Wearing their best red outfits, urbane locals trade the fork for nimble chopsticks or stand in the rain at the sidelines of the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade.
Even though Jan. 1 marks the official U.S. holiday, many living in the Bay Area have long partaken in Lunar New Year festivities. While cultures such as the Korean, Hmong, Thai and Vietnamese observe the lunar holiday, the Chinese-style celebrations are the most familiar: It’s not easy to overlook a bunch of men dressed up in lion suits, firecrackers lit en masse and crispy bills passed out in tidy red packages.
After a while, though, some might long for a little more than the wisdom found in a fortune cookie.
Welcome, then, to Cultural Immersion 101. Aside from pronouncing “Gung Hay Fat Choy” (Cantonese) or “Gong Xi Fa Cai” (Mandarin) to wish people prosperity, you don’t have to take a language class to soak up some ambience of that Lunar New Year spirit. Take in a concert, browse through some books and shop for some pomelos and you’ll be ready to observe the year 4700.
Stockton Street, San Francisco: In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “The Flower Drum Song,” the Broadway denizens deemed “Grant Avenue, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.” as the “most exciting thoroughfare.” The throngs, though, tend to be from Kansas. Instead, head about two blocks uphill to the parallel Stockton Street. You can’t get more immersed in daily Chinatown life than here — in fact, you can barely move from all the immersion. Groceries and eateries far outnumber the doo-dad shops, so ready your shopping list. Beware of 4-foot grandmothers slinging pink plastic grocery bags like medieval spiked mace.
Less crowded alternatives are Clement Street in San Francisco (parking here also is nightmarish) and Oakland Chinatown (a mere two blocks from 12th Street BART). Although far smaller than its big city brethren, the latter retains a workman authenticity of daily life.
Take it outside, but just take it out: Banquets require reservations and dim sum requires patiently waiting for a good two hours this time of year. When Asian foods aren’t part of your daily dietary regime, then a humble Asian bakery can be a novelty unto itself. If there isn’t one near you, check out Pacific East Mall (3288 Pierce St., Richmond, 510-769-8899, www.bayarea99ranch.com) with its Filipino and Taiwanese bakeries, San Pablo International Marketplace (1565 International Marketplace, San Pablo, 510-215-0888) or Oakland Chinatown with its Vietnamese and Chinese offerings. At Oakland Wonder Food Bakery, (340 9th St., Oakland, 510-893-4193) order custard tarts and/or the “pineapple” bun (so named because its sweet crust topping crinkles like the fruit’s outer rind). It’s worth the inevitable wait — it tends to sell out since people order like they’re at a Krispy Kreme going-out-of-business sale.
Cultural musings: Asian art in America has generally, and logically, been seen through a Western prism. The Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco (750 Kearny St., 3rd Floor, S.F., 415-986-1822, www.c-c-c.org) proffers bite-size insights like those that can be gleaned at its newest ceramics exhibit, “The 108 Heroes of Shui Hu Zhuan Exhibit,” making its first venture from Macau. Perpetuated in fame through the 14th-century epic novels — “All Men Are Brothers,” “The Water Margin” and the “Outlaws of the Marsh” — the heroes comprise men and women rebelling against 12th-century tyrants. The Chinese Historical Society of America (965 Clay St., S.F., 415-391-1188, www.chsa.org), which opened last November in the Julia Morgan-designed YWCA building, takes a distinctly Asian-American-studies approach to the history of the Chinese-American diaspora. Closing up Feb. 28 is the exhibit of internationally renowned San Francisco watercolor artist Dong Kingman.
Electric shadows: In Chinese, cinema literally translates to “electric shadows.” Sadly, videocassette recorders (and later VCDs, the cheaper cousin of the DVD) pretty much killed off the Chinatown theaters. Four Star Theater (2200 Clement St., S.F., 415-666-3488) still airs the occasional first-run Asian film and mini-festivals of new or vintage classics.
Coming up March 7 is the 20th annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, which blankets the Bay Area with documentaries, shorts and features from Cambodia to Vietnam. The movie houses include the AMC Kabuki 8 Theatres and Castro Theatre in the City, Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and Camera 3 Cinemas in San Jose (415-863-0814, www.naatanet.org/calendar/sfiaaff/index.html).
Remote control: The in-crowd caught “Iron Chef” on Channel 26 long before it made its transition to the Food Network. KTSF-Channel 26 and KPST Channel-66 bring an ethnic media smorgasbord from Taiwanese dating games, Indian musicals, Vietnamese news, Chinese martial arts and period soap operas with irresistible names like “Profound Love in Heavy Rain.”