Tale of Two Chinatowns: San Francisco and Toronto

February 19, 2021

Eru Player Toronto By Nathalie Taylor

Python skin-layered musical instruments, jujube mooncakes, and pagoda-style roofs – all this can be found in China. However, when venturing beyond the edge of the ordinary –  a little closer to home – I seek out the boldly eclectic Chinatown neighborhoods of San Francisco, California and Toronto, Ontario.

     What is the lure of these two neighborhoods that share a common spirit? It’s the thrill of a frenzied pace of life as residents brush and jostle each other on narrow, and often uneven, walkways. It’s the fascination of the Chinese culture that has arisen in these cities – a culture that is neither faux nor contrived, but has emerged from the residents’ earnest desire to live life enhanced by the cuisine, architecture, and trappings of their distant civilization.

These two boroughs are singing centers of life for the residents, which make them intriguing destinations for visitors.

Herbalists hawk their wares in cramped shops that emit unique scents – dried mushrooms, the woody scent of ginseng…and some unrecognizable aromas. Roasted ducks dangle from store windows.

Elderly men sit at street corners playing ancient-looking stringed instruments. Shops are crowded with wares, some of it kitschy, some authentic. It’s all meshed into two captivating and inspiring entities – each called Chinatown.


San Francisco, California – Chinatown West

The Dragon Gate on Grant Avenue heralds the entrance to Chinatown San Francisco with a roar of color. This neighborhood, established in the 1840s, is purported to be the largest Chinese community outside of Asia.

At first glance, the area might seem like a mishmash, but there are layers to uncover, and each layer has its own appeal. Look high for green pagoda-style roofs and streetlamps circled with metal dragons. Lower your gaze a bit to see flashes of neon signs and walls emblazoned with red Chinese characters.

The elaborate Grant Avenue window displays encourage loitering. Some store windows are so crammed with art objects that it would take an hour to see every detail. Other windows have just one piece as the focal point – such as a jade dragon with lustrous curves, or a pretentiously carved elephant tusk.

The aromas that emerge from the conglomeration of markets lend an earthy luster to the air. Sunlight sifting between high buildings is somehow softened as it flows to the street.

There is a noticeable predominance of the color red. To the Chinese, red symbolizes good luck and prosperity. A string of red lanterns across Grant Avenue wag their tassels in the breeze. Red paper banners bursting with gold Chinese characters welcome patrons to restaurants and shops.

Tablecloths, rice bowls, tea cups and silk brocade jackets are abundant and reasonably priced – but shopping could get a bit tedious as many of the same items exist in shop after shop.

However, before your shoe leather wears out I am sure that you will eventually discover something unique. At Old Shanghai on Grant Avenue I found vintage carved wooden plaques that were probably once part of a door or cabinet.

I never pass up the Far East Café where several generations of my family have dined for 90 years, enjoying the exotic air of this Grant Avenue landmark which opened its doors in 1920. The café retains historical ambiance with faded 100-year-old paintings and intricately carved light fixtures. The curtained mahogany booths, where up to five can dine in privacy, still carry an aura of mystery. I always expect James Bond to emerge from behind the red velvet curtains at any moment!

Sitting with friends in one of the mahogany booths, I selected the Mu Shu Pork, which is a delectable taste swirl of tender shredded pork, fluffy eggs, black mushrooms and bamboo shoots. My friends chose the Dim Sum platter and we happily shared.

After lunch we enjoyed mooncakes at the Far Eastern Bakery. These desserts are filled with jjujube (date) paste and provided a sweet finale to our savory meal. The less adventurous can’t go wrong with the bakery’s traditional almond biscuits. None of the labels are in English, so, practice makes perfect, and the point and sample method usually works… at least for me.

As night fell and cable car clangs resonated through Chinatown, the mist began to creep up from the bay like a silent dragon, edging through alleyways and around lampposts. I inhaled Chinatown’s intense scents, trying very hard to isolate, identify, and then memorize them.


Toronto, Ontario — Chinatown East

On this July visit it was over 100 degrees, steamy and an unusually hot temperature for Toronto. But, I was on a mission to experience Chinatown, so I had the taxi driver drop me off at the intersection of Dundas Street West and Spadina Avenue, Chinatown’s hub. Armed with my water bottle, I wove a path in and out of semi-air conditioned shops.

