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Daytripper: San Francisco’s Chinatown is full of delectable dishes, literary landmarks

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Posted: Sunday, February 12, 2017 8:00 am

San Francisco’s Chinatown is a great place to experience other worlds — cultural and literary — without ever leaving Northern California. Sample Chinese-American delicacies while exploring shops full of silks and figurines. Then spend some time immersed in the San Francisco of the Beat Generation.

Fortune cookies and American history

San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in the United States. Founded in the 1850s, it became the home of new Americans from China when city government and private property owners conspired to forbid them from living anywhere else in San Francisco. Federal and state laws discriminating against Chinese-Americans and other Asian immigrants helped to shape the neighborhood.

Today, Chinatown is home to cultural festivals around the year, such as the San Francisco Chinese New Year Festival and Parade and the Autumn Moon Festival.

Even without a festival, there’s plenty to see.

Be sure to pay attention as you walk through the streets. Streets and alleys are labeled in both English and Chinese characters, and buildings like the Bank of America, Bank of Canton and Sing Chong Building highlight traditional Chinese architecture.

The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley is a fascinating place to visit.

Oddly enough, fortune cookies are a uniquely San Franciscan invention. Makoto Hagiwara, who ran the Japanese Tea Garden at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, was the first person known to have served the cookies. They were baked in a Japanese-American bakery in the city, Benkyodo. There are competing claims from Los Angeles, but San Francisco’s beats them by a couple decades.

Stop in to watch how the delicate cookies are made, and enjoy the delicious aroma. You can even buy a cookie or two (or a bag of broken cookie pieces).

Old St. Mary’s on California Street started its life as a Catholic mission into the Chinese-American neighborhood. It was built in 1854, and rebuilt in 1909 after it was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake. It’s also the first cathedral of the San Francisco Archdiocese.

It’s joined by a number of other religious sites, such as the Taoist Tin How Temple on Waverly Place and the Buddhist Kong Chow Temple on Stockton Street. Shops throughout the streets offer plenty more to see and do in Chinatown, and restaurants abound.

It’s also the childhood home of Chinese-American authors like Amy Tan, who wrote “The Joy Luck Club,” and Russell Leong. But they’re not the only literary greats with a connection to the neighborhood.

Visit hangouts of the Beat Generation

Columbus Avenue in Chinatown-North Beach offers an eclectic experience of bars, local stores and old haunts from the Beat Generation. Set aside an afternoon to spend some time exploring where one of the largest literary scenes blossomed in the city.

City Lights is an independent bookstore founded by poets in the early 1950s at the corner of Columbus Avenue and Broadway Street. It was the first all-paperback book store in the country, and a haven for “beatniks” who took buses to the store. City Lights still has an entire room on the second floor dedicated to poetry.

After strolling through the literary haven — and maybe buying a book or two — walk less than a block and check out Jack Kerouac Alley. A sidewalk monument commemorates the author of “On the Road,” and throughout the alley are Western and Chinese poems.

Then, stop in at Vesuvio for a drink. The San Francisco saloon in Chinatown-North Beach is a historical monument to jazz and poetry from the Beat era.

The bar became famous when Dean Moriarty, the real-life protagonist of “On The Road,” stopped in on his way to a poetry reading. It also was a regular hangout for Kerouac and other beat poets.

Vesuvio is wonderful on the eyes with kitschy signs, antique mementos and historical markings covering the bar. They even serve the Jack Kerouac with rum, tequila, orange/cranberry juice and lime in a bucket glass. They also have the Bohemian Coffee with brandy, amaretto and a twist of lemon.


If you decided to ditch the car, you can use www.googletransit.com to find the easiest way to take public transit to Columbus Avenue and Broadway Street.

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