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Exploring Chinatown's history and culture ... tours, museums.

Exploring Chinatown's history and culture ... tours, museums

Still the largest Chinese community in the West, San Francisco's Chinatown, with a population estimated at 80,000, remains a source of fascination and some mystery. Two museums help unlock the history and culture of this famous section of town. And a third focuses on the cultures of the Pacific Rim. Remember that you can't reach Chinatown via the Embarcadero Freeway (closed after the October '89 quake). From U.S. 101 northbound, take the Fourth Street exit, head east on Bryant Street, then left at the Embarcadero; follow signs. From the Bay Bridge, take the Main Street--Embarcadero exit (from left lane), turn right at Harrison Street, then left at the Embarcadero; follow signs.

Chinese Culture Center, 750 Kearny Street, on the third floor of the Holiday Inn on Portsmouth Square, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. The center's big two-room gallery offers a permanent exhibition of contemporary and historical art by Chinese and Chinese-Americans. May 12 through June 30, the main gallery features an exhibit titled Dragon Threads: Chinese Costumes and Accessories. Allow time to browse in the gallery's fine book and gift shop. Saturdays at 2, docents lead Chinese Heritage Walks through traditional Chinatown (bounded by Bush, Broadway, Stockton, and Kearny). Starting from the culture center's gallery, each 1- to 2-hour walk winds through narrow alleys and dark side streets. You visit a fragrant herb shop, an overwarm fortune cooky factory full of sweet smells, a hushed Buddhist temple, and other buildings of architectural and historical interest. The guide's rich commentary enlivens the walk. The tour costs $9, $2 ages 18 and under; to reserve or find out about other programs--concerts, auctions, trips--call (415) 986-1822. The gallery is open 10 to 4 Tuesdays through Saturdays; free.

Chinese Historical Society Museum, 650 Commercial Street, is a small downstairs gallery. Take time to read the well-written, often moving descriptions that accompany each of the 15 or so displays. You'll see unusual tools from early herb shops and a small, flat-bottomed boat from the early shrimping industry started by Chinese on San Francisco Bay. Admission to the volunteer-run museum is free (donation appreciated); hours are noon to 4 Wednesdays through Sundays.

Pacific Heritage Museum, 608 Commercial Street, resides in the historic Old San Francisco Subtreasury (now the Bank of Canton of California). Through March 31 is your last chance to see 150 bronze, pottery, and porcelain items--all created between 1000 B.C. and 1911--from the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan. The museum is closed April through mid-May in preparation for an untitled new exhibition.

PHOTO : In Chinatown's heart, heritage walk (from culture center) takes visitors off main drags

PHOTO : Silk dragon head, used in 1909 Chinese New Year parade, weighs more than 50 pounds; it's

PHOTO : on view at Chinese Historical Society

PHOTO : Before your eyes, sugary cooky dough gets baked and shaped into fortune cookies at one

PHOTO : stop on culture center tour
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Title Annotation:San Francisco's Chinatown
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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