Amy Tan's San Francisco: Dim Sum and Then Some

Amy Tan in San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, located in one of her favorite neighborhoods.
Amy Tan in San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, located in one of her favorite neighborhoods. (By David Paul Morris -- Getty Images For The Washington Post)
By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 21, 2007

San Francisco's Chinatown is too full of tourists, so passe.

This, according to best-selling author Amy Tan. But Chinatown is the setting for so many of her novels, practically a character. A place of intrigue. Exotic, colorful, dreamy.

Chinatown can be fun, Tan concedes. It's just that now there's a cooler, lesser-known part of town where the newest immigrants from China, Vietnam and Russia have settled: in the Richmond District, around Clement Street.

That's just one of Tan's favorite haunts in the city that has been her home for 30 years, and the place of her dreams during the years she spent growing up on the fringes, in a series of Bay area towns including Oakland and Hayward. To a suburban teenager in the late 1960s, San Francisco emitted a siren's call.

"My vision of the city was formed during that time," Tan says. "It was the city of love. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Fillmore, Haight-Ashbury. That was the city to me. I dreamed of living there -- literally dreamed of it." Thing is, even after decades of living the dream, Tan is as in love with San Francisco as she was then.

"This city is like an opera -- very dramatic, historical, tragic, funny, lyrical, beautiful, over-the-top," says Tan, who hit the literary scene in 1989 with "The Joy Luck Club" and has since published four more novels, two children's books and a book of essays. Tan knows San Francisco like she knows the quirky characters of her books, and best of all, she's willing to share. In a one-day whirlwind tour, she reveals her favorite places to eat, play, walk and be entertained in the City by the Bay.

The Guilt, the Guilt

"I feel like such a traitor," Tan says from her new home atop a Sausalito hillside, even though her husband constantly assures her that the waterfront community within view of downtown is really just another San Francisco neighborhood. Their move over the summer was prompted by the fact that the three flights of stairs in their San Francisco home were becoming a bit much for older family members and friends.

Still, from her yard, porch, living room and dining room, Tan has a panoramic view that includes many of San Francisco's iconic images. The view provides a backdrop for her first set of observations and suggestions.

First off, tons of tourists visit the park beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, but the nearby Presidio is bigger, better and less crowded, she says. The views from the park that for 218 years had been a military base -- first for Spain and Mexico and until 1994 for the United States -- are glorious, and she wants to take me there later to visit a pet cemetery overlooking the San Francisco Bay and the city skyline.

The Presidio, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, also has beaches, tidal marshes and 200 species of birds on nearly 1,500 acres. There are 11 miles of hiking trails and 14 miles of paved bike trails, a pier for fishing and crabbing, a golf course and an area where locals wind surf.

For the athletic, Tan suggests biking through the Presidio, across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the wild and scenic headlands of Sausalito.

In the distance: Alcatraz Island, home to the infamous prison, now a museum. Although it's the city's No. 1 tourist attraction, Tan says, she had never been there until recently, when visiting friends wanted to take a look. It was worth the trip, she says.

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