San Francisco: A Malaysian Perspective
My first impression of San Francisco when I first visited in April 2012 - I was in the passenger seat, while my husband drove; he asked me: What did you think? to which I responded: Underwhelmed.
Contrary to San Francisco’s efforts to enchant its visitors with its unique attractions, I was underwhelmed by its many lack of. Here I briefly ramble off 10 things, and again I’d like to reiterate, these are my views, my perspective, so please don’t shoot me and give me a chance to speak - you are free to comment or disagree at the end of this post.
It isn’t a city like New York City.
It has one too many homeless people.
Its streets are dirty.
It smells of urine on many a streets.
You smell weed almost everywhere.
The public transportation system is inconsistent.
Car break-ins are common place.
The Golden Gate Bridge is not golden.
Fisherman’s Wharf is tiny and overrated.
San Francisco is often too cold for comfort, even in the summer.
1. It isn’t a city like New York City. Its skyscrapers are few and scant, its buildings are mostly short. The reason I later learnt, is that San Francisco sits on an earthquake zone, thus buildings have restricted heights up to 65 feet.
2. It has one too many homeless people. The sight of homelessness can be rather shocking for first time visitors. Sometimes they mutter to themselves, sometimes they talk loudly. Sometimes they holler to someone across the street or to an invisible person. Sometimes they jiggle on street corners; sometimes they dance in the middle of a busy street. Beware, because sometimes they dash across streets, unwarned. Most times they set up tents on roadsides, sit, sleep, stare into space or pace the street slowly; they and their possessions torn, tattered and disheveled.
3. Its streets are dirty. According to the San Francisco Bay Area’s news station ABC7, San Francisco Public Works picked up 32 million pounds of street trash in the year 2015. The main contributor to this street filth are the homeless encampments all across the city, particularly in the downtown financial district and the notorious Tenderloin district (here’s a pretty hilarious read on how the Tenderloin got its name, with four believable theories up for grabs). The Tenderloin wasn’t what it is today - in its heyday during the California Gold Rush of 1849, it was the highlight of the city, a district bustling with theaters, restaurants and hotels. Present day Tenderloin however, has sadly come to be associated with high crime rate, illegal drug trade, prostitution, squalid conditions and homelessness.
4. It smells of urine on many a streets. It’s not uncommon to see a homeless man peeing on the sidewalk or a derelict woman pulling her pants down, squatting with her buttocks fully exposed and relieving herself, in full sight of passerbys on foot or behind wheels.
5. You smell weed almost everywhere. Even before Proposition 64 was passed in California in 2016, you could detect that familiar, pungent smell that has come to be associated with the streets of San Francisco. A man walks past you and reeks of weed. You stroll down a sidewalk and catch a whiff of weed. Anyone in San Francisco could easily get hold of weed - the sleek financial executive, the jacket-wearing venture capitalist, the backpack-carrying software engineer, the regular Joe on the street. After Prop 64 was passed, the sale and use of weed shot through the roof. Cannabis stores began popping up everywhere in the city like mushrooms after the rain, dispensing marijuana for self collection, use in store, or home delivery.
6. The public transportation system is inconsistent. Unlike the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) in Singapore which arrives every 2-3 minutes and rarely breaks down, the California Train (CalTrain) across the Bay Area arrives every hourly after rush hours while the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) that operates within the city of San Francisco arrives every 15-20 minutes, breaks down or gets delayed several times in a month due to mechanical failure or someone jumping onto the railtrack in a suicide attempt. The SFGate, a San Francisco online magazine, reported 10 fatalities on Caltrain tracks in 2014 and another 10 in 2015.
7. Car break-ins are common place. A common knowledge is shared among its local residents - as long as you live in the city, be prepared to have your car broken into at least once, if not twice or more. The Atlantic, the country’s literary, cultural and political magazine in publication since 1857, reported that more than 70 car break-ins occur in the city each and every day. 70! For a city as small as San Francisco (46 sq miles), that’s a heinous number! Perhaps I wasn’t clear on what 46.3 miles means. San Francisco measures 6 miles from east to west and 8 miles north to south. That’s it! 6 miles by 8 miles. That’s 46 sq miles.
