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The Chinese-American City

An introduction to San Francisco magazine's April 2015 issue.



Culture, Politics, and the Rise of a Chinese-American Establishment

A little over four years ago, on January 11, 2011, Edwin Mah Lee was appointed the first Chinese-American mayor of San Francisco. The big surprise then wasn’t that the impossible had occurred; it was that the inevitable had taken its sweet time (162 years, to be exact) to come to fruition. Chinese Americans, after all, are among the longest-tenured San Franciscans: Chinese workers alighted here with the rest of the 49ers to mine Gold Mountain, and—the odd Chinese Exclusion Act notwithstanding—they haven’t stopped streaming in since. Today, one in five San Franciscans is of Chinese descent, more than triple the percentage in any other major American city. Ed Lee’s ascension to mayor and his subsequent election in November 2011 weren’t just markers of demographic destiny: They were signals that the city has finally embraced its Chinese roots. 

During the four years since, the Chinese-American juggernaut has only grown in strength. Not only does Lee look to be heading for a cakewalk of a reelection (as of press time, he faces exactly zero legitimate contenders), but the largest municipal transit project since BART—the $1.5 billion Central Subway—is inching toward its Chinatown terminus. The old neighborhood itself is undergoing a lot-by-lot overhaul, with the landmark Empress of China building on the market for a rumored $25 million, Chinese Hospital in the midst of a $160 million expansion, and A-list restaurant projects like George Chen’s China Live and Brandon Jew’s Mister Jiu’s speeding down the pike. Combine these bursts of progress with continued Chinese-American successes at the ballot box—see the rung-by-rung advances of politicians like David Chiu, Carmen Chu, Fiona Ma, and Phil Ting, among others—and it’s clear that the city has never been more under the sway of Chinese-American movers and shakers. (And we didn’t even mention Rose Pak, the town’s consummate power broker. Hello, Rose!)

Of course, that’s not to say that San Francisco’s 171,564 Chinese- American citizens (as counted by the Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey) constitute a monolithic entity—or that they’re all uniformly successful. In fact, the “community” of people who share Chinese ethnicity is as socially and economically diverse as any group of random, unrelated Americans. Some are third- or fourth-generation San Franciscans who don’t speak or read Chinese but have chosen to enroll their children in one of the city’s 14 Chinese-language immersion schools. Others are blue-collar service workers, many undocumented, who speak in dialects that are mutually unintelligible (your Taishanese is Greek to my Mandarin). Still others are newly arrived immigrants whose H-1B visas have allowed them to join that other dominant caste of San Francisco: techies. Some live in Chinatown, America’s oldest Chinese community; others inhabit the Richmond, the Sunset, the Excelsior, and Hunters Point, not to mention Oakland, Millbrae, Palo Alto, and every other corner of the Bay Area. 

The fact that these subgroups actually have very little in common creates a problem for those—like us—in search of universal truths about “the Chinese-American city.” It’s impossible to encapsulate the entirety of Chinese-American life and culture in San Francisco in a mere 140 pages—not when the populace is as vast and heterogeneous as ours is. But hey, can you blame us for trying?

In this issue—the first we’ve ever devoted to a single ethnic minority—you’ll find stories that explore many, if not all, sides of the Chinese-American experience in San Francisco circa 2015. We’ve divided these dispatches into four broad categories: “Impacts,” focuses on politics and the wielders of influence; “Delicacies,” unearths the hidden gems and longtime classics of our obscenely good Chinese food scene; “Identities,” features personal stories about fitting in with (and breaking away from) a “hyphenate” society; and “Under Chinatown’s Skin,” digs beneath the surface of the city’s most unique and, at times, most impenetrable neighborhood.

Throughout this issue, you’ll find stories, many of them written by Chinese Americans, about oft-overlooked aspects of this astonishingly rich culture. Given the rise of the new Chinese-American establishment, you might think that all of the narrative stones have already been turned over. But Mayor Lee and his high-powered cohort are just one element of the overall landscape. There are thousands of other tales worth telling. We’re proud to present a few of them here.



The Dragon and the Dome
How a ghettoized minority cracked the San Francisco establishment—and then became it. By Chris A. Smith

Lunch With the Lees
Talking family, politics, and a changing Chinatown with Mr. and Mrs. Mayor. By Jon Steinberg

Where Print Rules
Chinese-language newspapers thrive by bridging two worlds. By Adam A. Brinklow

To Shoppers, With Love
Welcome to your diamond-studded, jasmine-scented home away from home. By Lauren Murrow


XLBs to Inspire Pilgramages
Savory broth, porky filling, and the search for revelatory xiao long bao. By Sara Deseran

The Wok Shop Abides
Since 1972, Tane Chan has schooled (and sold) us on Chinese cooking. By Rebecca Flint Marx

Regional Cuisine Goes Way Beyond Canton
Also way beyond Grant Avenue. By Luke Tsai

Where Tea Is Given the Coffee Treatement
Peter Luong sells high-end tea in a snob-free zone. By Rebecca Flint Marx

The Five Pillars of Pastry
Here for the taking. By Luke Tsai

Enough Dim Sum to Fill a Dictionary
An alphabet of small dishes. By Andrea Nguyen

San Tung Is Eternally Crazy
And eternally good. By Rachel Levin

Chinatown's Dependably Weird Bars
A martini-powered stroll. By Gary Kamiya


"It's Easy to Be Chinese in San Francisco"
The ties that bind a city and a people. By Bonnie Tsui

Yuan Yuan's World
The collected treasures of a 20-year dance career. By Lauren Murrow

My So-Flawed Life
A portrait of the artist as a Tiger Mother's worst nightmare. By Kristina Wong

The Shoulders I Stand on
Three local creators share the Chinese-American art that inspires them. By Annie Tittiger

So You Want Your Kid to Speak Mandarin?
More and more parents are choosing Chinese immersion schools and getting more than they bargained for. By Rachel Levin


What's Going on at Portsmouth Square? 
Chinatown's open-air living room. By Scott Lucas

Who Needs a Supermarket When You Have Stockton Street? 
A primer on the main drag's chaotic and delicious food shops. By Scott Lucas

The Dim Sum Revolution
How a brigade of kitchen workers got back what had been stolen from them, and then some. By Vanessa Hua

What Is It Like to Live in an SRO? 
Charter school principal Jeffrey Kwong grew up in one, left—and then came back. By Scott Lucas

What's It Like to Be Miss Chinatown?
Crystal Lee on being a beauty queen. By A.K. Carroll

Where Have All the Gangsters Gone?
Chinatown's violent past is legendary—and seemingly gone. By Max Cherney

What's Worth Buying on Grant Avenue?
Twenty-nine purchases that go beyond schlock. By Lauren Murrow

Long Live the Empress
Might the passing of the Empress of China pave the way for a younger, sexier Chinatown? By Andrew Leonard

China Live Comes Alive
Go big or go home. By Rebecca Flint Marx

Chinatown FAQ
A Cubist portrait of the neighborhood. By Scott Lucas, Elise Craig, Lauren Seward, Sarah Stodder, and Annie Tittiger 


Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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