- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO — Behind Chinatown’s gilded storefronts, dim-sum joints and souvenir shops are stories — often unpleasant ones — of civil rights violations, racism and public housing struggles.

These are some of the tales Wendell Lin spun on a recent Saturday.

The 20-year-old guide is one of the high school and college students who lead Chinatown Alleyway Tours, a two-hour glimpse of the otherwise clamorous neighborhood’s quieter corners.

The program is sponsored by a local nonprofit organization that works to improve residents’ quality of life. For $18, visitors get to wander the labyrinth of back alleys with an expert guide providing some of the fare one would expect — tales of long-gone opium dens, for example — and some no one would, like stories from the barber shop where Frank Sinatra and Clint Eastwood once got their hair cut. It’s all delivered with the personal, often edgy perspective of an insider.

“This is about community, by people from the community, who want to show Chinatown for what it is, not just profit from it,” Mr. Lin says. “Chinatown has always been my home, my headquarters.”

The stories the guides tell are drawn in equal parts from history books, community lore and firsthand research done by the students. Their casual chatter, sprinkled with the “ums” and “likes” typical of their generation, cuts through stereotypes, taps into difficult topics and offers rare moments of levity during those awkward moments when a name or date is forgotten.

The small lapses don’t matter — it’s their connection to the place, the fact that they care, that makes a difference, visitors say.

“I’d written Chinatown off as touristy stuff,” says Robert Solomon, visiting with his wife from Princeton, N.J., to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. “I didn’t realize what a strong community it was.”

The walk starts in Portsmouth Square — “Chinatown’s living room” — where residents of one of America’s densest neighborhoods come to socialize, play and take in the sunshine.

Dozens of women drop their grocery bags to take a quick break, children crawl over a play structure, and elderly men gather for games of Chinese chess or cards.

This, the city’s oldest plaza, and the narrow alleys that slice through the surrounding blocks are the only open spaces available to many Chinatown residents.

The neighborhood’s dozen or so square blocks include about 140 single-room-occupancy hotels with about 50 units each, where entire families cram into an 8-by-10-foot space, Mr. Lin says, indignation in his voice.

Many of these hotels were built following the 1906 earthquake that leveled San Francisco. The occupants deal with the cracked ceilings, pest-control problems and poor lighting typical of older, hastily constructed buildings.

Nevertheless, some residents, particularly the elderly, find it hard to leave the neighborhood, Mr. Lin says.

They have the comfort of close ties and a common language. Also, housing in Chinatown is still affordable, though it’s hemmed in by some of San Francisco’s most expensive districts, in a city that tops the nation’s housing market.

“With seniors, this is honestly where they can afford to live,” Mr. Lin says. “We’re sitting in the middle of very expensive land.”

Once questions about living conditions are exhausted and the conversation moves on to the exclusionary laws that once kept Chinese women from immigrating, the group meanders into Wentworth Alley, the first on the tour.

Like other alleyways, it also has a Chinese name — in this case translating to Peace and Harmony Alley — and a nickname, Salty Fish Alley, after the dried and salted goods sold there in the early 1900s. From there the group moves on through Ross, nicknamed “old Spanish alleyway” after the sailors that visited the brothels and gambling halls it once housed.

Today it’s home to a fortune-cookie factory where women pull vanilla-scented wafers hot off the press and fold fortunes within them, and the diminutive one-seat barber shop that once served Ol’ Blue Eyes and Dirty Harry. The barber wiles away time between customers by playing the violin alongside smiling mug shots of his famous clients.

A few doors down, Mr. Lin points out a building housing three family associations, which once helped recent immigrants with loans and tips on jobs but now serve as gathering places where the elderly can play mah jongg and arrange shared bus trips to far-away cemeteries to honor their ancestors.

A big band marches down the neighboring street, the brass and drums echoing in the narrow alleys, and Mr. Lin explains that it’s a funeral service meandering through the neighborhood to give the deceased one last look at Chinatown.

Walking on, the group passes the first Buddhist temple in North America; an elementary school whose Chinese students originally were barred from attending other schools in San Francisco; and a house where a Presbyterian minister once hid young Chinese women bought here to work as servants or prostitutes. All these places are tucked into narrow alleys less than 32 feet wide, the city’s official dimension for a street.

Mr. Lin became a guide after years of volunteering with other youngsters to clean up the alleys, long considered private property and ignored by city maintenance. Eventually, local government took up the task.

As a guide, Mr. Lin can take his work a step further, explaining “the neighborhood’s rich history, the significance of these alleys, so people won’t litter in the first place.”

His efforts pay off. The group disperses after handshakes with a closer connection to a neighborhood even locals often misunderstand.

San Francisco residents Gil Carmel, 30, and his wife, Deborah Solomon, 31, took the tour with her visiting parents.

“We’re always walking around, discovering new spots, but this felt a lot more personal,” he says. “There’s a lot of emotion there in some parts.”

• Chinatown Alleyway Tours: Visit www.chinatownalleywaytours.org or call 415/984-1478. Tours offered from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday during the school year and most days in summer. (Most guides attend school.) Reservations must be made at least five days in advance. Adults, $18; students 10 to 17, $12; children 6 to 9, $5; 5 or younger admitted free. Tours start on the upper level of Portsmouth Square (corner of Clay and Kearny streets) across from the Hilton Hotel’s bridge and near the elevators to the Portsmouth Square Garage.

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