Chinatown, between the lines


The Great Star Theater in San Francisco’s Chinatown opened in 1925 as a Chinese opera house. Recently refurbished as non-profit company, it still has a backstage altar where performers of all persuasions can pay homage to Emperor Tang Ming Huang, the patron saint of Chinese opera. On the outside, the Great Star sports the traditional eaves of Chinese architecture, which you might appreciate more by coloring them inside the pages of Explore and color San Francisco’s Chinatown. Both a coloring book and an ingenious travel brochure, To explore features 33 San Francisco attractions, each accompanied by historical and cultural information.

This test has been adapted from High newsletter, distributed every Thursday.

The 80-page adult coloring book comes at a time when the neighborhood faces an uncertain future. Its tourist shops and restaurants, important elements of the local economy, have suffered greatly from the pandemic. Like other Chinatowns across the country, San Francisco’s ethnic enclave is an important gateway for new immigrants, offering jobs and affordable housing as well as social support. Small businesses are essential to this ecosystem, not just for the jobs they provide, but because ground floor retail rents essentially subsidize rents for single rooms and modest family apartments on the upper floors. Once this balance is upset, the community becomes vulnerable to gentrification, according to Malcolm Yeung, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC). “It’s a very precarious time, where we see more real estate listings in the past three months than anyone can remember,” Yeung said. “It opens the doors to real estate speculators.”

A coloring book won’t save Chinatown, but it’s a small part of an effort to preserve this community. As an invitation to explore Chinatown creatively, says Betty Louie, a retired businesswoman who has been described as one of “the most influential community advocates,“I hope this will entice book buyers to spend more time (and money) here. “The idea is to showcase places and bring new people to Chinatown who will make repeat visits,” says Louie, who has commissioned a series of 1,000 coloring books through her family foundation, specifically wants Bay Area residents to connect with the nation’s oldest and largest Chinatown.

For decades, Louie ran an empire of Chinatown souvenir shops that she inherited from her Chinese immigrant parents. (His father arrived in 1929 via Angel Island.) Since retiring in 2012, Louie, who still owns property here, has devoted himself to promoting Chinatown. She continues to serve as an advisor to the board of the San Francisco Chinatown Merchants Association. Inspired by the popularity of adult coloring books, she teamed up with Bibi LeBlanc, founder of a Florida-based independent publisher called From culture to color who have published similar guides to Berlin and Tuscany.

Explore and color San Francisco’s Chinatown begins with the iconic (though relatively new) Dragon Gate, which since 1971 marks the official entrance to Chinatown. Other attractions include the newly redesigned Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground, where the Chinese-American basketball star of the 1940s and 1950s learned to play. the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, which has been in business for 60 years, also gets the treatment pictured. (Opposite the fragrant bakery is 41 Ross, a small art gallery and community space funded in part by CCDC; Yeung thinks such investments in place-making and culture, including an upcoming $26 million arts and culture center, will help attract visitors to Chinatown.) Another page explains the meaning of the popular fortune cats that wave their paws in many Chinese restaurants but are actually of Japanese origin. A downloadable companion guide includes LeBlanc’s photographs of the sites themselves.

LeBlanc spent months researching potential attractions and visited approximately 60 sites in person between 2020 and 2021. (The final cut was made by Louie and other community members.) Louie also connected LeBlanc with local experts to guide her around the neighborhood, which is home to about 12,000 Chinese Americans.

“We were walking down an alley when one of the Chinese ladies said, ‘Do you hear that?’ says LeBlanc, remembering a peculiar sound coming from an open door. In the book, this sound is explained: “Chances are you will hear the beating of mahjong tiles, sometimes called “chirping of sparrows”, coming from behind many doors.”•

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