Rick Evans' San Francisco Chinatown Walking Tour
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The last date listed for Rick Evans' San Francisco Chinatown Walking Tour was Tuesday December 3, 2013 / 2:00pm.
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Forget the kitchsy shops lining Grant Street's main drag. If you want to see San Francisco's real Chinatown, Rick Evans is your guy.
Evans has been heralded by locals and tourists alike for his downtown SF architecture tour. He's recently curated a Chinatown tour with the same passion for place and enthusiasm for digging up the historical dirt. Like the original tour, he peppers this one with vintage photos, facts, and anecdotes you won't find in guide books.
Against a soundscape of cable cars, Cantonese, and Chinese violins (known as erhus and played vertically), Evans reveals the hidden gems of Chinatown's back alleys as well as historical highlights that get lost in the shuffle of 30,000 people inhabiting 24 square blocks.
Chinese immigrants came to San Francisco looking for gold, but found extreme prejudice instead. You'll walk past several still thriving institutions borne of necessity, including the Chinese Hospital, banks, and schools. You'll also experience the raucous fish and live poulty markets where, as with other culturally relative issues (like gambling), authorities look the other way.
Evans repeatedly demonstrates that Chinatown is a series of contrasts and superlatives. The area contains the City's highest concentration of churches and Edwardian architecture (albeit ornamented with Chinese fixtures).
San Francisco's first Roman Catholic Cathedral was built smack dab in the middle, set against the gleaming towers of the Financial District. Although the inside of Old St. Mary's was gutted by the earthquake-related fire of 1906, the original bricks remain, and you can see them up close. We peeked inside and were treated to a wedding ceremony and some of the most stunning stained glass I've seen inside the US.
Outside of the cathedral, the enormous park is all but deserted. Three blocks away, though, the smaller Portsmouth Square is affectionately known as Chinatown's Living Room. Find out why on the tour! You'll also learn the significance of one-time San Franciscan Sun Yat-sen and why he's beloved by both mainland Chinese as well as Taiwanese.
One of my favorite parts of the tour is how Evans has uncovered obscure markers and monuments that routinely go overlooked. Case in point--we spotted a group of lovely aunties (straight from an Amy Tan novel) enjoying a game of mahjong, completely oblivious to the fact that they're sitting on the spot where Capt. John Montgomery planted the first US flag...on then Mexican soil. The irony runs even deeper when you see that the plaque's sponsor is the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Don't worry, it's not all history and there are plenty of window and food shopping opportunities. I've posted a photo of the mahjong tile necklace and bracelet I'm now coveting...
The tour also stops at a spot even Bill Clinton couldn't resist on his 1996 trip. No, it's not one of the ubiquitous massage parlors, but it does involve artery clogging snacks. Personally, I couldn't resist this bakery's famous Moon Cake. I know it's sacrelege, but I snagged a chocolate-covered wedge for $1.25. Good thing they're sold in quarters, sinced they're filled with a dense, rich mixture of lotus paste and duck egg yolks.
In addition to Old St. Mary's cathedral, you'll experience one of the few Buddhist temples open to the public as well as the church that cupcakes built...can't give away all of the secrets, you'll just have to trust me.
There are other surprises, including the Street of Painted Balconies, the city's only kite shop, a fortune cookie factory (bring quarters for the 50 cent photo charge), an erhu-playing barber, and the site of San Francisco's first house.
The Chinese herbal shop was another highlight. For $10, the Chinese doctor/herbalist is in--no appointment necessary, but it is a doctors office, so you may have to wait and hours vary. The good news is that you don't need insurance and your herbal prescription gets filled a lot faster than at Walgreens. (Evans provides a map at the end of the tour so that you can return to all of the sites visited as well as some there aren't time for.)
Another amazing surprise is the presence of a Julia Morgan building in central Chinatown! She was one of the only female architects at the turn of the century and is most famous for Hearst Castle. (Berkeley-ites know her for the City Club and a handful of other iconic buildings across the bay.) Again, don't want to spoil the surprises, but I've posted some close-ups illustrating her dedication to craftsmanship...note the presence of her beloved asymmetry in the design and placement of the windows.
Seeing Chinatown from the perspective of its back alleys was illuminating and unforgettable. Who knew that one of the best views of the Transamerica building can be seen over the laundry-topped brick walls of Chinatown?
This is just one of many aha moments you'll experience on the tour. We happened to take the second tour ever offered and weren't surprised to find that all but two in our group of 12 were alums of his original Architecture Tour. Snag your tickets and do it sooner rather than later--once his devotees find out, it's going to fill up fast.
Our tour lasted about 2.5 hours and we were mighty hungry at the end. The tour ends in a good spot for food/drink, though. Sam Wo's (home of the 'world's rudest waiter' and open 'til 3 am) is across the street. Buddha Bar and the unfortunately named Li Po Cocktail Lounge are also right there and rated by locals as Chinatown's best dive bars. More hungry than thirsty, we headed straight to a spot we'd noticed on the tour--The Pot Sticker. The browned-on-one-side namesakes hit the spot and the healthy portions of green onion pancakes and rice cake pork main dish left us with smiles and $$ left over to do it again.
Quotes & Highlights
- Rick Evans won the 2009 award for the Best Walking Tour of San Francisco from SF Weekly.
Founder and owner of the popular San Francisco Architecture Walking Tour, Rick Evans has been sharing his passion and knowledge of San Francisco for more than ten years and has created more than a dozen specialized public and custom tours of the city. Rick has explored San Francisco like few others and offers an interesting and offbeat insight to the city's architecture, history and neighborhoods.
Set back from San Francisco’s skyscrapers and Edwardian buildings, Chinatown is a one of the most fascinating areas of the city to explore for visitors and locals alike. The jumble of streets and back alleys come alive every day with bustling residents and visitors from all over the world; a wondrous maze of shops, historic buildings and eateries. Above all, Chinatown represents a colorful and unique slice of local history that can only be understood with a resourceful guide. Rick Evans uses maps, drawings and photographs to illustrate the rich history, bringing a sense of humor and intrinsic knowledge of the neighborhood.
This three-hour tour will offer virtually limitless opportunities for new experiences and added insights. Highlights include Old St. Mary’s Church, Chinese Temples, Fortune Cookie Factory, Herbal Shops, Stockton Street Produce Market, Portsmouth Square, Julia Morgan Architecture, Chinese Telephone Exchange and more. Exploring San Francisco is not complete without a in-depth visit to this exotic, historic district. Even if you think you know Chinatown, you haven’t really seen Chinatown until you’ve seen the neighborhood from the perspective of the research that Rick has done - a very original and unique exploration of one of San Francisco’s most exciting and mysterious locations.
The tour will run approximately 3 hours.
Wear comfortable shoes. Dress warmly. No heavy bags or back packs. No cell phone use during tour. Use restrooms before departure (no restrooms are available on the tour route).
A donation of $2.00 per person is requested for a Taoist Temple visited during the tour.