Chinatown, Between the Lines

A coloring book highlights a beloved San Francisco neighborhood.

explore and color san francisco chinatown
Culture to Color

The Great Star Theater in San Francisco’s Chinatown originally opened its doors in 1925 as a Chinese opera house. Recently refurbished as a nonprofit venture, it still has an altar backstage where performers of all stripes can pay homage to Emperor Tang Ming Huang, the patron saint of Chinese opera. Outside, the Great Star sports the traditional upturned eaves of Chinese architecture, which you may appreciate more while coloring them inside the pages of Explore & Color San Francisco Chinatown. Both a coloring book and an ingenious travel brochure, Explore features 33 San Francisco attractions, each accompanied by historical and cultural information.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

The 80-page adult coloring book arrives at a time when the neighborhood faces an uncertain future. Its tourist shops and restaurants, important parts of the local economy, have suffered mightily during the pandemic. Like other Chinatowns around the country, San Francisco’s ethnic enclave is an important gateway for new immigrants, providing jobs and affordable housing as well as social support. Small businesses are critical to that ecosystem, not only for the jobs they provide, but because the rent from ground-floor retail operations essentially subsidizes rents for the single-room occupancies and modest family apartments on the floors above them. Once that balance is disrupted, the community becomes vulnerable to gentrification, according to Malcolm Yeung, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC). “This is a very precarious moment, where we’re seeing more property listings in the past three months than anyone can remember,” Yeung says. “It’s opening 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 creatively explore Chinatown, says Betty Louie, a retired businesswoman who’s been described as one of San Francisco’s “most influential community advocates,” it will hopefully inspire book buyers to spend more of their time (and money) here. “The thought is to showcase places and bring new people to Chinatown who will make repeat visits,” says Louie, who commissioned a run of 1,000 coloring books through her family foundation. Specifically, she wants Bay Area locals to bond with the country’s oldest and largest Chinatown.

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

Explore & Color San Francisco Chinatown starts off with the iconic (though relatively new) Dragon Gate, which since 1971 has marked the official entrance to Chinatown. Other attractions include the newly redesigned Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground, where the Chinese American basketball star from the 1940s and ’50s learned to play. The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, which has been in operation for 60 years, also gets the illustrated treatment. (Across from the fragrant bakery is 41 Ross, a small art gallery and community space that is partly funded by the CCDC; Yeung believes 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 from many Chinese restaurants but which are actually Japanese in origin. A downloadable companion guide includes LeBlanc’s photographs of the sites themselves.

LeBlanc spent months researching potential attractions and visited about 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 going down an alleyway when one of the Chinese ladies said, ‘Do you hear that?’” says LeBlanc, remembering a particular sound emanating from an open door. In the book, that sound is explained: “Chances are you will hear the shuffling of mahjong tiles, sometimes referred to as the ‘twittering of sparrows,’ coming from behind many doors.”•

Lydia Lee writes frequently about design and architecture in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a local bicycle advocate.
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