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Shopping Excursions into Chinatown

Thinking East? Head North

Far be it from me to take shopping pointers from the tourists who liberally populate San Francisco on a regular basis -- I would rather be the one dispensing the tips as opposed to receiving them -- but in consideration of the narrow tourist-choked streets of Grant Avenue, I'm beginning to suspect perhaps the out-of-towners are onto something.

Chinatown provides an assortment of riches for the shopper who decides to venture immediately beyond the confines of Union Square retail, past Maiden Lane and through the portal of that picturesque lion gate. From home furnishings to apparel, Chinatown presents an astounding abundance of varied merchandise at consistently surprising prices for the San Francisco shopper who dares. The joy of shopping in Chinatown is that along with what you would expect to find, there are always some pleasant surprises.

Shopping in Chinatown can seem initially daunting: the uphill climb, the overabundance of stores, the ever-present possibility that you will accidentally end up in some stranger's vacation photographs. But, with a little investigation, it doesn't take long to hit pay dirt. Almost immediately one comes upon China Station (456 Grant Ave.); it is easy to miss, as, under the most casual of glances, it appears to carry much of the same merchandise as any other store in the immediate (and I do mean immediate) area. A little further investigation, however, yields hand-embroidered silk kimonos ($29.50) and, even better yet, ombré-dyed silk kimonos ($29.95), ideal candidates for adding the Eastern influence, so heavily indulged in this year at New York's Fashion Week, to your own wardrobe in the guise of a coat or a wrap.

Sartorial delights continue at Asian Image (800 Grant Ave.) with their varied selection of traditional and contemporary Chinese apparel. Silk brocade and velvet jackets (starting at $9.00) are merely par for the course; light, exquisitely colored Thai silk shirts ($29.95) and an array of Chinese brocade handbags (starting at $14.95) round out the diverse selection of Chinese and Asian-inspired garments and accessories.

Asian Image's sister store, Asian Renaissance (662 Grant Ave.) presents many possibilities for those of gift-giving sensibilities: ceramic tea and sake sets ($29.95-$69.95) in traditional and contemporary glazes redefine stuffy notions of the classic accoutréments of tea and hospitality. The Silk Brocade Bedding Set (consisting of a duvet cover and four shams; $498) may be a bit of a splurge, but, presented with the prospect of such sumptuous bedding, one is hard-pressed to feel that they are not worth a pampering. The items I was the most taken with were the vintage-inspired metal thermoses ($9.95) featuring 40's- and 50's-style images and floral prints, choice objects for anyone with a fondness for vintagey accessories.

China Bazaar (667 Grant Ave.) provides one with the classic Chinatown retail experiences: three floors of merchandise crammed into every possible nook and cranny, flying at you from extremely odd angles and jerry-rigged to the ceiling. Tourists are any- and everywhere. Baskets of every conceivable incarnation of the "kung fu slipper" line the entrance.

This kind of retail experience, while initially quite off-putting, requires a thorough going-over: I found Chinese ceramic dishware ($7.95-$14.95) in traditional and more modern forms and glazes that would make a unique addition to anyone's conventional sets at home.

China Bazaar offers 30's and 40's-era vintage Chinese advertising posters and screen prints. These works feature modishly-coiffed beauties of the Far Eastern Jazz Age that have gained immense popularity of late, appearing on everything from dishes to t-shirts. Reproductions of posters, often framed, have cropped up in interior design and furnishing stores at prices decidedly less economical than those found in Chinatown.

Strangely enough, I came upon Virgin of Guadalupe and Dia de los Muertos-themed purses and messenger bags ($12.95-$21.95) in China Bazaar as well, items I would have thought were the sole province of Mission and South-of-Mission shopping. But, as I said before, Chinatown is full of surprises.

The similarly named (and similarly-stocked) Canton Bazaar (616 Grant Ave.) lies immediately across the street from China Bazaar and on the same side of the block as Asian Renaissance. Also bearing three floors of merchandise, Canton Bazaar is noticeably well laid out, featuring a large variety of items from interior furnishings to apparel. A number of silk jacquard accessories (headbands, wallets, make-up bags, purses and clutches; $3.95-$19.50) greet you at street level, as well as a very large selection of discounted fine and costume jewelry. On my visit, all Austrian Crystal hair accessories were on clearance (50% off marked prices of $28-$58), a deal I had to observe at a distance due to the crush of potential customers for these items.

Canton Bazaar is a boon for home furnishings as well. Embroidered silk pillows ($29.50), beaded sari-fabric throw pillows ($39.50) and silk bolster pillows ($39.50) present divine choices for the divan; silk tea light lanterns ($39.50), increasingly featured as lighting accessories in interior designs, are priced reasonably in consideration of prices for comparable items both in and outside of Chinatown. Sushi sets ($9.50-$29.50) and varied collections of glazed and unglazed ceramic bowls (set of four, $15.95; set of eight, $27.95) provide accents for the dining room and kitchen.

Apparel-wise, Canton Bazaar comes up trumps: silk jacquard camisoles ($19.50) and tie-front tops ($17.95) provide luxurious alternatives to their lace and cotton cousins. Cheongsams (featured in Grace Chen's review of Dragon Seed Bridal), always the perennial favorite among fashion designers and the occasional Hollywood starlet who has enough je ne sais quoi to pull it off (i.e. Nicole Kidman), are featured in a variety of materials, colors and lengths ($19.50-$59.50).

Old Shanghai (645 Grant Ave.) never fails to pull me into its portals by mere virtue of the beauty of the interior of the store itself and the conspicuous lack of clutter, which defines its two floors. Accessories, china and objects d'art range the first floor; brocade messenger bags ($19.50) present an elegant trope on an old favorite, while the choice accessory of the spring and summer seasons, the paillette handbag ($25.95), makes its entry in as many colors as anyone could desire.

The second floor of Old Shanghai does not fail to impress either. Classic silk brocade pajama-style tops ($29.50), hand-painted silk "happy coats" ($59.50) and kimonos ($69.50) are merely the tip of the iceberg as far as the selection of Chinese and pan-Asian apparel is concerned.

Chinatown is not strictly for good eats anymore. This historic section of San Francisco, alive with culture and tourist energy, is a treasure trove of unique retail finds and one-of-a kind merchandise simply too novel and too well-priced to pass up.