Each week, Yahoo Travel pits rival destinations against each other to determine once and for all which one is the best. Up this week are two Chinatowns: San Francisco vs. New York City.
Greeting Gates to San Francisco’s Chinatown (Photo: mark.watmough/Flickr)
The Case for San Francisco
New York’s may be larger, but San Francisco is home to the oldest Chinatown in the country. Established in 1848, the ethnic enclave greets today’s tourists with an authentically designed gate and standing pagodas. Situated in the heart of San Francisco near the Financial district, the neighborhood remains densely populated and seemingly untouched. After the introduction of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the making of the Central Pacific Railroad and the sifting of the Gold Rush, “Chinese quarters” were built up in the 1940s to serve as hubs for influxes of immigrants. It’s said martial artist Bruce Lee was born here and scholarly community activists like Him Mark Lai grew up here. On a sleepy Sunday, you’ll still find an older crowd enjoying a stroll along the stretch of Grant Avenue, greeting each other in their native language. Compared to its competition on the East Coast, San Francisco’s Chinatown is slower-paced and cares much more about preserving the culture.
Getting Around: If you don’t like hills, this city isn’t for you, but San Fran’s Chinatown is otherwise manageable, only encompassing about 30 blocks. Most people will take an Uber here.
Chinatown is somewhere below all that fog! (Photo: Thinkstock)
Weather: It’s fog-prone in San Francisco. Even if it’s a sunny day, bring a jacket for the shadow-filled, Hong Kong-reminiscent streets.
The Wok Shop’s hand-hammered wok (Photo: Courtesy of The Wok Shop)
Shopping: It’s easy to stumble upon a calligraphy shop or find a qipao (the little black dress of the East). Cure ails with ginseng and other remedies at the Great China Herb Co. For all your stir-fry needs, walk into The Wok Shop, which may feel like you’re wandering into an Olivanders. Kids can find red money envelope and five pop-pop’s for a dollar.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (Photo: Karen Neoh/Flickr)
Cool Stuff to Do: Join in on tai chi (read: “Asian yoga”) in one of several parks. Or come back at night for a ghost tour looking into “passageways of Chinatown’s past,” complete with a visit to a former gambling den.
Mmmm! Butter cream buns. (Photo: stu_spivack/Flickr)
Food: According to some locals, many of the good dim sum places are no longer here: they’ve moved to other Chinatowns, like inner/outer Richmond or Oakland. But you can still check out savory and sweet simultaneously — pick up butter cream buns, traditional donuts, and juicy chive dumplings to go. As with Chinese restaurants, the pro-tip is to go where you see Chinese people (follow their lead). The con in either city is workers may not speak English. However, there’s no translation needed for finger-looking good salt and pepper live dungeoness crab at RNG Lounge. Step inside the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory to see foreshadowing messages folded into flour. You can buy the flattened or chocolate variety (sold!).
Chinese Historical Society of America Museum (Photo: Courtesy of Chinese Historical Society of America/FaceBook)
Arts and Culture: The Chinese Historical Society of America hosts life-size dioramas of what it was like to grow up in this neighborhood in cramped quarters, created by former set designer and return resident Frank Wong.
New York City Chinatown (Photo: Thinkstock)
The Case for New York
San Francisco’s Chinatown may boast historical significance, but the Empire State is where the story begins — when the Empress of China traveled from New York harbor to Canton in 1784 (tea party, anyone?). Despite the area’s significant loss of its Asian population in the most recent census count, this Chinatown also claims to have the largest Chinese-American hub in the country. New York City’s Chinatown is a lot more bustling and diverse, with more sensory experiences for urban adventurers. While the neighborhood’s original Broadway-like-theaters are gone, the number of garment factories have declined, and the supply stores are scant these days on the Bowery, Chinatown is still active. If it’s a lucky day, you’ll pass a number of restaurants filled with weddings. How can you tell? Look for the party favor of choice sitting on the tables: a big Canola oil bottle topped with a bow. And yet, it’s also becoming gentrified, with clashes of cultures forming contemporary intersections that may evolve into an entirely different picture in the future.
You can take the J or M train to access New York’s Chinatown (Photo: Thinkstock)
Getting around: Reaching Canal Street by subway is easy — but be prepared to find crowds. While the main strip (Canal Street) is wider than in San Francisco, New York City is a little grittier and dirtier than San Francisco. Since the 1950’s, the borders of the neighborhood have stretched — now it spreads across two square miles of lower Manhattan.
Winter in New York’s Chinatown — cold, but beautiful! (Photo: Thinkstock)
Weather: You’ll experience all four seasons in the northeast — you get the simmering humidity in summer, as well as the bone-chilling winter season, all of course mixed with the sights and smells of Chinatown.
Bok choy and lichee, some of the groceries you can find in Chinatown (Photo: Thinkstock)
Shopping: Check out hand-painted and lacquered utensils at Yunhong Chopsticks. Fabric and statues are for sale at Pearl River Mart, the all-Asian department store on the edge of the neighborhood. Feel like snacking or cooking? Fish markets are readily available, and you can grab whole coconuts and fruit on the cheap at street stands. And while we don’t condone counterfeit items, it isn’t hard to find fake luxury bags. Other common purchases: cellphone accessories and cheap scarves.
A cocktail class at Apotheke. (Photo: Ko Im)
Nightlife: As a sign of the changing times, Chinatown now accommodates the club scene spilling over from the nearby East Village at places like Apotheke on famous Doyers Street.
Steamed dumpling at Jing Fong Restaurant (Photo: Courtesy of Jing Fong/Facebook)
Food: If you want to find some of the cheapest meals in the city, come here to dim sum and then some, with scallion pancakes or egg tarts. Expect weekend lines at Jing Fong or Golden Unicorn — but insiders know dumplings are served any day of the week. For the more modern variety, check out Dim Sum Go Go or inhale fusion noodles at Xi’an Famous Foods. Toast the Chinese New Year at Peking Duck House or gather with all the locals at Congee Village. And satisfy your sweet tooth at the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory with flavors like durian and pandan (sprinkles optional).
I scream, you scream, we all scream for ICE CREAM! (Photo: Courtesy of Chinatown Ice Cream Factory/Facebook)
Arts and Culture: There’s an emerging gallery scene in Chinatown, and you’ll find mixed media hidden among dumpling shacks in places like ArtCards. (Side note: don’t miss the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Races, which take place every summer in Flushing — New York’s other Chinatown.) And now through March 2015, the Museum of Chinese American History on Centre Street traces waves of dual identity and documents the rich complexity of the immigrant experience.
WATCH: Breakfast of Champions in New York’s Chinatown