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Walking the wok in Chinatown

By Sharon Lloyd Spence Special to The Christian Science Monitor / October 11, 2000


Standing outside the Silver Restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown, where glistening pressed ducks hang in the window like fresh laundry, Shirley Fong-Torres is right at home. Author, chef, tour guide, food and travel writer, she loves talking about, cooking, and eating Chinese food.

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"Call me Shirley 'Food' Torres," she jokes. "I'll eat sea cucumber, jellyfish, Bird's Nest Soup, even chicken feet. I don't care about being skinny, I like having a full belly and eating great food with family and friends."

As a young girl, she helped her father cook at his two California restaurants, peeling thousands of prawns and wrapping endless wontons and eggrolls. She napped alongside 100-pound bags of rice. Chinese food was and still is the central core of her life. And so is San Francisco's Chinatown.

Ms. Fong-Torres is founder/owner of Wok Wiz Walking Tours & Cooking Center here. She shares her love affair with this neighborhood by hosting culinary and historical walking tours for visitors from around the world. She also teaches Chinese cooking through classes where everyone chops, stir frys, and enjoys the final results. Her books include "Wok Wiz Cookbook," "In the Chinese Kitchen," "San Francisco Chinatown: A Walking Tour," and "Ciao Chow: A Celebration of the Marco Polo Connection." Shirley appears on PBS, CNN, and Discovery Channel, and also leads culinary tours to Asia.

On her Wok Wiz walking tours, Fong-Torres's enthusiasm is delightful. She asks us, "What are your food obsessions?" as we confess to indulgences with cheesecake, crme brule, French fries and macadamia nut cookies. "Good!" she responds. "I fired my personal trainer, she was too skinny, and made me do crunches. My idea of crunches are potato chips and fried calamari."

At Wo Chong Market, she encourages us to pick up the variety of vegetables we rarely see in American supermarkets, like gai lan (Chinese broccoli) and dou gog, (green beans).

"You must experience Chinatown with all your five senses," she says. "See the architecture, hear the Chinese language, smell the food cooking, feel the strange fruits and vegetables, and of course, eat everything!"

"My childhood kitchen was filled with aromas of stir-fried dried shrimp, green onions, minced prawns, and fresh water chestnuts," she reminisces. "While other moms were baking chocolate cookies, mine was making steamed dumplings. Sharing them with friends made me very popular," she jokes.

Fong-Torres's walking tours are unusual in that she shares personal stories of her family history, as well as Chinatown history. Her father left China at age 17 and moved to the Philippines to become a chef. After six years, he purchased $1,200 in paperwork that declared him to be Ricardo Torres, a citizen of the Philippines, which was then a US territory.

He arrived in Oakland, Calif., in 1927 as Ricky Torres, and by 1930 had his own restaurant. Relatives in China selected 18-year-old Joe Tung Low to be his bride. She arrived in 1940 to begin her new life as well. The couple will celebrate 51 years of marriage this year.

"During the 1950s, US law permitted Chinese immigrants to admit they were 'paper sons,' and still become legal US citizens," Fong-Torres says. "Dad did this so we children could have our Chinese surnames. But he wanted to thank the family that enabled him to come here, so he changed his name to Richard Fong-Torres. And I've kept that name as well, to honor my ancestors."

Today San Francisco's Chinatown is a busy 24-square-block area, home to over 30,000 Asians.