Asian person posing with tiger statue
Happy Year of the Tiger!

A day in San Francisco: Little Saigon, Civic Center, the Asian Art Museum & “Drive My Car” film


Below is a thought-ramble and recollection, photos included, of a Sunday spent in San Francisco in February 2022. The day was spent first starting the morning eating take out from some food in Little Saigon then headed to the Asian Art Museum to view a special exhibition called “teamLab: Continuity” that was an immersive light show of sorts as well as other parts of the museum. We then ended the day in the Mission district watching a Japanese indie film “Drive My Car”.

We started the day walking to Little Saigon which is near the Asian Art Museum and neighbors the Tenderloin (or is actually part of it). I did not know there was a Little Saigon in this area of SF, but reading further into it, it exists on a 2-block area around Larkin St. As expected by the name, there is a high concentration of Vietnamese restaurants in the area. We picked a banh mi shop to pick up some sandwiches and drinks.

Storefront of L & G Vietnamese Sandwich
“L & G Vietnamese Sandwich”

Finding “affordable” food in San Francisco is a rarity. By “affordable”, I mean any full meal that costs less than $10 per person. Anyways, the banh mi’s were around $5 and I picked up a Thai tea boba and some Vietnamese honeycomb cake (Bánh Bò Nướng) which I have never had before.

Bahn Mi
Bahn Mi

We brought our take out food to the the tables and seats outside the San Francisco City Hall area (also known as the Civic Center) that is across from the Asian Art Museum. My first memory of this area was back in 2015 when I was meeting a friend and at the time it was full of construction, cement, and crowded urban chaos.

Asian short haired person posing with thai iced tea and bahn mi
Smiling with my lunch
San Francisco City Hall on the outside
The city hall I have yet to see the inside of, but apparently it’s very beautiful

Nowadays, they’ve cleaned it up a lot and even built a new gated playground area. The area in front of the city hall has trees lined up and lights hanging. You can tell they’re really trying to make the area more appealing to tourists and visitors. For those who are not as familiar with San Francisco, the Civic Center/Tenderloin area of San Francisco is one of the “rougher” inner city neighborhoods that is unlike the stereotypical tourist-friendly photos you see of San Francisco. On the outside, when walking through, it often smells like urine and you’ll see a lot of SF’s homeless population on these streets. From preliminary research, it is also a hot spot for drug dealing and sometimes you can see people on the streets using.

Personally, I try to avoid walking through the streets, especially at night. But I am also aware that these types of neighborhoods exist across all cities, and particularly in the U.S., it’s a sign of how gentrification, drastic wealth inequality, combined with racism and systemic inequalities all combine to make cities like San Francisco a tough place for anyone who is not middle*/upper class to survive. (*I recognize that it is debatable if even middle class folks can survive in SF). Random note, a lot of the cheapest hotels and motels are located in the Tenderloin. I’ve stayed in a few within the last decade. They’re not so bad (depending on where you book), and are much cheaper than the hotels in the prime bustling downtown areas of San Francisco, but for newcomers to SF, just know that it is indeed a very different vibe from downtown touristy SF.

Vietnamese honeycomb cake (Bánh Bò Nướng)
Vietnamese honeycomb cake (Bánh Bò Nướng)

While eating lunch and people watching out in Civic Center, I notice the visual signs of wealth inequality within the city all kind of concentrated in a small geographic area. Noticing how much they are trying to make the area in front of the City Hall a more “presentable” area but also thinking perhaps resources to help homeless and at-risk populations are underfunded. Instead the money goes into making structures look cleaner or more aesthetically pleasing. As it goes in today’s society, especially in the U.S., a lot goes into hiding and covering up the “flaws” of a society, to cover up what is truly lacking and not being properly addressed by the institutions that should be caring for the masses. It’s a constant state of mixed feelings living and wandering around in San Francisco. You get a glimpse of the richest rich and poorest poor and can’t help but just sigh at the state of society.

Back to the Civic Center which is in front of the City Hall. Did you know that people come from all over the world and country to get married at the San Francisco City Hall because it is apparently very majestic and grand inside? I was fascinated to learn even celebrities came to get married in SF’s City Hall.

We had our lunch there and out of all the items, I quite enjoyed the honeycomb cake and it’s chewy texture. After we finished lunch and sat out under the nice San Franciscan sun, feeling the nice temperate breeze on our skins, we headed to the Asian Art museum.

Asian person posing with red tiger outside of Asian art museum
Happy Year of the Tiger!

A coworker had mentioned the teamLab light show so I wanted to check it out. Ticket for one person was $25 and it would let us see the light show and check out the rest of the museum. A few months ago I had attended the Pipilotti Rist exhibition at MOCA (worth it ish), as well as the immersive Monet exhibition (not worth it). Both those prior exhibitions had light show aspects, so I wanted to try another one and see what it was like.

