, where tens of thousands of fortune cookies are made by hand daily and images of visiting celebrities decorate the walls.

Also on the itinerary: Empress by Boon, R & G Lounge, Capital, Mister Jiu’s and Hang Ah Tea Room, the oldest dim sum restaurant in America.

Lee, 66, is also a Chinatown institution. He founded several clubs, including Lion’s Den, which is just a couple of blocks away from Sam Wo.

On Monday, Lee met with a KQED reporter at Sam Wo. After showing his signature on the bottom of the tables, he explained each weathered photograph on the walls. On the way to his club, locals shouted greetings. Some accompanied him for a few moments, while others just simply embraced him.

Yip said Chinatown runs in her blood. She lived on Sacramento Street growing up. Her father worked at a restaurant and her mom owned a business. When she was in high school, she competed for Miss Chinatown USA. She agreed to co-lead the tour, drawn to the fact attendees would “see Chinatown through our eyes.”

Lee spoke of the “battle of Chinatown” and the lingering perception of the area as unsafe and dirty. He wants that to change.

“During AAPI hate — even before that really was heavy-hitting, before COVID — you would come to Chinatown and all the restaurants would be empty,” Lee said. “But if you go through the Stockton Tunnel and hit Union Square or even go to North Beach, there’s lines waiting to get in.”

A group of people sit at a table in a restaurant turned toward two people speaking.
Dishes are served to guests at China Live during Wednesday’s Chinatown walking tour for APEC attendees in San Francisco. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The summit — and the tour, on a smaller scale — can work to reverse the perception, he hopes.

“The biggest thing we hope for is to send that message that Chinatown and San Francisco, in general, that we are clean. We are safe,” he said. “We’re not any different from any other city. It’s just that we get the publicity.”

Before coming to the tour, Zahara Stroud, an APEC attendee who lives in the South Bay, rarely visited Chinatown. She thought it was a crowded cluster of streets filled with tourist shops. She said she thought it was “a very casual atmosphere — you walk in, you grab your food and leave.” She went home with a different mindset.

“Tonight, we learned about the families who still run these restaurants as a dedication of love, and we also got to see some of the new owners who are trying to upgrade the experience of eating in Chinatown to a new level,” she said.