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China Town

By: vkimo
If you've grown up in or just outside a major city, chances are it has a large Asian population known simply as "China Town." I was raised about 20 minutes north of San Francisco which happens to be home to one of the largest and oldest China Towns in the US. Growing up, we made many family excursions into this magical and mysterious district. I want to share with you the reader some of my memories of those visits. And to enhance the authenticity of this piece, it is being written entirely using a proxy based in Beijing. This article was made in China. 

First, lets address the obvious elephant in the room. Yes,  the Chinatown I'm referring to is the Big Trouble in Little China Chinatown. If you've never been there but have seen the movie, I can assure you it is every bit as quaint, mysterious, bizarre and magical as seen in the movies. I remember sitting in the back seat of our 1990 Ford Taurus, staring out the window mesmerized. Ancient buildings with dozens of banners adorned the blocks. Crammed, dirty apartment buildings were laced together with cords of hanging laundry. The sidewalks were full of tiny people scurrying around, old women who seemed to be as old as dragons hobbled down the street wearing slippers and sporting bonnets. After a rain, the wet streets reflected the neon signs and gave off a eerie glow. I loved it.

Every square inch is occupied by something. I once saw a Top Ramen ad promoting a Panasonic VCR.

Both of my parents were born and raised in the city, So every weekend we would make a trip and drive down. My mom was into collecting these little snuff bottles (Purely for collecting, she didn't snuff stuff, I hope) which had paintings that were done by hand on the INSIDE of the jar, not the outside. Nearly every shop and restaurant was compact. These little hole in the walls were something else. You'd walk into the door, careful to bow under the beads hanging from the door posts. The shops were about 8 feet wide and the shelves were packed with imported dolls, sandals, back scratchers and so on. While the store owner was revealing ancient Chinese secrets to my folks in hopes of securing a sale, my brother and I were rolling Baoding balls on the floor or fencing with back scratchers.  

Chinatown is great for nostalgia junkies, as a lot of the products use the same generic stock photos on the products for years. It's like shopping in 1993!

*Ok, I think I just solved a childhood mystery when looking for the Gameboy on the web. As a kid, I must have confused the "Play it loud" for a beefed up speaker and not a slogan. So much for childhood wonder, thanks Google.

After my brother and I subdued our parents with our collective nagging we were finally off to the fun shops. There was one place in particular called (I think) the Chinese Bazaar. It was a 2 level store crammed with goodies. Back in the early 90s and they had Gameboy models I had never seen before, The special models not available at Toys R Us or the like. I remember one having louder speakers as a feature in particular, The crazy thing is, I tried googling that model with no luck!* That's one of the caveats about shopping in Chinatown though. You never know what you're really getting. Knock offs were abundant. During the Pokemon phase I remember shops selling presorted packs of cards for half the cost of a sealed pack. Of course this was a royal ripoff as you could bet your Talkboy that any good cards were sorted out prior. 

Just like Europe is 5 years ahead of us in Fashion, Asia is ahead in toys.

In one shop though we managed to snag legitimate first edition Japanese cards of the first 9 Pokemon of the new set (152-300) which was amazing since the US hadn't had them in English yet. I remember the store clearly because the stairs literally descended under the sidewalk. They say Chinatown has a whole underground city beneath the streets, a vast network. I don't doubt it either. At the back of every shop there is a small doorway, the other end being concealed with bead curtains. I've always wondered what happened back there. Secret temples? Illegal gambling? Fake Coach Bags? I'll never know, that's for sure.

I enjoyed browsing the more traditional market stores as well. My parents liked to get bags of rice and a few other essentials not available at our local Safeway. The tourists usually skipped out on these stores so we were usually the only "white" people shopping. Guess we put the Asian in Caucasian (forgive me, please) As my folks shopped I wandered down the aisles not being able to make out any of the products labeled in Mandarin. The market was more like a zoo at times. The section of the store where the meats were kept also had LIVE animals for sale to be cooked later. I remember seeing turtles and frogs in particular, just sitting in buckets. The toy section was always a treat and filled with novelties such as pressurized gas bags, party snaps and smoke balls. For me this was hardcore contraband you couldn't find at Toys R Us. In 6th grade I was guilty of the following (A Inserting exploding bomb bag in boys toilet, and getting caught B) Placement of stink bomb vial by girl I had crush on, and almost getting caught. All of these things were made possible by Chinatown. Thank you Chinatown.

The food was also a delight when shopping around. Among the many small food shops, were larger restaurants that had men outside trying to usher you into their establishments with coupons and dreams of fine dining. I loved it because the 80s were still fresh in everyone's mind and it reflected in the atmosphere of one restaurant we ate at. Walk in and BAM! A huge 80 gallon fish tank teeming with fish and poor lobsters huddled up avoiding the steam pot. The chairs were artsy black lacquer with wild zebra print cushions. Funky neon blinked on the windows as you chowed down on steam buns and pot stickers. I bet much hasn't changed either.  

On second thought, who's up for Pizza?

Most restaurants employ a don't ask don't tell policy on dish ingredients.  

Of course not all eating experiences are great ones. A lot of the Dim Sum shops are downright gross. Long skinny hands with grimy fingernails sloppily pile food onto your plate hurriedly, huge pig corpses turn slowly on a spigot behind the glass. I remember one night we were caught in the rain and walked into the nearest cafe. We asked to see the menu but already were seated and being served lukewarm won ton soup. It's a classic move to obligate you to be a patron. We were served broken cookies, stale noodles and so on, in a never ending smorgasbord of "Don't ask what it is, just eat." I swear the pot stickers had me wondering why in a place so filthy, I never saw a rat...


I'll always have a spot in my cubbyhole of nostalgia for Chinatown.  From the cheap toys to the questionable grub, it's unique vibe always had me excited to go back. I've driven through it once or twice as an adult, but sadly never parked and walked those cramped streets to see if the magic was still there. As I look through my window though, I swear I can see a 7 year old boy eating a baked bun wearing a Hulkamania shirt as his feet dangled off his chair...Thanks for reading.

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Vaporman87 Posted on Mar 05, 2016 at 12:04 AM

@Mickey: Didn't know you were a 70's baby Mick. Awesome. We 70's babies got to have the full 80's youth experience!

mickyarber Posted on Mar 04, 2016 at 11:57 PM

Back in '88 while going through NYC, my family got lost in Chinatown. That was kinda scary to a 10 year old.

Really fun article.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Feb 28, 2016 at 10:30 PM

On a business trip 10 years ago I had the good fortune to wander through these very Chinatown streets of San Francisco and it was every bit as odd as you made it sound. Sadly I did not get caught in a battle between 2 supernatural Chinese gangs as John Carpenter led me to believe I would.

Vaporman87 Posted on Feb 28, 2016 at 09:52 AM

Man, China Town sounds like an amazing place. So vibrant, full of culture, and full of things that would have made a young Vaporman87 flip out.

My question is... did you ever run across any Mogwai in your visits there?

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