It doesn’t matter which area or district your car may be parked, be it the notorious Tenderloin, busy Financial or upscale Pacific Heights - you could be the next victim. Sometime in late June this year, I was in the Apple Store in San Mateo, a city 20 miles south of San Francisco to purchase a new laptop after my car was broken into in Oakland (yet another city reputed for high crime rates) and had my valuables stolen. I chatted with two local San Francisco dwellers in the store who affirmed that every night they have to remove every single piece of belonging in their vehicles, a tedious but necessary task. One of them, in the construction trade, owns a Ford F-150 truck and makes sure that his truck bed has a locked cover. Even with a secure cover, he has to remove all his tools from his truck or risk them being stolen. The other man has had his car window smashed twice in the past year. Thankfully, nothing was stolen because he doesn’t leave anything valuable in his car. I recall a conversation I had with a friend two years ago who reported the misfortune of three expensive bicycles, worth a combined $7,000, stolen from her apartment garage in San Francisco. The burglars must have been noticing the bicycles in her garage and planned and executed a successful break-in.
8. The Golden Gate Bridge is not golden. It is international orange. There’s a reason for that. San Francisco is frequently shrouded in a thick fog due to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Hot air from the land rushes to the ocean while the cool air from the ocean rushes onto land, creating a fog. Ships past through the San Francisco Bay. In order for the bridge to be visible to passing ships and planes from the air, suggestions have been made to paint it black and yellow (yes, like a bumble bee). International Orange was finally agreed on - both for its high visibility factor as well as to protect it from corrosive elements.
Side note #1: The Golden Gate Bridge wasn’t named for its color - it was named after the Golden Gate Straits, a narrow entrance between the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay.
Side note #2: Watch this fascinating documentary on the building of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s interesting to note that the funding needed to build the bridge came from the local residents at North Beach, the precinct closest to the site of the bridge, and not from government funding. My takeaway? Funding doesn’t always have to come from obvious, loaded sources - it could come from groups of people who cares, whose interests are at stake. In other words, a small group of people can make a difference. Or to take it further, one person can make a difference. You can make a difference. ;)
9. Fisherman’s Wharf is tiny and overrated. Clam chowders are sold by the barrel. I’m kidding. There are many small stalls that sell clam chowder, and isn’t even nice. They smell like stale fish. I’ve had better clam chowder in Sausalito, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, in a little Italian pizzeria called Venice Pizzeria (ask for clam chowder in a bread bowl - as you drink spoonfuls of the chowder, peel off crusty bits of the bread and dip them into the chowder… delicious!). Now Venice Pizzeria has two shops, one is a bigger and slightly upscale restaurant; the other is a tiny hole-in-the-wall that accommodates 6 small tables and seats a maximum of 20 people. Go to the tiny shop that sits 20.
10. San Francisco is often too cold for comfort, even in the summer. 16th century author Mark Twain has been quoted to claim that the coldest winter he experienced was a summer in San Francisco (I can’t verify the truth of that quote, but I’ve heard it too many a times and could personally attest to his experience, so I’ll accept this quote as somewhat accurate).
This is not to say that San Francisco doesn’t have its charm. It is a beautiful city onto its own.
Most every house is built from wood and exudes a Victorian charm.
Emerging trend of hipster coffee shops, bars, and designer restaurants, as well as gentrification of former industrial areas like the DogPatch district.
You can walk almost everywhere. Oh, you can cycle too.
The views in and around the city is great, especially because it is surrounded by many a rolling hills.
You are in the epicenter of innovation, technology and funding.
People are friendly and helpful.
No one shoots down your ideas.
1. Most every house is built from wood and exudes a Victorian charm. This has to do with its location in an earthquake-prone zone. For safety reasons, houses are built from wood. San Francisco was founded as a city following the Gold Rush of the 1800s, thus the architecture dates back to that time.
2. Emerging trend of hipster coffee shops, bars, and designer restaurants, as well as gentrification of former industrial areas like the DogPatch district. Even the once most crime ridden district, Bayview and Hunter’s Point, is gentrifying. Art and community is the way to gentrify an area.
