The Sounds of Chinatown

By Curt Hopkins, Senior Writer  |  May 16, 2017
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We have nattered on, ad nauseum, about our neighborhood (sometimes, while alliterating like a Saxon). That’s because we aren’t located in Nakatomi Towers or Initech’s office park. We’re in North Beach. We’re smug about it (or smitten with it, depending on your perspective). And we’re doubly into it because of its proximity to Chinatown.

Founded in the 1850s as one of the few places Chinese could buy and inherit property, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinese ethnic and cultural community outside of China itself. There is no end of food, from Sichuan to Hakka; or bars, from dives to hoidy-toidy holdouts of chinoiserie; or shops, from gewgaws to antiques.

As attractive as it is to visitors, it isn’t a theme park. It’s home and workplace to more than 100,000 San Franciscans, about 30 percent of whom live below the poverty line, and two-thirds of whom live in single-room-occupancy hotels. Eighty-five percent of those people fluently speak only Chinese.

If you don’t live in San Francisco, you may have heard of Grant Avenue, the steep street that starts at the famous Chinatown Gate. However, if you’re a resident, you know about Stockton Street, the real main street of Chinatown.

It’s a messy, honking, yelling, banging avenue, redolent of marine life in various vintages. It’s festooned with wash hung out to dry. It’s full of traffic-blocking midday deliveries to an unending row of produce and meat shops and open-air social clubs. It’s a transportation hub of packed Muni buses, private cars, scooters, and bikes. And it’s otherwise packed with pedestrians.

On recent walks through Chinatown, we aimed to capture the essence of the neighborhood through which we walk to work—and in which we grab lunch and happy hour drinks. We recorded sounds on Stockton Street, Grant Avenue, and their side streets, as well as in Portsmouth Square, an original city plaza that serves as Chinatown’s living room.

The sounds we’ve collected, in the order you’ll here them, are:

How does Chinatown sound to you?

Topics: north beach, culture, sounds, neighborhood, Chinatown, recording

Curt Hopkins, Senior Writer

Curt Hopkins, Senior Writer

Curt Hopkins has written about punks in Berlin, gypsies in Granada, and nerds in Nairobi for Newsweek, Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Times, and others. He was the founding director of the Committee to Protect Bloggers, the first nonprofit dedicated to the liberty and safety of bloggers worldwide. Curt was the social-media manager for InterActive Corp's InstantAction gaming platform and an early hire at Ask.com, where he took responsibility for tanking its stock. His poems, essays, and plays have been respectively published and performed in a variety of publications and venues throughout the United States.