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SAN FRANCISCO CHINATOWN WALKING TOUR
WITH WOK WIZ

Story and photos by

If you're looking for a culinary tour of Chinatown, San Francisco, contact Shirley Fong-Torres, the Wok Wiz. The author of In The Chinese Kitchen, San Francisco Chinatown: A Walking Tour, Wok Wiz Chinatown Tour Cookbook and The Woman Who Ate Chinatown offers tours of Chinatown that are both tasty and informative.

Wok Wiz Chinatown Tour Cookbook by Shirley Fong-Torres
Wok Wiz Chinatown Tour Cookbook by Shirley Fong-Torres
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Chinatown, San Francisco, has a population of more than 100,000. It is the largest Chinatown in the world outside Asia and the oldest Chinatown in North America.

Chinatown location

Compacted into 24 colorful, cacophonous blocks, Chinatown is located between the skyscrapers of the San Francisco Financial District, in the east, and the mansions of Nob Hill, in the west. Bush Street delineates the south boundary, while North Beach and Telegraph Hill define the northern part of Chinatown.

The total area of Chinatown is just over two kilometers long and 1.6 kilometers wide. Although part of the population has moved to the Sunset and Richmond districts and San Francisco Bay suburbs, they still return to the downtown San Francisco Chinatown to eat and shop.

Entrance to San Francisco Chinatown

You will find the ornate Dragon's Gate at Bush and Grant, the main street in Chinatown and the oldest street in San Francisco. Festooned with dragons and stone lions, the green-tiled entranceway, also called Chinatown Gate, was a gift from the Republic of China in 1969.

Driving in San Francisco Chinatown is not recommended, because traffic moves at a snail's pace and parking is next to impossible. The best way to explore Chinatown is on foot. Wok Wiz walking tours begin at the Hilton San Francisco Financial District, at 750 Kearny Street, opposite Portsmouth Square.

Dragon's Gate at Bush and Grant, also called Chinatown Gate
Dragon's Gate at Bush and Grant, also called Chinatown Gate
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Wok Wiz

One of five children, Shirley Fong-Torres began her culinary career by peeling prawns and wrapping won tons in her parents' restaurant. After stints as a school teacher (teaching English to Mexican children), a travel operator and an operations manager at Levi Strauss, she returned to her roots and began teaching Chinese cooking in 1973.

The turning point came when Shirley became a contestant on Wheel of Fortune. She failed to win anything, but when the TV audience heard about the Wok Wiz cooking classes and the cook book she was writing, business boomed.

Shirley Fong-Torres began leading Wok Wiz San Francisco Chinatown tours. They became so popular that cooking classes were relegated to a small part of her business (primarily to private and corporate groups).

"I had people from all over the world going on my culinary tours," says Shirley. "I began sticking pins in a map, marking their home towns, but I ran out of pins!"

Chinatown walking tours

All Wok Wiz tour guides share Shirley's contagious energy. "The guides who help me lead tours must love people," she says. "And they've got to be party animals!"

And, indeed, some of the Chinatown tours continue long after the two-hour walk and dim sum lunch, as the new friends go out for a drink to continue the fun.

Chinese street signs on Grant Avenue
Chinese street signs on Grant Avenue
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

San Francisco Chinatown history

Wok Wiz tours are not only fun. They're also educational. Participants learn about the history of Chinatown and Chinese-Americans. The first Chinese immigrants came during the Gold Rush of 1849, followed by a second wave in the 1860s to work on the transcontinental railroad.

Because of the great influx, the government passed the Chinese Exclusion Acts, which banned new immigrants and denied citizenship to those already in the country. The laws were not repealed until 1943.

Shirley elaborates: "My daddy was a paper-son. He changed his name to that of his sponsors so he could come into the U.S. as a Filipino. Today, many Chinese in San Francisco still carry non-Oriental surnames, such as Torres, for this reason."

Pagoda roofed buildings and lamp post
Pagoda roofed buildings and lamp post
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Bank of America San Francisco

The original Chinatown burned down after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. One of the first buildings to set the style for the reconstructed Chinatown was the three-tiered pagoda called the Old Chinese Telephone Exchange, now the Bank of Canton.

It was staffed by 20 operators, whose fluency in five dialects and phenomenal memories enabled them to accommodate hundreds of Chinese subscribers who disregarded phone numbers and demanded their parties by name. (The Chinese felt it was not courteous to call someone by number.)

