Monday, February 15, 2010

In Chinatown: It's Happy New Year

If you're headed to San Francisco's Chinatown for the big New Year's Parade Saturday Feb. 27 get there early and make a day of it. Have a dim sum lunch and stroll off the tourist-packed streets and onto the alleys that the locals use to get around. Forty-three such alleys criss-cross Chinatown. They date back to the late 1800s when all kinds of nefarious activities took place along these narrow passageways. Look along the bottom edges of the buildings on Pagoda and Ross alleys and you'll see narrow openings boarded over or covered by steels bars. Underground opium dens, gambling parlors or brothels may have operated there. It's said some were linked to a network of tunnels where people fled to avoid police raids.
On Pagoda, my favorite of the alleys, Hang Ah Tea Room, one of the oldest of San Francisco's dim sum restaurants, continues to do a brisk business even though the decor is stuck in the 1970s. There's something charming and exotic about walking along Pagoda where you can hear the frenetic clicking of mah jong tiles behind closed doors and stepping inside this narrow little restaurant.
Hollywood also finds the alleys picturesque: scenes from the Will Smith movie "The Pursuit of Happyness" were shot along Pagoda and Ross alleys. On Ross, next to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, where you can watch women making the cookies by hand, there's a hole-in-the-wall barber shop. Barber Jun Yu, who briefly appeared in the movie, often takes a break outside, serenading passersby on the erhu, a two-string Chinese violin.
You can often get an insider's peak at the alleys on City Guides' free tours that start from Portsmouth Square several days a week and cover many of the alleys on foot. Some of the guides are born-and-raised in Chinatown. For more places to visit and restaurants to try, check out my Chinatown travel app for iPhones/iPod Touches, which has interactive maps and more detailed information (all for .99 cents!).

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