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"Tourists inexplicably and routinely invaded these establishments with reckless abandon in search of silly slippers, tacky tees and other assorted garage-sale items."
- Nick Mistretta

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USA

Discovering China in America
by Nick Mistretta, Denver, Colorado, USA
Apr 11, 2000

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San Francisco

Like Lewis and Clark before me, I ventured into the unknown, blazed a trail through unfamiliar territory and carefully documented my journey for others to follow. And, I managed it all in relative darkness.

San Francisco's Chinatown is a vibrant community of colorful streets and alleyways, strange smells and tacky souvenirs. However, on this particular day, a power outage left most of the businesses in the dark. But I forged ahead, determined to overcome Murphy and his sadistic law for the good of future travelers.

My self-invented walking tour began at Grant Avenue and Bush Street, where most tourists enter Chinatown. Grant - AKA Souvenir Boulevard - is home to the largest selection of ceramic Buddhas in the world, or so it seemed. Post cards, exotic back-scratchers and a wide variety of trinkets adorned every storefront.

Pushing north on Grant, I became increasingly weary - possibly the effects of souvenir overload. My body had not yet become acclimated to the numerous sellers of needless things. In true explorer fashion, I held my breath and plunged in. First to the Far East Flea Market Liquidation Center, then onward to the Shanghai Bazaar.

The tacky treats were plentiful and in full bloom. Tourists inexplicably and routinely invaded these establishments with reckless abandon in search of silly slippers, tacky tees and other assorted garage-sale items. This stretch of plastic dragons and pagoda lampposts is Mecca for the must-buy-minded souvenir junkies.

Navigating around Chinatown was difficult with the streetlights taking the day off and the multitudes of vehicles and people clamoring about in chaotic bliss. I decided it was time for lunch.

Finding a Chinese restaurant was as easy as closing my eyes and pointing in any direction. On the recommendation of a storeowner, I turned left on Clay and climbed up the street a couple of blocks to Joy Hing BBQ Noodle House. I was pleased to discover that it was one of the few stores unaffected by the loss of electricity.

Upon entering, I saw something I would see many times as my journey progressed. In a glass case above the counter hung an assortment of whole, fully cooked, once-feathered creatures. They gazed out into the dining room while dangling by a piece of twine that fit tightly around their golden-brown necks.

I took a seat facing the other direction, perused the menu and investigated what the day's hunt had provided. The fare was inexpensive and overjoyed my finicky taste buds.

I left the restaurant with my body fully nourished and continued up Clay, determined to locate the real Chinatown. The air quickly took on a strange and unfamiliar odor. There it was. It lies parallel to the hokiness of Grant, just a few blocks to the west. Turning onto Stockton Street was like taking a gigantic leap into another country - into the past.

Neighborhood residents jockeyed for position along the narrow sidewalks in front of the busy markets. Fresh fruit, vegetables and a varied selection of seafood and poultry replaced the dizzying surplus of tacky souvenirs. Live fish danced in plastic bins for interested patrons - perhaps auditioning for a spot on the dinner table. Shoppers often examined the day's catch intensely as if the confused sea creature held the mysteries of the universe. People carefully felt, squeezed, picked, poked and prodded everything before buying.

The snail-like pace of the crowds caused numerous pedestrian jams. Delivery trucks of all sizes also contributed nicely to the clutter and confusion. Fortune-cookie wisdom is appropriate along Stockton, where patience is definitely a virtue you will need to possess.

As I continued my journey north on Stockton, a crate of live chickens crossed my path. One of the bewildered birds had his head wedged through a hole and appeared fearful of his destination. I wondered if he noticed the rotisserie-juicy fowl hanging in the window - his fateful demise starring him grimly in the beak.

Turn your attention and your camera lenses to the east as you cross the streets intersecting Stockton. The Bay Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid strike impressive poses and compete with Chinatown for a morsel of fanfare. The picturesque views are worthy of a few exposures. However, I strongly recommend asking before snapping when firing off a couple shots in the direction of one of the many markets. Diminutive women would flail their arms and scream in horror at the injustice of someone photographing their vegetables. My overzealous camera play caught the ire of many broom-wielding storeowners.

As Nick continues his Chinatown exploration..

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