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Amy Tan's San Francisco: Dim Sum and Then Some
People We Like and the Places They Love

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.

Straight out her living room window, you see Angel Island, the green one with no obvious buildings. Hidden from view are the historic buildings that once served as the West Coast's entry point for immigrants. Now it's parkland open to visitors and accessible by ferry, with trails that lead to the 788-foot summit of Mount Livermore, miles of bike paths and campsites.

"It's rare to find a beautiful city where you can go hiking and within minutes be downtown watching opera," Tan says. "Paris and New York are fabulous, and you can walk everywhere, but you can't walk 20 minutes and be hiking in the wild, with nobody else there."

Below her windows is San Francisco's greatest asset: the water. "It's what people love, and it's constantly changing, from glassy to choppy, gray, blue, sometimes with hints of gold, or the pink and orange reflections of a sunset."

As we head down the hills of Sausalito to catch a ferry into the city, Tan points out two restaurants worth the journey from downtown, if the ferry ride and its views of the skyline, water, bridges and islands aren't enough: Poggio, a moderately priced Italian trattoria, and Caffe Trieste, a coffee shop with sandwiches, pastries and live music on weekends.

First stop cityside: Tan's favorite bookstore, Book Passage, where she is greeted with a hug by owner Elaine Petrocelli. In the best tradition of independent booksellers, Petrocelli in the past 30 years has hosted more than 6,000 authors at this and another location in nearby Corte Madera.

One section features books set in San Francisco -- a major display with novels by, among many others, Isabel Allende, Dashiell Hammett, John Lescroart, Armistead Maupin and, of course, Amy Tan.

As for guidebooks, Tan likes "San Francisco Off the Beaten Path" (Globe Pequot Press) by Michael Petrocelli, Elaine's son. "That's the one I give friends visiting me if I'm working and am sending them off on their own," she says.

For now, though, we're off to savor the city's food.

Operatic Spirit

A Chinese family that long ago immigrated to Vietnam before moving to San Francisco and opening the Slanted Door in the Market Street area serves us one of the best meals I've eaten and the only Vietnamese fusion food I've had. No wonder that even lunch requires a reservation four to six weeks in advance, unless you're lucky enough to get one of the few tables set aside for walk-ins.

We're joined by Zheng Cao, a regular with the San Francisco Opera. Come September 2008, she'll debut in the starring role of an opera based on Tan's 2001 novel "The Bonesetter's Daughter." Tan has a special treat in mind: Cao will give us a backstage tour of the War Memorial Opera House. Such tours are available to the public for $5, but minus Cao.

Their chatter turns briefly to the new opera being written by Tan and composer Stewart Wallace. It will be the first to meld elements of Western and Chinese opera, Tan says. Cao and other Western-style opera singers will be joined by acrobats and percussionists from China, and by Wu Tong, a huge Chinese star who sings pop, rock, classical and folk music. After its local run, plans call for the production to travel to Bejing.

It's an audacious and risky trial, but San Francisco audiences are particularly open to new things, Cao says. Besides, given that a third of the city's population is Asian, where better to try it?

Over lunch, Tan and Cao dish on some of their favorite San Francisco places. Best dim sum: Ton Kiang or Yank Sing. Best shopping: all around Union Square. Must-see museum if you have time for only one: Asian Art Museum. Best off-the-beaten-path restaurant: Quince.

You'll find mostly locals at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where artists, authors and thinkers offer talks and tours, among other events, many of them free, Tan says. The city's best regular free entertainment is on Sundays in summer at Stern Grove, where music and dance are offered in an outdoor amphitheater.

"Once a performer got sick, and he was replaced last-minute by Placido Domingo," Tan recalls. The San Francisco Symphony, she adds, is terrific, and she recommends eating beforehand at Hayes Street Grill. Be sure to order a cone of incredible fries, she says.

3,000 Kinds of Tea

After lunch, we stroll through the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, which is my newest reason for wishing I lived in San Francisco. The Ferry Building that houses the market opened in 1898 but eventually languished for many years because city planners decided to build a highway around it. After damage from the 1989 earthquake forced the highway to be torn down, someone recognized the potential of this old building along the water, with a clock tower modeled after the bell tower of the 12th-century Seville Cathedral in Spain.

On Saturdays and Tuesdays, farmers practicing sustainable agriculture display their wares in stalls outside, and anyone who doesn't like crowds might want to avoid it. Other days, visit for the restaurants or the gourmet food shops that inspire the wish to picnic or cook.

Cowgirl Creamery sells artisan cheeses made on nearby dairy farms. The aroma of fresh-baked Acme bread competes with the smells of the herb and flower store down the hall. The Scharffen Berger chocolates look as if they might even be worth the eye-popping prices. And where else do you find a store selling nothing but mushrooms?

The Imperial Tea Court sends out such an aura of calm that I'm immediately reminded of a spa. The store handles most of the 3,000 kinds of tea known in the world, including compacted cakes of pu-erh tea, which is aged in caves. It's the only tea that improves with age, Tan says, and is considered a fine gift for a host. "People in that store know tea like a sommelier knows fine wines," she says.

As we approach the opera house, also home to the San Francisco Ballet, Tan says she spends more time in the Civic Center neighborhood than any other, with its walkways lined with linden trees and fine old buildings, including City Hall, the Asian Art Museum and Davies Symphony Hall.

Built in the French Renaissance style and opened in 1932, the opera house was fitted with the latest in acoustic technology after the 1989 earthquake. On the stage, Cao belts out a few notes and says, "The Kennedy Center is very prestigious, but it doesn't have good acoustics for the artists. The sounds go out, but they don't come back. Here, they return to you. When you can hear yourself, you can experiment, take chances. It makes for a better performance."

She and Tan also praise the availability of cheap seats. Subscribers get first pick, and a ticket in a center box is more than $200. But there are student rush tickets for $25, and standing room is $10.

Cao appreciates the patrons in the boxes but loves those who stand. "I am very touched by the standing-room people," she says. "You can only see their heads, but at the end of the night, it might be midnight, and not a single head is missing. When I see people sleeping in the front row, I want to go, 'Stop the show. Send those people home to bed and let someone standing have their seats.' "

We pile back into Tan's Prius, and Cao points out the corner where she was recently stopped by a police officer for speeding. The mezzo-soprano told him she was rushing to her performance at the opera house. "Sing for me," he told her, and she did a quick aria. "That was beautiful," he said. "You can go."

"That story is so San Francisco," Tan says. "This is a city with a soul."

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