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SHIRLEY FONG-TORRES: 
THE PIED PIPER OF SAN FRANCISCO CHINATOWN

By George Medovoy

Shirley Fong-Torres, proprieter of Wok Wiz Tours in San Francisco's Chinatown.

Nay Ho, Jo Sun!

That’s “Good morning!” in Cantonese. You could use it on your own in San Francisco's Chinatown, but if you chum along with Shirley Fong-Torres of Wok Wiz Chinatown Tours & Cooking Center, you won’t need it.

Shirley will take care of all the introductions for you in what she lovingly calls “Hong Kong by the Bay.” My old friend is president, chief guide, Chinese cooking master, Chinatown historian, and all-around good-humored pied piper of Chinatown. Shirley (and any one of her 15 guides) will take you beyond the typical tourist stops to the nooks and crannies of this historic slice of San Francisco. Expect to make a lot of stops to meet Shirley’s friends, sample Chinese pastries, get advice on fresh vegetables, or be invited, as I was, to sample pickled vegetables at a Chinese market. “When people ask me about Chinatown today,” Shirley said, “I tell them that it’s a vibrant, living community, and we are entering into their lives.” 

Today, she tells me, Chinatown is “an expansion of what it was back in the 1800s, when the first Chinese came to this country.“I think that the more you see,” she said, “the more you will notice that not that much has changed. Ninety percent of the Chinese still here still speak Cantonese, which is the primary language. And they still prefer to stay in their confines of almost 30 square blocks.” I joined Shirley in Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square, where Wok Wiz begins its tours and where Chinese immigrants first landed in the New World. In those days, the square provided an unobstructed view of the port, but today it is closed off by skyscrapers.When Shirley’s father arrived at Portsmouth Square, it was via a rather circuitous route, which explains the Hispanic “Torres” at the end of the family name. Father came in 1927, when exclusionary laws made it difficult for Chinese to enter the U.S. Posing as a Filipino immigrant, he took the name Ricardo Torres. His daughter found the American dream, too, teaching 7th and 8th grade English, followed by a successful stint as operations manager for Levi Strauss in San Francisco. But Shirley yearned for bigger challenges. “And so,” Torres said.“I cast my fate to the winds, literally. I knew that I had a passion for cooking — and I love people.”

Shopping for vegetables in Chinatown with Wok Wiz Tours

So with perfect timing, we stopped at a Washington Street market to admire the long beans, which Shirley told me she prepares by braiding them with medallions of lobster, sea scallops, salmon and tiger prawns.

Next we stopped to admire the Bank of Canton, whose architecture resembles that of an ornate Chinese pagoda with curved roofs — to keep away evil spirits. The colors of the bank building are also very important, Shirley tells me: red for love and happiness, green for growth, and gold...for prosperity. “You see those colors over and over in Chinatown,” she said, “because the Chinese love those colors in order to be sure that they have good luck.” Next on our itinerary: Wentworth Street, an alley once known as Salty Fish Alley. Once upon a time in Chinatown you could identify streets by the scents of the products people sold — and Salty Fish Alley was where you could buy fish.

Nowadays, the big draw on Salty Fish Alley is the art studio of Yiu-Kwan Lau, a Chinese brush painting artist. Lau specializes in giant pandas and eagles in vivid, lifelike form. From Lau’s studio, we walked to the Tung Shing Trading Company on Jackson Street, where Shirley introduced me to Cham Tit Shing, a specialist in Chinese herbs. “You don’t come to this store if you’re sick,” Shirley said, “You come here to maintain yourself.” Among her favorite things to buy here are the mushrooms, used in a Chinese chicken soup sometimes called “energy soup.” Then there’s the tea, black or green, which aids digestion and can provide, she notes, an overall sense of physical well-being.

For spiritual well-being we stopped at the Ma-Tsu Buddhist Temple at 30 Beckett Street, where Shirley proudly told her friend at the desk about the great things her daughter is doing as an elementary school teacher, including a first-ever class outing to Chinatown. By now it was getting close to noon, so Shirley and I headed over to Hunan Home’s Restaurant, at 622 Jackson Street, where the long menu is a mix of Hunan and Cantonese food. Shirley offered this advice on choosing the right Chinese restaurant: ”You look inside and see if it’s filled with smiling Chinese. If it is, you know it’s a good place.”

San Francisco's Chinatown
(photo: San Francisco  CVB)

Shirley’s advice paid off — the place was brimming with smiling Chinese. My dish was very tasty: Salt and Pepper Rock Cod, delicately fried and served with a generous helping of Tofu with Black Bean Sauce and Vegetable Chow Mein. 

Feeling much better after lunch, thank you, we headed for our last stop: 32 Ross Alley. There we met Jun Yu, the “Famous Operator” (so says his business card) of a one-chair, hole-in-the-wall barbershop. Among Yu’s clientele are many stars, including Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, the Beatles and Clint Eastwood. Besides the notoriety of the barbershop, the price seems right, too — in Ju’s words, “$5...five minutes, $6...six minutes.”“But most stay overtime,” he said.Wok

Wiz offers a variety of tours, ranging from a 90-minute stroll to a Chinese cooking class. More information can be found on the Wok Wiz website (listed below).  Shirley has written two books, “In the Chinese Kitchen with Shirley Fong-Torres,” and “San Francisco Chinatown: A Walking Tour.”For more information, visit www.wokwiz.com.

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