I liked the description of teamLab found on the Asian Art museum website and am in general fascinated with how people create digital art that is both viewable and immersive. “Tokyo-based international collective teamLab is renowned for its interactive, interconnected digital artworks that dissolve boundaries between artwork and viewer, inside and outside, and art and technology.” (Asian Art Museum website)

Asian person in teamLab: continuity light show
Artsy photo in teamLab: continuity

The exhibition was physically quite small and had a few rooms with mirrors included which made the rooms look much bigger than it actually was. We went in at our scheduled time but honestly it was pretty crowded already. Some of the projections and lights were cool, others not so much. We took some photos and videos in each room then headed off to view the rest of the museum.

Asian teamlab: continuity photo
More phots in the light-filled room
Asian teamlab: continuity photo
Editing this photo was fun

But first, an exhibition right outside teamLab: Continuity is Chanel Miller’s “I was, I am, I will be”, which I had to check out. I had read her memoir “Know My Name” a few years earlier and was a fan of her and her work (her art always touches the heart). Knowing her story and what she had been through, all written and articulated so well in her book, just seeing her seemingly simple illustrations put on a wall stating “I was, I am, I will be” was powerful. The fact that she wrote this book and got to use her voice and claim her narrative was powerful, and move in a way from this incident where it was A defining moment, but not defining OF her and who she is. The “I was, I am, I will be” statements is about healing and tuning into one’s own power and stepping into one’s full self – grief and hurt and all – as a part of who you are but not all of who you are. I bought a print that’s hung up above my desk so I can contemplate it often, think of the words and think of her story, when I am taking an eye-break from my screen. If you haven’t read “Know My Name” yet, this is your sign to read it! The book contains such articulate words that can only properly be absorbed when reading her poetic words directly, something not any news article or journalistic summary can capture.

Posing with Chanel Miller's mural "I AM"
Posing with Chanel Miller's mural "I WILL BE"

I’ve been to the Asian Art museum a few times for various events, but I had never actually walked through to view the permanent exhibits. As we walked through to view art from different parts of Asia from different time periods in history, I felt grateful that a museum like this exists in the U.S. Makes sense that it exists in San Francisco. It is a great way for Americans, tourists, and those who don’t get a chance to travel to Asia and visit museums (factoring language barrier issues) to learn a bit of Asian art history. The museum is big and filled with art from all over Asia. I had downloaded the app and followed along with the audio guide. Though I’m not the biggest museum person (I have a hard time staying attentive and engaged), I do deeply appreciate the amount of effort put into educating the masses that happens at museums. I felt that the Asian Art museum did an especially great job with its descriptions and audio guides.

I took a lot of photos in the Chinese painting sections towards the end of our walk through. They showcased some more modern artists painting using traditional mediums to make abstract art. I felt inspired by that and a lot of all the other art seen throughout the day. I loved that making colorful, meaningful, and at times silly art has been a constant in our history for centuries. As an artist trying to create colorful, meaningful, and silly art, it was a good reminder that these tendencies to create art are a very human and natural urge.

Artist: Fang Zhaolin (Chinese, 1914 - 2006)
Date: 1997
Object Name: Hanging scroll
Materials: Ink and colors on paper
Dimensions: H. 42 5/8 in × W. 20 3/4 in, H. 108.3 cm × W. 52.7 cm (image); H. 87 7/8 in × W. 27 1/8 in, H. 223.2 cm × W. 68.9 cm (overall)
Credit Line: Gift of the artist's children
Department: Chinese Art
Collection: Painting
Object Number: 2005.10
On View
Location: Gallery 20
Autumn Sails with Waterfall by Fang Zhaolin (Chinese, 1914 – 2006) – I loved the illustration style here and was impressed to find that it was painted in 1997

We had to rush through the last bits of the museum to make it out by 5pm. Since we had spent a lot of the day standing and walking around, we decided to head to the Alamo Drafthouse in the Mission for a movie. For those who may not know, the Alamo Drafthouse is a dine & view movie theater. You can order food while you’re watching a movie, and the waiters come through to take your order, which you leave on a slip of paper, then they show up pretty fast with food. Highly recommend their “Mexican vanilla milkshake” and their popcorn is great too. We ended up watching “Drive My Car”, a Japanese indie drama film, that turned out to be a thoughtful deep and cinematographically well done film really about the friendship between a middle-aged theater director and a young woman driver. As the film unravels, one quickly sees that it’s about two humans with little in common becoming closer and sharing a bond, creating space for each of them to open up about their respective traumas, griefs, and regrets in life. It was an artistic and emotional movie, and a good one at that. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a good long indie movie on the big screen.

While waiting for the bus to head to the Alamo Drafthouse theater in the Mission district

I believe we went on to grab some late night local Mexican food before Ubering home. It was an activity-filled day spent in San Francisco, doing a lot of activities that seem only possible in a city like SF. From grabbing Vietnamese food for lunch at a small hole-in-the-wall-like stand to attending an international exhibition (teamLab) and walking around learning about Asian historical art (in English and other language as possible translations) to heading to the Mission (a traditionally Mexican neighborhood) to watching an independent Japanese film and grabbing burritos after and then getting home via an app. I’d say it was a pretty “SF” day.

Alamo Drafthouse’s famous Mexican Vanilla milkshake!
Their popcorn is amazing too.
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