Chinatown’s Secrets Revealed with Dorothy of Wok Wiz Tours

Dorothy Quong explains some of Chinatown's history during the Wok Wiz Chinatown Tour.
Dorothy Quong explains some of Chinatown’s history during the Wok Wiz Chinatown Tour.

If you’ve ever wandered through San Francisco’s Chinatown, you probably did what we did last time. We had no idea where to go, what to see, and ended up in a souvenir shop with no clue about what to see or do.

We wanted to know more about the history and to find more out about the 15,000 people who live in this 24-block neighborhood. So we joined Wok Wiz Chinatown Tours’ most experienced tour guide, Dorothy Quong, and got the scoop.

Quong is small of stature but a big personality–she is outspoken about her strong beliefs against discrimination, and feels deeply about how her relatives have been treated over the years since she was born in Chinatown 81 years ago.  In her bright red headband she led us first to what she called the Chinatown Living Room–Portsmouth Square Park.

The park was dotted with groups of older men, intently watching games of Russian poker being played on park benches.  Dorothy said that later on in the day, we’d see more women of the same

Luo Wen Jing shows us his caligraphy skills.
Luo Wen Jing shows us his calligraphy skills.

age here.  Many of these men live in tiny rooms, some doubling up, and this park is where they go to relax and enjoy time with their friends.  She added that eight out of 10 Chinese immigrants here came over from Guang Dong, known as Canton province in the west.  The language they speak here is not the more common Mandarin but Cantonese.

Chinatown is full of alleys, and our tour took us through many of them. Because last night was Chinese New Years, the rapid loud blasts of firecrackers could be heard going off outside many shops around the neighborhood. “Happy New Year” was a common greeting we heard; in one tea shop a women was dropping off gifts of fruit and a card to celebrate. Some of the shops were closed for the holiday.

We stopped by many typical businesses here…at a stationery shop, we met a woman who is trained in the ancient art of weaving bamboo threads together into tiny baskets. Li Da Ying’s shop, called Impressions, on Grant Ave is the place to find lovely paintings and these tiny baskets. Across the street, her husband Luo Wen Jing showed us calligraphy, deftly creating a work of art out of someone’s name and birth year, complete with his special red stamp marking it as his own.

We sampled teas from around China at Red Blossom Tea Co.
We sampled teas from around China at Red Blossom Tea Co.

The tour moved on to various shops–The East West bank built to look like a Chinese pagoda, The Red Blossom Tea Co where we sampled green tea and learned about the tea trade, fish alley where once a big fish market was located, and Ross Alley, the home of the Chinese Free Mason’s society. Here we could hear mah jong tiles cracking as games were played in the apartments inside, hidden from view.

We visited a tofu and bean sprout shop, a purveyor of carved jade, and we topped it all off with a dim sum lunch at the oldest Chinese restaurant in the city.

You know it’s going to be good when it’s on the second floor, I’ve always believed.  At the circular table a big lazy susan allowed us to partake of the delicious savory dumplings, beef chow fun noodles, bean curd rolls with pork and wonton soup.

Wok Wiz Chinatown Tours is a great way to discover a neighborhood that most people who visit San Francisco know nothing about. $50 per person including lunch.  Get tickets at, 650-355-9857. Ask for Dorothy Quong to be your guide!