Thursday, July 28, 2011

San Francisco :: The Largest Chinatown Outside of Asia

The day spent drawing San Francisco's Chinatown was one of my favorite days of the whole west coast trip with Dalvero Academy.  Maybe because it felt like I was not in America at all. Nobody I encountered that day spoke or wanted to speak English. 

This particular Chinatown is the largest one outside of Asia, and the oldest in North America. First Chinese immigrants started to arrive in 1848. This Chinatown became a city within city, with it's own government, it's Old St. Mary's Church (the first Asian church in America), and land/dwelling ownership.

Every Chinatown has an entrance gate, so I went looking for one. This entrance gate was topped with fish, most likely a carp, the symbol of persistence needed to overcome obstacles. For the Chinese, the gates are symbols of barriers and crises that a person must pass during a course of life.

The Gate of Chinatown.

It was both strange and sad at the same time to see most of the Chinese people around me with the walking sticks. A lot of old people, slowly conquering narrow, steep sidewalks, a cane in one hand and a little grocery bag in the other.

Lost in the tight maze of authentic, shabby but colorful streets, my friend and I dived into a place that looked like a bakery. We sat down with our tea and pastry, looked around and realized there were only men there. Mostly old men, wearing those obsolete-looking 70's style glasses and hats of all sorts, reading Chinese newspapers and conversing on subjects mysterious to us. The napkin holders had lottery tickets in them. Every man that came into the shop had to first scratch a lottery ticket. 

Inside the bakery/lottery shop. The man who would later come up to me.

The men noticed that my friend and I were drawing them and started loudly discussing us, pointing and laughing. I have no idea what they said. One of them came over to look at my drawing of him, laughed and gesticulated at me, not being able to speak English. He completely invaded my personal space and pointed his finger right into my face, but his smile and kind eyes somehow made it okay. After all, I was the one invading his normal daily routine.

After the bakery slash lottery shop, we went looking for a Fortune Cookie Factory.  The Chinese really brought the idea of "luck" with them! 

Facade of the Fortune Cookie Factory.
Woman hand-wrapping fortune cookies at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.

The factory was a shocker:  in a small room, crammed amidst chachkas and boxes, there were  two women there, literally hand-wrapping the little fortunes into the hot yellow circles of dough they lifted off the conveyer belt, one by one. The man at the entrance shouted at the tourists "50 cent! 75 cent! 2 dollar! 5 dollar!" He priced every move: want to photograph? that's 75 cents! want to stand there? that's 50 cents! buy a bag of cookies? that's 5 dollars! I shoved a few dollar bills at him so that he'd let me and my friend draw there. He kicked us out after about 15 minutes. My payback was this portrait of him! That's exactly what he looked like, too.

Owner of the Fortune Cookie Factory.

At the end of the day, someone from our group offered me a fortune cookie and I got something good, something about my happiness shining through onto others. I should have saved that one. Do you save your fortunes?

The contrast of the skylines.


  1. Beautiful Julia, I feel like I'm there!

  2. I do save my fortunes sometimes! I love your drawings, and your write-up!

  3. Audrey-thank you-means a lot to me!
    (incidentally, I found a fortune cookie today at work. It said "what's vice today maybe virtue tomorrow" Go figure.)