Shopping, Style and Beauty

Actually Useful Items I Have Purchased in Chinatown

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Even the Cable Car is a knockoff

The generic Chinatown shops of most major cities are generally avoided by locals because they tend to only sell pieces of junk for tourists to buy or things that you have no idea what they do. If you can get past the first line of knockoff Hannah Montanah backpacks though, you might just be rewarded with some useful items at dirt-cheap prices. Here’s my totally incomplete list of things I’ve actually bought in Chinatown that wasn’t either cheap noodles, a finger trap, or another beer at the karaoke bar:

Luggage: There will come a day when you’re preparing for a big trip somewhere when you will realize: “Hey, I should really get some nice luggage like an adult or a business person might carry,” but the day before you leave on a cheap flight to an even cheaper Central American country is probably not that day. Buy a $30 rolling bag and use that thing until it literally disintegrates in the hands of some poor TSA agent. Or better yet, since you’re probably not past your “shove everything in a giant backpack” stage but still not ready to commit to the “permanent backpacker” lifestyle, you can just grab something large and dorsally-mounted for under 30 bucks.

Kitchen Supplies: By now you know that eating out all the time is no way to save your hard-earned cash, but it’s hard to cook at home without the proper utensils. While there certainly some superfluous gadgets you can pass on to save your money, there are definitely some essentials. An apartment without a can opener, for instance, is an apartment that’s never going be bringing tuna melts for lunch.

* A Wok Pan – Good cookware is expensive and even the knockoffs in import stores have a range of prices, but if I were only going to have one frying pan in my apartment it’d be a big, non-stick Wok. I’ve been using a sturdy $15 Wok from Chinatown for the past 3 years to make everything from pancakes to pad thai. It’s the easiest thing ever to clean and I could probably use it to knock out an intruder if I had to.

* Knives – Another potentially expensive item, and while I value lasting quality, sometimes you just need a knife to get the job done. If you’re some kind of Iron Chef wannabe who springs for the good stuff, ask behind the counter for the nice steel. Otherwise, the rest of us will just mumble something to ourselves about ninjas and samurai and before deciding we’ll be just fine chopping veggies with a $5 off-the-rack chef’s knife.

* A Can Opener – I recently found myself without a can opener and had to open a can of frijoles negras cowboy-style with a mean-looking knife. I got it open without losing any fingers, but it’s not a method I’d like to use every time I need to get at some black beans. For some reason my local grocer doesn’t offer a can opener that’s less than $7, but Chinatown came through with a sexy little $1.99 number.

* Dishwashing Detergent – Hey, it’s all just soap, right?

    Of course, part of the fun of shopping in Chinatown is finding the right place to shop. To the untrained eye, many import shops look the same, but wander in to a place that’s too close to the tour bus destinations and you’ll not only have to deal with kids trying to buy packs of nudey playing cards without their parents noticing, but you probably won’t be getting the best deal on that new luggage of yours. In San Francisco, this can mean avoiding Chinatown altogether and heading for Clement street in the Inner Richmond, where the hardware stores and restaurant supply warehouses will have everything you need. In New York, it probably means you’ve got to head to New Jersey or something. I dunno – locals, help me out here.

    (photos via:, Ras John’s flickr, and

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    Andrew Dalton - Aggressive Panhandler

    Andrew Dalton - Aggressive Panhandler

    Andrew is an East Coast transplant from Virginia hamming it up in San Francisco without any intention of leaving. Having worked every typical job from Bike Shop Employee to Bartender to Ad Agency Hotshot, to Dotcom Layoff he now busts his ass covering the "weird things to do" beat for gracious local audiences at and rallies the Western Addy/Lower Haight/Panhandle neighborhoods into action at His work was published in a real, paper magazine one time. One day he might even figure out how to make money from it.


    1. SFMel
      August 29, 2010 at 9:43 pm

      My favorite for kitchen stuff is Kamei Restaurant Supply over on Clement by 6th Ave. I have the cutest ramen bowls from there.

    2. Andrew Dalton - Aggressive Panhandler
      December 7, 2010 at 12:50 pm

      Looking back, the can opener sucks and the knife blade came off the handle. So, you know: buyer beware!