Chinatown, San Francisco: the Hardrock Cafe of China

Strolling up to the Gate on Grant and Bush, you can tell Chinatown is catered to you. You – the tourist, with its pagoda-style buildings, its brightly-colored gutters, its “traditional”-style street posts. Though the street is obviously beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, to focus on that would be like talking about Disneyland’s ambiance or the exceptional food at the Rainforest cafe. Walking through Grant, you are positioned (especially if you have a child) to purchase the plastic samurai swords (which are Japanese to begin with) and the straw hats. They have you questioning if you need that life-sized, 600 dollar buddah for your living room – bathroom maybe? Definitely bathroom. Its upturned arms can hold your guest towels.

I say keep walking passed this shit. Walk a mile. No, walk two. Just when you think you are about to give in to the nicely-dressed Chinese ladies handing out flyers outside of the scattered restaurants promising the best Dim Sum you’ll ever have, you finally come across a place like Portsmouth Square.


Here you will start to realize why or how San Francisco is said to house the biggest Chinese community outside of China. You start to see honest-to-goodness street culture with hordes of middle-aged to elderly men and women gambling atop broken-down cardboard boxes, most with their money out  eagerly waiting for a promising hand. This square, urban-San Francisco as ever with probably more pigeons than people, felt like I was in the middle of China. The feel, the attitude changes completely from Grant. No one cares if you bought the straw hats or where you ate for lunch. To be honest, with most of the people rarely looking up from their cards or conversations, no one really cares about you at all. Sure, they will shoo you away if you get too close to their game, but in general Portsmouth is a good representation of Chinatown in that there is a heavy, for lack of a better, and more comforting phrase, “locals only” feel. Especially, well mostly, if you don’t speak Chinese.

Chinese culture does not run off unspoken social cues or signals. In fact it’s quite the opposite. People push, people shove, and people have little to no care about personal space. Shop owners give zero shits about spilling the fish-water that was sitting in tubs from today’s catch over your designer shoes and onto the sidewalk. It’s not wrong and it’s not right. It’s just what it is. Which in my opinion, was extremely refreshing to be out of my comfort zone. Not being able to get my way, even with the biggest, most approachable smile I can muster was something I needed to feel.

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