Food for the Mind, Body and Soul

Kathy Nguyen


It is a cold rainy day in San Francisco but that doesn’t prevent throngs of people from coming out in full force. In Union Square the sidewalks resemble a sea of floating umbrellas carried forth by wave after wave of tenacious tourists and shoppers wielding digital cameras and bag loads of merchandise. Beyond the stream of shoppers in the City’s most gilded district looms the imposing entrance to Chinatown at Grant and Bush. Its columns of snarling dragons like floodgates open onto a colorful world where red paper streamers and firecracker casings--remnants of the lunar New Year’s celebrations--circle the air in a gust of wind, intermingling with the sights and sounds of this vibrant community that has forged an integral part of San Francisco’s rich cultural heritage, offering another experience of the City to seekers who care to venture past Niketown.

Although Chinatown may be considered a tourist destination, this urban community has historically served as a refuge for beleaguered Chinese immigrants seeking aid from family associations and the support of benevolent societies against discrimination. Here, locals who far outnumber tourists, seem to pay scant attention to the hordes of out-of-town visitors as they go about their daily business, converging at various coffee shops, bakeries and restaurants, or shopping at the multitudinous stores and markets where ginseng, herbal medicines, dried fish, preserved vegetables, pickles and sweets are the standard fare. Yet in a city where diversity is often identified with the number of different ethnic foods, perhaps the true mark of a multicultural community is better measured by the existence of its diverse literary establishments.


Serving the San Francisco Bay Area for over 20 years, Eastwind Books & Arts, Inc. at the corner of Stockton and Columbus, was started in 1979 by a group of 30 partners, most of them community activists. Their goal was to foster cultural understanding by making books on Asia and Asian Americans available to the public.

"There is an inherent historical problem of ignorance and misinformation about Asians in our society. The idea is to try to provide resources for the Asian American community as well as others who are interested in learning more about other cultures, and to help bridge the gap created by cultural differences," says Doroteo Ng, a third-generation Chinese American who is president and co-owner of the bookstore.

Situated on one of San Francisco’s liveliest thoroughfares where Chinatown meets Little Italy, Eastwind Books is indeed more than a bookstore--it is a center for culture and learning just a heartbeat away from what was once the City’s literary hub in North Beach. Housed in the same building as the North Beach Museum, the store is divided into a Chinese book department on the lower level and an English book department on the second level.


Upon entering the store you'll be greeted by the flowing melodies of Chinese wind instruments which fill the immaculate but welcoming space of ordered efficiency that seems designed to inspire respect and a desire for learning. An entire wall is devoted to language books with sections on learning English, Chinese language art and bilingual material. Here you’ll find English usage and grammar books in Chinese, as well as books for English speakers who want to learn Mandarin or Cantonese, complete with cassette tapes and learning aids. The bilingual section features mostly Chinese/English and some Chinese/French titles, including bilingual editions of Shakespeare and other world classics. Eastwind also carries an impressive selection of CDs for Chinese speakers interested in learning French, Italian, Korean, Hebrew, Russian, Greek, Tagalog, or Vietnamese.

"The store is a lot like a library because people from the community, especially Chinese immigrants who are new to the area and don’t know very much English, feel comfortable spending hours here reading or just browsing through the books," says Nancy Chin, an Eastwind employee.

Eastwind’s comprehensive selection of books covers a broad range: world history, Chinese history, classic and modern literature and poetry, popular romance novels, kung fu novels, translation novels, music and martial arts, Chinese philosophy, Feng Shui, religion, Wushu and Qi Gong traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The TCM section has sub categories for women’s and children’s health, massage, acupuncture, moxibustion, and health foods. The store also has sections on cooking, beauty and skin care, Chinese knitting and flower embroidery, chess, sports and games, automobile maintenance, business, computers, science and biology. In addition to an exhaustive selection of books on divers topics, there is a special section for new books and biographies, a newspaper and magazine section, maps, almanacs, various language dictionaries, stationery, calligraphy writing tools and sets, parchment, writing pads, music CDs, videos and VCDs.

But perhaps the bookseller’s most impressive feature is its amazing selection of children’s books and comics, which are spread out across several sections of the store. Many of the books for children such as classics, folk tales, contemporary stories and learning texts, are bilingual Chinese/English, and some Vietnamese/English translations can also be found. A neat row of racks displaying Frank Schaeffer’s homework center features math review workbooks, spelling exercises, reading comprehension and puzzles.

And just when you thought you’d seen it all, there’s more.

Take the elevator outside the store’s main entrance to the English book department, arguably the City’s best source for books and magazines on Asian Americans. Ng, a thoughtful and highly articulate man in his fifties, emphasizes the importance of providing books in English as well as bilingual resources, in order to meet the needs of the changing readership.



"One of the store’s main goals is to not only service first-generation immigrants, but also second and third generations who are native English speakers," says Ng, whose own children grew up with English as their mother tongue and learned Chinese as a second language.

Yet having been at the helm for over 20 years, Ng also sees the changing demographics as a mixed blessing.

"When we first started we specialized in what mainstream bookstores didn’t carry because it was not profitable. But with increased awareness and growing interest in Eastern cultures and


traditions, particularly in health and healing, the specialty has become mainstream. On the one hand, this is good because there are more resources available, but it’s not so good for business since we’ve lost our edge to competitors like Borders and Barnes and Noble."

But as loyal customers and specialists know, Eastwind’s extensive selection of resources on Asia and Asian American issues are enough to give the larger competitors a run for their money. It’s where you’ll most likely find that rare and esoteric book on traditional healing, or a limited edition critique of Asian American works by a lesser-known literary/political theorist.

Just inside the second-floor entrance is a magazine rack which carries everything from Inside Kung Fu to the feminist Bamboo Girl and Filipinas. The center display of artfully crafted teapots, decorous rocks and glass cabinets exhibiting beautiful calligraphy work and intricate Chinese tapestries and embroidery create an atmosphere of artistic invention that highlights the store’s impressive art section.

On one side of the store is a vast Asian American literature section featuring works by Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Hawaiian, South and Southeast Asian Americans. Opposite the literature section are books on history, social studies and politics. There is also an extensive section devoted to martial arts, and a divination section features I-Ching astrology, symbology and Feng Shui.

The bookstore’s most prominent sections, however, are medicine and health. In addition to acupuncture charts and models of the human anatomy, you’ll find several shelves devoted to numerous books on Wushu and Qi Gong TCM, acupuncture, massage, Chinese herbal science and immunology.

After spending time at this special bookstore which offers a window onto other worlds, you're bound to become imbibed, if only through osmosis, with food for the mind, body and soul.

Eastwind Books & Arts, Inc.
1435 Stockton Street, San Francisco, CA 94133
Chinese Dept. (415) 772-5877, English Dept. (415) 772-5899
Store Hours
Mon. - Sat. 9:30 - 6:00
Sun. 11:00 - 6:00