Toronto Chinatown’s buildings are not as old nor as ornate as San Francisco’s, even though the community was established in 1878 when one of the first Chinese immigrants set up a laundry. However, colorful evidence of Chinese culture is still to be discovered – down the narrow alleys I found a fish market, herb specialist, and a market with rows of bins crammed with mostly unfamiliar vegetables.

In Toronto the color red is not as prevalent as in San Francisco. Pagoda-style roofs are also more difficult to find. Because I had come to equate both with Chinatown, it was necessary to refocus a bit in order to uncover the spokes of this neighborhood’s cultural wheel.

A street vendor peddling a wonderful drink made from sugar cane juice was a welcome sight, and something I had not experienced in San Francisco. The kiosk was framed by rows of sugar cane – like a jungle in the midst of the city. If you have ever chewed on a piece of sugarcane – this drink had the same flavor – sweet and refreshing.

Bakeries were small and looked to be family-owned. Most of the pastries were listed in Chinese, so it was a gamble, but also a taste adventure. Fortunately, everything I chose came in varying degrees of delicious, but one warning – don’t come with any preconceived notions of taste sensations.

I ordered a round, rather benign-looking bun in a Dundas Street bakery, then bit into something hard and black that tasted vaguely like fruit. After I overcame the initial texture shock, I rather enjoyed the taste. In the glass case, a pastry with a faint lavender hue caught my eye. I thought it might be a lotus seed bun, but couldn’t prove it by the label, which was written in Chinese. The pastel lavender was quite alluring and the delicate sweet flavor made the pastry even more seductive.

Toronto has fewer shops than San Francisco, however, the stores are more specialized, and the same items are not repeated over and over. Navigating narrow aisles of the Dundas Street shops was a bit like negotiating an obstacle course, but the effort was worth it. I was pleased to find brocade silk purses, a small hand-painted drum, and jade chopsticks.

After my shopping spree, I began to think it was not only time for lunch, but also time to seek an air-conditioned refuge. Roasted ducks hanging in windows have been, to me, a sign of authentic Chinese food, so when I saw the ducks drooping in the window of the House of Gourmet I knew I had come to the right place.

The hostess took one look at me, rattled off something in Chinese, then led me to a table with other solo diners. Scanning the room, I seemed to be the only tourist around – a good sign. Seated next to me was another non-Chinese – a local businessman who was fluent in both Cantonese and English. Across the table sat an elderly Chinese man and a Chinese woman about fifty.

I chose the tame Sliced Beef Fried Rice as I needed some comfort food after battling the heat. The beef was tender and the rice was enhanced by scrambled eggs, soft peas, and a hint of ginger.

The businessman who spoke Cantonese turned to me and relayed a message from the Chinese woman across the table. It seemed that she was concerned because they didn’t put enough beef in my rice dish. I smiled and told my “interpreter” to tell her thank you, but it looked just right to me. Very interesting dynamics when you share a table with three strangers, two of whom do not speak English. The elderly Chinese man was quietly enjoying his fried dumplings. I smiled, he smiled, and we were all very happy with our meals – even if mine was a bit thin on the beef, or so said the Chinese woman across the table.

     As I wandered down to the corner of Dundas Street West and Spadina Avenue to wait for my taxi, exotic sounds emerged from a deftly played instrument wielded by a frail, elderly Chinese man. The music lent an ethereal aura to the frantic street corner.

     His instrument was an “erhu.” Two-stringed and violin-like, it was layered with python skin. The erhu looked well-used, with python scales curling up a bit.

As he drew the ragged horsehair bow across the metal strings, a lovely, lucid flow of music emerged — music that conjured up visions of bamboo rickshaws and placid rice fields. It was the sound of a far-away civilization, but also the same vibrant civilization that became manifest in Toronto over a hundred years ago.”

Because no city ever remains constant, and subsequent visits to these thriving Chinatowns will be a bit different, I attempted to savor each detail of my sojourn to these cultural portals that offer glimpses of a distant and ancient land called China.




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Escape to the Inspiring and Captivating Mission Inn!

