Where to Shop Small in SF’s Chinatown

Support local retailers this Small Business Saturday.

Welcome to the oldest Chinatown in America. Established in the 1840s, this storied San Francisco neighborhood has been home to everything from grandiose banquet halls and parades to underground vice activity. As one of the top tourist destinations in the city, the drop in business during the ongoing pandemic has been devastating, with the loss of tourism compounded by anti-Asian racism and hate crimes. While the economy has reopened more in recent months, it’s been a slow recovery for the small businesses in Chinatown that somehow managed to survive, here in SF and across the country.

“Our business slowed tremendously. Last year was the first year we closed in 60-plus years of nonstop service to the community,” says Kevin Chan, owner of the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. “This year it’s picking up,” he continues, though he cites trouble with Google, which had until recently listed the business as still closed, for deterring potential customers. Roger Pincombe, the new executive director of The Great Star Theater, which just reopened this June, says that “July to September was pretty rough,” and business has only been picking up in the last month or so. Still, there is a hopeful upward economic trend, albeit a slow one.

Making a day or night of visiting Chinatown is bound to be chock full of food and picture-worthy sights, from community-sponsored murals to street musicians. This Small Business Saturday and throughout the holiday season, consider supporting the local businesses below for your gift-giving needs instead of corporate giants like Amazon. Grant Avenue is closed to street traffic on weekends, and will be at least through the end of the year, so take advantage of that. Choose a starting place (probably Portsmouth Square) and start walking to see what appears along the way. Don’t forget to also check out the countless grocery stores throughout Chinatown, where you can pick up Chinese snacks like White Rabbit candy and mini lychee gelatin cups that make great stocking stuffers.

As the only remaining theater in Chinatown, The Great Star Theater’s nearly three-year closure from 2018 until June of this year made the venue’s future seem bleak. Luckily, married couple Roger Pincombe and Alice Chu stepped in as a nonprofit to take over the theater, which historically played host to stars of Chinese opera and classic kung-fu movie screenings. Executive Director Pincombe says of being in Chinatown, “I never had that sense of community with neighbors [until now]. It’s mutually beneficial. We bring people to Chinatown, they bring people to us.”

As a Class A historical building, old fans of The Great Star can admire the replicated blue tiles on the facade, as well as the old altar honoring Chinese opera and projectors that remain. Get your theater nerd friends early presents to the variety show Dark Kabaret, the San Francisco Youth Ballet’s version of The Nutcracker, or musical comedy artist Rizo in a holiday show full of burlesque and rock ‘n’ roll. There’s also a possibility of bringing the Center for Asian American Media’s annual film festival back to the venue next year, so keep an eye out for that
How to visit: Purchase tickets for events online.

This normally bustling restaurant was one of the many eating establishments at risk of closing last year, having laid off most of its staff and forced to spend thousands of dollars on a parklet. It was in part kept afloat by partnering with pandemic-born nonprofit SF New Deal, using donor funds to provide meals for the needy, and its close proximity to Portsmouth Square and foot traffic helped (once people started returning to Chinatown). Indulge in comforting Hong Kong-style diner meals, like cheesy baked pork chops in tomato sauce over rice, or tea time specialties like deep-fried peanut butter French toast and Hong Kong milk tea. Go to the bakery side and get a box full of milk tarts, almond red bean buns, and pork floss buns for the carb addicts in your life. Or buy digital gift cards for those who long for the nostalgia of the restaurant year-round.
How to order: Walk in, call for takeout, or order delivery via apps.

Out of the many touristy gift shops on Grant Avenue, the Chinatown Kite Shop stands out as probably the most fun specialty store. From child-sized kites of colorful fish to more serious, elaborate handmade Chinese dragon kites at $399, there really is something for everyone. Serious buyers can order custom kites. The store also sells toys, lanterns, traditional Chinese outfits, and other gifts if somehow kites aren’t your thing (but why wouldn’t they be?). There’s even a Zoltar outside of the shop, which fans of the movie Big will appreciate. As lighthearted as the store ambiance is, it did suffer from vandalism last year, making patronage all the more needed.
How to visit: Walk in or order online.

