Foggy City, Warm Hearts

Moonrise over Sign Hill (Photo by Voltaire Yap)

Passing through Highway 101 towards San Francisco, one cannot help but notice Sign Hill, which has a Hollywood-type giant sign that reads “South San Francisco, the Industrial City.” Called South City by locals, South San Francisco got its moniker after it became the hub of stockyards and a market place for cattle produced in the late 1800s. Despite the name, it isn’t really geographically connected to San Francisco. You have to drive through either Daly City or Brisbane to get to it.

My gut tells me that Filipinos gravitated to South City and neighboring Daly City because it reminds them so much of Baguio.

Today, straddling South City are bedroom communities on the west, light industry in the center and biotech companies on the east. The ever-changing demographics have gone from predominantly Italian and Irish to newer occupants consisting of mainly Asians and Latin Americans. Of Asians, Filipinos are the largest group, numbering 12,829 or 20 percent of the population of 63,632.

Some of my friends ask, “Don’t you want to move to a sunnier place?” My quick retort is why should I give up my natural air-conditioning?  It sure does get foggy, but it is a great respite from the summer heat in the Peninsula or the South Bay.  Driving home from Redwood Shores, the fog’s fingers touch the hills along Skyline Boulevard, beckoning one to take refuge.  

The Westborough Area of South San Francisco is like a Filipino neighborhood, which includes popular establishments like Goldilocks. (Photo by Voltaire Yap)

South City, specifically the Westborough area, is what I loosely call the ‘hood.  Within a two-square-mile radius you can find bakeries, restaurants and banks that almost feel like Manila sans the heat and traffic. All around are familiar names such as Goldilocks, Ling Nam, Ma Mon Luk, Kamameshi, Max’s Fried Chicken, LBC Express and BPI.  Even the churches here mostly have Filipino pastors.  

South San Francisco is home for Max's Fried Chicken, a familiar name to Filipino transplants. (Photo by Voltaire Yap)

My gut tells me that Filipinos gravitated to South City and neighboring Daly City because it reminds them so much of Baguio, the summer capital of the Philippines—the terrain, the pine trees and the fog.  From a practical perspective, South City is centrally located and reasonably affordable. It’s less than ten minutes away from San Francisco International Airport and 15 minutes away from the City by the Bay. Five minutes from our place we can be next to the Pacific Ocean and enjoy spectacular sunsets.  

The main drag in downtown South City is the Civic Center and the City Hall, which was modeled after Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. There’s a music store, some Italian-owned businesses and newer Asian- and Mexican-owned enterprises.

The South San Francisco City Hall is modeled after Philadelphia's Independence Hall. (Photo by Voltaire Yap)

The shift in demographics is more evident in our place of worship. Situated in a little corner along Miller and Willow is our parish, Mater Dolorosa Church, where we celebrate the city’s quilt of ethnicity. There is one Sunday called the Portuguese Invasion where members from another congregation come over to celebrate the Mass in Portuguese. 

The Mexicans and Latin Americans celebrate the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Filipinos who make up the majority of the parishioners commemorate the coming of Christ with Simbang Gabi, which is the novena of Masses nine days before Christmas.  As a church community of different races and cultures, we become one in faith and participate in each other’s special days. 

At Mater Dolorosa Church in South San Francisco, the Filipino congregation celebrates Simbang Gabi, a novena of nine-day Masses before Christmas. (Photo by Voltaire Yap)

South City will always be special to my wife and me.  We have decided to establish our roots here. Our children know that home in our Westborough neighborhood is where sweatshirts and pants are the norm, where the smell of fried fish isn’t out of the ordinary and the cupboard will always have Jufran, the banana catsup. Our street is also where you’ll see some retirees work on their cardio, walking up and down the hilly terrain.  

Could we have moved?  Yes, but knowing that home is so close to home, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Voltaire Yap

Voltaire Yap

Voltaire Yap is a passionate photographer and an occasional contributor. He is a Marketing Events Director at Oracle in Redwood Shores, California.