Pagoda roofs top the Sing Chong Building, which was also reconstructed after 1906. Emerald and ruby pagoda roofs, (even decorating the phone booths) are believed to keep away prankish spirits.

Filigreed, wrought-iron balconies and dragons also dominate San Francisco Chinatown architecture. Dragons entwine themselves around lampposts and around the facade of the Bank of America. Grimacing temple dogs guard the entrance to the Citicorp Bank.

Jade jewelry

A 3.7-meter statue of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen dominates St. Mary's Square in San Francisco Chinatown. Old St. Mary's Cathedral, where mass is said in both English and Chinese, was built by Chinese workers, using stones and bricks brought from China, by boat, around Cape Horn.

Woman examines live crabs in streetside market.
Woman examines live crabs in streetside market.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Other sanctuaries, such as the Kong Chow Buddhist Temple, the oldest Chinese temple in America, invite quiet contemplation and offerings of fruit, flowers and incense.

Early in the morning, Portsmouth Square, the oldest square in San Francisco, awakens to the gentle movements of tai chi chuan. As the day progresses, grandmothers chat, while tending young children and old men huddle over games of Chinese chess (xiangqi) and poker. Portsmouth Square is a living room for the people in the crowded apartments around it.

Chinese sausages
Chinese sausages
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

On surrounding streets, calligraphy signs denote shops selling Chinese imports, ranging from bamboo furniture and slinky cheongsams to jade amulets and porcelain vases. A sign in one store reads: "Back by popular demand, X-rated fortune cookies!"

Tiger lily flowers

Roast duck, barbecued pork and Chinese sausages hang in the windows of Chinese food shops lining Stockton Street. Crates of snow peas, bok choy, ginger and live crabs spill out onto the sidewalks. Inside, you'll find tanks full of fish, jars of sweet plum sauce and packages of dried tiger lily flowers.

Vendor stocks stand with ginger root.
Vendor stocks stand with ginger root.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Wok Wiz tours go into produce stores and markets. Participants learn how to identify wrinkled green bitter melons, cloud ear fungus and thousand-year-old eggs. The walking tour guide provides an old Chinese remedy: "Two of these eggs, taken before bedtime, are guaranteed to prevent a hangover!"

Ginseng for sale

The Wok Wiz group also peeks into a Chinese pastry shop selling moon cakes and sesame cookies. They learn about fun (noodles): sai fun (bean thread noodles), mai fun (rice sticks) and chow fun (noodle sheets). "I just wanna have fun!" jokes Shirley Fong-Torres.

The San Francisco Chinatown tour also stops at a Chinese breakfast house, selling jook. Shirley makes the thick rice soup for her family and office staff when they are ill.

Bok choy
Bok choy
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Down some more labyrinthine alleys, Chinatown walking tour participants arrive at an art shop, where a painter uses thick brush strokes to transform a sheet of rice paper into a playful panda and a bowl of gold fish.

A favorite part of Wok Wiz tours is the herbalist shop, which sells Chinese herbs, ginseng, dried seahorses and ground deer antlers. The group watches a Chinese apothecary fill a traditional prescription, with exotic ingredients, then tally up the bill with an abacus.

Fortune cookies

The Wok Wiz Chinatown tour ends at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley. Shirley Fong-Torres explains how the batter is poured onto a rotating tray of tiny hot griddles. As each cooked pancake comes back within reach, she picks it up and crimps it into a crescent shape, after inserting a paper fortune.

Chinese apothecary fills prescription.
Chinese apothecary fills prescription.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Shirley gets so involved in reading the fortunes to the group, that the tray goes round and round, baking the fortune cookies two times, three times...

Laughing, she leaves the fortune cookie-making to the owners and brings the group out for an eight-course meal of dim sum. They eat tasty morsels of chicken and ribs, steamed shrimp dumplings and pork-filled buns. Shirley refuses to order eggrolls because "they're too touristy." (She, nevertheless, puts two eggroll recipes in her Wok Wiz Chinatown Tour Cookbook because "they're just so good.")

We ask Shirley Fong-Torres what she likes best about her walking tours of San Francisco's Chinatown. "Eating," she says between mouthfuls. "Just kidding. First meeting people, then eating! I like to become part of their vacations and to have fun with them."

And indeed she does. It appears that good fortune has fallen on Shirley Fong-Torres and her San Francisco Chinatown walking tours, just as in the past, Wheel of Fortune brought luck to the Wok Wiz cooking classes and first cook book.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Wok Wiz Chinatown Tours

San Francisco Travel

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