3. You can walk almost everywhere. Oh, you can cycle too, especially if you don’t mind steep rolling hills. It's nice not having to deal with traffic and feel the ground on your feet as you walk from home to a nearby coffeeshop to meet friends or to work on your latest project. You can walk to a 24-hour grocery store just round the corner from your block or you could even run or cycle to Crissy Beach for amazing sunset views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The hills in this case wouldn't matter as much because walking uphill, although it means hard work, comes with the reward of great views of the city from higher ground, which is an iconic sight; and also, working hard means you'll keep your body warm to counter the often cold air in San Francisco.
4. The views in and around the city is great, especially because it is surrounded by many a rolling hills. Yep, as mentioned in point 3 above, the views of the city of San Francisco as seen from the top of a hill or from the bottom, is breathtaking. Low-rise, usually two to three levels and tightly cramped Victorian buildings form a string of colors on rolling landscape while the edges of the city is flanked by water - the San Francisco Bay on the east, the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Golden Gate Strait on the north. On most clear and non-foggy days, you can catch glimpses of the “red” Golden Gate Bridge and the “white” Bay Bridge.
5. You are in the epicenter of innovation, technology and funding. You are surrounded by smart people who built Twitter, Square, Uber, Yelp, AirBnb; and not to mention Facebook, Google, Apple (although these 3 giants are located outside of San Francisco but still, they’re within the San Francisco Bay Area or the Silicon Valley) - great companies whose products, software and apps are loved and used by millions around the world today. If you’re really interested to know what is the bedrock of San Francisco’s innovation and brilliance, here’s a somewhat complete list of startups in San Francisco.
6. People are friendly and helpful. It’s not surprising to get a nod and a greet as you walk past another person, and if you’re looking for directions or recommendations, you’re likely to get a chirpy tip or two.
7. No one shoots down your ideas. Coming from a culturally conservative country like Malaysia and Singapore where conformity is a socially accepted group norm and being extraordinary isn’t, San Francisco is a breath of fresh air. I am encouraged to reach for the sky, no matter how impossible. There isn’t a dream or an idea not worth pursuing. America truly is a land of the brave and free, and a land of abundant opportunity. People are encouraging of your ideas - to some onlookers, especially non native Americans, it may seem like false encouragement when Americans say, “Yes, got for it, you can do it”, but, taken in the right spirit, it is because they want you to explore your fullest potential to be anything and everything you dream of becoming. Otherwise how will you explain why America has the highest per capita of successful, well known and richest people on earth? According to Forbes’ 2016 List of the world’s richest people, there are 540 billionaires in the United States with a combined net worth of $2.399 trillion (the combined net worth of all billionaires in the world is $6.48 trillion).
It is even more important now than ever before to seize the liberty to pursue your passion. Gone is the age of fitting the mold and conforming to societal norm as it was in the industrial age. Here and now is the age of creative pursuit. And don’t let nobody tell you you can’t do it.
Things I found puzzling, strange, and bizarre about San Francisco (a short but non-exhaustive list of 3 for now):
1. Pedestrians are king. You can walk and text, sashay slowly across the parking lot while chatting and laughing with your family and friends, and drivers are expected to wait, give way and allow you access before moving on. If a vehicle were to pull up to a stop sign and exceed by a centimetre, the driver, upon seeing a pedestrian about to approach the stop sign, would reverse his/her vehicle by a few centimetres so as to allow the pedestrian that wee little bit more clearance to make his/her way across the road.
2. People loves to talk. About themselves mostly. Their command of the English language and repertoire of words and vocabularies are impressive. Those who speak the loudest and with most assertiveness wins.
3. I care about you... just for a minute. It’s common to be greeted with “How are you doing?” when you pass someone or at the checkout line in a store. The truth however is that people aren’t really interested in your day. They’re just making small talk, which often is just surface (not deep) conversations. And most of the time, people will respond and say “I’m doing well”. Rarely will someone confess the truth and say “Oh I’m having a lousy day”, because no one is interested in your bad day. You can moan out loud to yourself, but for now, I just wanna do the neighborly thing, ask you how you’re doing, and go about my day.
Alright, I will end this post here for now. I may follow up with another post offering more insights on San Francisco from a Malaysian perspective sometime later - the amazing outdoors, for one - that’d be multiple mini-series on its own. If this has been helpful or it hasn’t been, let me know - I’m expecting comments!