August 28, 2014

Bougainvillea brightens the Mission Inn’s Spanish Courtyard

“The best part of beauty is that which no picture can express.”  — Francis Bacon

Imagine sitting in a 100-year-old patio courtyard surrounded by vibrant red bougainvillea twining and twirling around static iron balconies.  You look up and see a Della Robbia-style Madonna and Child plaque on a high Moorish-type wall with a thousand intricate curves.  Red Spanish tile walkways show slight dips from a hundred years of footfall.  Twittering birds flit to a fountain trickling small streams of water to separate basins.  Does this sound like a peaceful, somewhat exotic destination?  Does it make you want to reach for your passport and be whisked off to Spain or Morocco?


Even though this courtyard with its terra-cotta tones resembles a captivating destination like Spain, it is right here in Southern California – Riverside to be exact.  For me it is reminiscent of a trip to Spain. Others might be taken back to a time in Morocco or Italy – but most will probably just revel in the immediate beauty of this historic hotel called the Mission Inn.


One of the joys of traveling is to be transported to a world that is inspiring and beautiful…and will serve to awaken the senses. A visit to the Mission Inn will do just that.


The Mission Inn is close enough for lunch, and distant enough for an overnight stay.  Built in “Mission Revival” style, the hotel has had various construction phases, but the first wing was completed by Frank Miller in 1903, over a 100 years ago.


This architectural showpiece is furnished with priceless treasures and unique objects that Miller collected during his world travels. He amassed a staggering amount of bells, 400 of which can be found on the grounds of the inn.  Tiffany stained glass windows, Chinese vases and various architectural accoutrements unite in a delightful array of the eclectic – like a small-scale Hearst Castle.


Guests are free to wander most of the property and discover a myriad of architectural wonders – a Spanish-style chapel, fountains, reflecting pools, intricately fashioned doors and colorful tiled roofs.  Like the Hearst Castle, there is something fascinating around every corner.


Dining at the Spanish Patio restaurant is a delightful and satisfying experience.  Beauty is everywhere, and it’s almost enough to distract you from your fantastic feast – almost.  The lunch buffet is inviting with a counter laden with such delicacies as fresh salmon, flat iron steak and a marvelously crisp cheddar lavosh.  The savory choices vary daily, but the dessert table remains fairly constant.  That is where guests find a stunning array of petit fours and tea cakes – with chocolate or without – but always fresh.


In the guest rooms differences abound. This is not a uniform hotel – it is marvelously eclectic.  Our suite was comfortable and sparkling clean. A balcony afforded a view of the pool, and at night we could look down on a vine-covered arch with bells in lighted niches. The bells rang melodically and were not at all intrusive.


A visit to the Mission Inn will awaken your senses to appreciate this oasis in the midst of a bustling world – this place where art, architecture, fine food and delicious scents intermingle beautifully.

Mission Inn Courtyard

Moorish architecture lends an Old World feel to the Mission Inn


Mission Inn Desserts

Petit fours and tea cakes are offered during the Spanish Patio Lunch Buffet


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The Cusp of Summer – A Scandinavian Sojourn

August 29, 2013


Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Issue 35, Volume 17.



Barken Viking, Göteborg


Special to the Village News

Lagom.  According to my cousin Håkan there is no English equivalent for this Swedish word.  Dictionaries attempt to translate, but fall short.  The word, as he explained, means something that is “just right” – having no failings whatsoever.  That is how I chose to describe my recent journey to the west coast of Sweden and southern Norway.  It happened on the cusp of summer – that time of the year where the parks and meadows are alive with color and there is just enough rain to keep it fresh.

Excitement is found in ever-moving cities. Cities are lit, cities are buzzing, cities are places to marvel over inspirational works of engineering – the curve of a turret, a well-planned park, the strength of a metal bridge and the many and varied architectural marvels that provide a city’s tangible infrastructure.

But what makes a city unique is not only the buildings or parks, but the varied scents.  E.M. Forster, in his book “A Room with a View,” illustrated that fact succinctly with these words, “Inhale, my dear. Deeper. Every city, let me tell you, has its own smell.”

Göteborg (Gothenburg), Sweden, is located on a sea named Kattegatt.  I remember the strong scent of the sea drifting down canals and swirling about streets and parks.  I remember the fresh scent of grasses and gardens mingled with the metallic scent of trams and buses.   It was unique – it was the scent of Göteborg.