The Chinese American confectionary invention is a classic, and the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory has been cranking them out since 1962. Weekends would see lines out the door of this small alleyway business, with visitors craning their necks to see fresh fortune cookies coming hot off the irons and deftly folded by hands of experienced workers. It was sad during 2020 to see the factory either closed, or nearly empty when it was open. What didn’t change was the staff’s generosity with samples, and the variety of giftable fortune cookie treats like matcha- and dark chocolate-drizzled ones, giant fortune cookies, and seasonal ones, like those sprinkled with tiny hearts for Valentine’s Day. The fortune cookie flats were and are always the best, though. If patrons buy enough goods, the cashier may throw in some free misshapen fortune cookies or a branded tote bag, too. Add a factory-branded mug to the mix, and you’ve got a great gift bag. Despite the pandemic difficulties, “We still look forward to good fortunes ahead. We are the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company after all,” says owner Kevin Chan. “Each cookie is made with love, by hand by bakers who have worked at the factory for years, if not decades,” he says with pride.
How to order: Walk in; large and custom orders can be placed in advance via phone at 415-806-8243.

The Chinese Culture Center (CCC) was founded in 1965 as a racial justice organization and cultural anchor in Chinatown. As a cultural and art institution, the CCC fulfills its mission through education and art, in both the center itself and offsite galleries and public art. All are free to visit, with donations accepted. The CCC Visual Art Center is currently exhibiting “Women: From Her to Here,” an expression of feminine, queer, and nonbinary liberation. The CCC Design Store is a great gift shop that features items related to current exhibits, like these bad-ass queer narrative ‘zines, as well as contempoary art periodicals, Chinese American history books, and cheeky items like hair pomade packaged in bean paste jars and Kewpie mayonnaise angel enamel pins.
How to visit: Walk in or book an appointment online; some CCC Design Store goods are available online.

The flower shop has been run by the same family for three generations, dating back to 1927. The shop is popular for birthdays, weddings, funerals, and even lavish grand openings for new businesses, with arrangements like lush tangerine trees decorated with lucky red envelopes. The shop has a generous delivery radius spanning from San Mateo to Alameda counties, and it does try to keep flower arrangements seasonal, which may yield pleasant surprises in each finished bouquet, wreath, or pot. The owners are helpful in crafting customs requests, so don’t be afraid to have a chat with them.
How to order: Walk in or order custom arrangements in advance via phone at 415-982-3997.

So there might be three locations of Vital Tea Leaf all on Grant Avenue … but it’s still an SF-only small business with a dizzying array of —you guessed it — tea. Row after row of huge glass jars line the shelves, holding 300 different types of tea leaves that range from traditional pu’er to more unique ones like ginger pine. There is a long, glossy wooden bar where patrons can sit to watch a tea master demonstrate proper tea-making, and of course sample each brew. Aside from choosing the right leaves for the tea-lovers in your life (entertaining employees are experts in finding what suits your needs), the shop also sells beautiful tea sets and accessories if you want to put together an impressive gift bundle.

Technically one block away from Chinatown proper, Abacus Row represents a younger generation’s Chinese American jewelry aesthetic with delicate designs crafted in the shop. Gift a triple-stranded black silk cord stacked with tiny gold tubes and beads, or a necklace made of a tiny gold chain and small gold beads of varying sizes. For those not into jewelry, the ceramic vases by Skinny give an instant sense of calm with natural, warm, matte colors, with each piece’s asymmetry a nod to variations found in nature. There are also thoughtfully designed bags, books, beauty products, and stationary — even socks that are just so darn pretty.

There are no shortages of touristy gift shops along Grant Avenue, though Canton Bazaar stands out with a towering three-story selection of goods. It’s easy to lose track of time while browsing around inside, but once you’ve had a look at everything, you’ll have probably found something for almost everyone on your gift list. You can find stocking stuffers like embroidered pouches and stuffed pandas, or more serious gifts such as silk robes, jewelry, and even furniture. If you get lost or confused, the staff is attentive and helpful.

This tiny but mighty shop has been featured on national television and in countless articles over its 54-year existence. It also recently gained status as a San Francisco legacy business. However, media recognition didn’t protect The Wok Shop against pandemic hardships. Broken into and vandalized this spring for the first time in the store’s history, the shop’s octogenarian owner, Tane Chan, organized a GoFundMe to help install security cameras around Chinatown. As for the shop itself, it really does sell all kinds of woks, and much more for those who love being in the kitchen. Consider a Mongolian barbecue grill, hard boiled egg molds in the shape of animals, sake sets, tea pots, and wooden mooncake molds.

Margot Seeto is a Bay Area freelance writer and a contributor for Thrillist.