Terrific food and shopping just a couple of miles away on the other side of the Webster tube. Don't miss it.
My Chinatown; An Indiana native gets an insider's view
Chris Lavin, Chronicle East Bay Bureau
from the San Francisco Chronicle 8/15/97
My life changed the day I bit into a shrimp roll for the first time. Those are the cold
Vietnamese rolls of noodles, shrimp, mint, scallion and cilantro wrapped in rice paper and
dipped in peanut sauce. They looked good, and not knowing what they were called, I pointed
at them through the glass deli case. I handed over $4.00 for three.
"My life changed the day I
bit into a shrimp roll for the first time"
That first crunchy taste, with fresh flavors exploding in a sauce that
seemed both sweet and tart, did it: If sensations like that were possible, I thought, life
is worth any troubles that conspire to mess it up.
I went straight back inside. ``What are those called?'' I asked. ``In Vietnamese, we call
them goy-goong,'' said Le Le Quach, daughter of the owner of the Cam Huong deli on Webster
Street in Oakland's Chinatown. She now pulls shrimp rolls out of the case when she sees me
For those who have grown up in or often visited America's multiethnic Chinatowns,
recognizing things such as shrimp rolls are as obvious as knowing that a red light means
stop. As someone who grew up in Indiana, with no Chinatown remotely nearby, I still make
fascinating discoveries even after five years of exploration. Recently, I asked longtime
resident Ernest Chann to show me around.
Unlike San Francisco's Chinatown, where streets are packed with tourists dodging rack
after rack of postcards when they're not looking for a parking space, Oakland's Chinatown
seems somehow more accessible, more genuine. The postcards are there, too; they're just
not in your face. And while parking is tight, it's possible.
"Unlike San Francisco's
Chinatown, where streets are packed with tourists dodging rack after rack of postcards
when they're not looking for a parking space, Oakland's Chinatown seems somehow more
accessible, more genuine."
``The first thing is, this is more like Asiatown than Chinatown,'' Chann
said. The signs over the New Oakland Pharmacy at Ninth and Webster read, from the left, in
Chinese, English, Vietnamese and Cambodian. ``That way people will know they can get
served there if they don't speak English,'' Chann said. City streets throughout the
neighborhood are marked in English and Chinese. But I learned that precise translations to
American names are impossible. Cantonese and Mandarin speakers pronounce the same
For instance, the translation for Webster Street is three Chinese characters that in
Cantonese sound like ``web-sa-dah,'' Chann said.
The birds provided another lesson. Anyone who has visited Chinatown has seen them: white,
brown and red chickens and ducks hanging from metal poultry racks. But until I met Chann,
I had no idea why they were colored differently. ``The white ones are cured in salt, the
brown ones in soy and the red ones in red dye No. 2,'' said Chann, who started to bone up
on Chinatown lore back in the 1960s, when he found himself downright embarrassed by his
own lack of knowledge. Working as a docent at the Oakland Museum, he could not answer
common questions posed by visitors about Asian art and the community around the museum.
``And the birds still have their heads and tails because the Chinese believe that
everything should have a beginning, a middle and an end,'' Chann said firmly. He swears
that, like tomatoes, a take-home bird will lose its taste the moment it hits a
Several months ago, I took a beginner's class in the Japanese art of bonsai at the Asian
Branch of the Oakland Public Library in the Pacific Renaissance Plaza on Ninth Street. I
had missed the mother lode though: One entire section is crammed with cooking information.
I made straight for a video on making sushi. So far, I have not poisoned myself.
However, I've had no luck finding that serene time to curl up and crack open a volume. The
branch is the busiest in the system, mainly because it has the largest cache of books not
only in Chinese but in Vietnamese, Tagalog, Cambodian, Japanese, Thai, Korean, Laotian or
English. ``On Saturdays we can check out more books and videos than other branches do in a
month,'' said John Hawkins, senior library assistant. ``Romance is always very popular.''
The smells of Chinatown offer their own revelations. I can close my eyes and be on the
streets of Bangkok, or catch a whiff of black beans and rice and be in Havana. I'm happy
to simply sit at a lunch counter where the quick-order chefs use woks, not grills.
And I always pause on Ninth between Franklin and Broadway to listen. Sometimes I can hear
the clackety-clack coming from rooms above, where seniors slap mah-jongg tiles onto the
Formica tabletops of the Loong Kong Tien Yee Association. It's one of many family
associations in Chinatown that originally helped immigrants find jobs and even spouses,
back when fancy tiles were carved of ivory.
When I started shopping for my groceries in Chinatown, I have to admit I was a bit cowed.
So many unrecognizable items on the shelves and in the produce section, but eventually I
found the carrots and lettuce, too, and sampled much of the rest.
While I have not yet tested the curative powers of Chinatown's herbalists, I can't resist
detouring into Hong Kong Trading Co. when I pass it at 449 Ninth St. Pharmacist Duc Tieu
tallies bills with an abacus, and the chair-size Buddhist shrine at the back of the store
is reverently and ornately painted in fresh red and gold, with oranges and incense inside.
Peering in the bins I can make out dried mushrooms and chrysanthemum buds, bark, hand-size
shark fins and dried scallops. Sinewy sticklike objects gradually take shape: Oh, that's a
dried duck leg. Adds flavor to soups, Chann said.
Floppy rounds of dried chamomile the size of dinner plates had a price -- $4.49 a pound --
that inspired me to grab a plastic bag. I passed up the next item, though. The gray things
that resemble giant dried snails are giant dried sea cucumbers, $80 a pound.
The shark fins at Hong Kong turned out to be puny. I recently noticed that of the some
white sails I've passed dozens of times in the windows at Pacific Seafood at Eighth and
Franklin are really fins. Nasty-looking ones, I decided, with tiny pieces of cartilage
sticking out the bottom. Some are more than two feet high, a size that resembles the price
In all my travels into Chinatown, I never expected to find my dream store: a shop that
sells beef jerky and dried fruits, and that's it. But Chann showed me such a store. It's
on Franklin between Seventh and Eighth streets. Lined up in neat brown stacks are what's
very likely every kind of jerky known to mankind: spicy pork chunk, five-spiced beef,
teriyaki chicken. For vegetarians, a hunk of ``Spicy Hot Crispy BBQ Dough'' goes for
$2.75. But what are ``lover seeds,'' which cost $4.00 for a quarter pound? ``They are the
color of lovers,'' said Connie Chan from behind the counter. That color is green, not the
red of Valentine's Day, as someone from Indiana might expect. She recommended I stick with
the dried sweet plums. Same price.
I can't wait to go back.
Oakland's Chinatown is the most fun and authentic of the American Chinatowns we have been
to. It is quite safe. It is real: it is not a line of t-shirt and postcard shops like much
of other Chinatowns.
Check out the street signs; in both English & Chinese
Try buying your seafood here. It is fresher and cheaper than other locations.
Civilized life as we know it requires Chinese food. Alameda has a number of
good Chinese restaurants, but a trip through the Webster tube will put you in Oakland's
Chinatown. More choices and many other exciting destinations.
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