An afternoon jaunt to the large indoor market, Saluhallen Kungstorget, provided both lunch and a history lesson.  This cavernous market with a partial glass roof and large windows opened in 1889 and was said to have been built to house the market so the food would not become soiled in the tainted street air.

Mounds of hefty, hearty bread crowded the shelves; and I found so many different cheeses it was hard to choose. The varied scents of Saluhallen – fresh bread, cheeses, sweets and coffee mixed and mingled wonderfully.

Drawn by the waterfront, I boarded a Paddam boat for a canal and harbor tour.  Göteborg’s canal system dates back to the 17th century; and some of the historical buildings that line the water are probably at least that old.

Our tour boat slid under low bridges – the guide told us there were twenty of them.  But, one bridge, Osthyveln, is unique – so low that the guide told us to get down on the deck. So there we were, a boatload of tourists, lying and crouching on the deck while we slid under an extremely low bridge.

We passed a curious structure, the Fiskkyrkan, (Fish church), which was perched on the bank of a canal.   Built in 1874, it’s a fascinating fish market that resembles a church.

Then it was out to the harbor to get a glimpse of the shipbuilding dry docks where the hum and drone of the equipment had an almost music-like cadence.

Once in the open harbor, we motored past the stately Barken Viking, a four-masted steel windjammer docked in the Lilla Bommen area.  The 387-foot vessel took its maiden voyage in 1907, but has undergone a metamorphosis since those days and now welcomes guests as a floating hotel.  Looming large behind the ship is a symmetrical building nicknamed “The Lipstick,” due to its erect stature and curious red and white hue.

The Barken Viking is a stunning hotel and I was fortunate to be able to make my home there while in Göteborg. My room was at the bow, which made for an interesting configuration and a slightly sloping deck. The room was pristine and the décor was nautical with rich wood walls.  Two portholes afforded a perfect day-view of the sparkling water as well as the pungent scent of salt-tinged air.  At night, through the open portholes, I could hear the rain lightly tapping the water’s surface.  City lights beamed lazily across the still surface of the harbor.

Barken Viking’s breakfast was a Swedish smörgåsbord of delights, including smoked salmon, caviar and exotic cheeses.  A gentle glow from the table lanterns set a mysterious mood, even in the early morning hours.

Barely within the confines of Norway, Fredrikstad is about two hours by train from Göteborg, so it was perfect for a three-day side trip.   The train rushed by still lakes and forests crowded with pine and fir trees.  Farms with neat barns and tidy houses crowned the grassy hillsides.

The heart of Fredrikstad is Gamlebyen (Old Town), which lies on a narrow arm of water called the Glomma.  Glomma is a sweet water river which empties into the Skagerrak, a salt water strait.   A foot ferry motors the short distance from the city center, across the Glomma, to Gamlebyen.

King Frederick II of Denmark-Norway founded the city in 1567; however, much of the town was burned in various fires.   In 1764, the last completely devastating fire struck.  Some of the more intricately designed buildings were constructed after this fire and date from the late 18th century.

The Fredrikstad Fortress was built in 1660 and its massive walls, sod-covered bunkers and worn cannons exude a rugged charm. Fredrikstad Museum is located inside the fortress and houses a roomful of artifacts and hand-crafted items.  Genial staff members were quick to share bits of history.

Maybe the drizzle discouraged visitors because, as the day grew on, the tourists that had peeked into store windows and fumbled with their maps, slowly disappeared, leaving me to walk the cobbled streets practically alone.  I was able to enjoy the curves and spires of the church and other buildings, then peek into gardens and courtyards without distraction.

As I was ready to board the ferry, the day’s drizzle converted to heavy raindrops pelting the water and driving more people to shelter.  If the city of Fredrikstad had a smell to bottle, it would be of rain-drenched leaves along a moss laden cobblestone path mingled with the musky scent of river water.

Sweden. Norway. On both sides of the border it was a joy to take the remnants of the past and translate them to an adventure in the present.  My journey was a splash of history – captivating and compelling, but most of all it was “lagom.”  It was just right.



Göteborg Canal





Sweden.Norway.2 Fredrikstad
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