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Chinatown, Our Chinatown [1950]

The biggest Chinatown outside of Asia. Where 30,000 people are crowded into a few blocks, so they can attract tourists and disease. Chinatown. Beloved indulgently and condescendingly by the rest of San Francisco—as long as its inhabitants stay in their own places and make no attempt to cross the invisible boundaries into the “white” city.

Chinatown. Contributing more than its share of color and culture since the earliest days of Baghdad by the Bay—and yet never represented in the City Hall, although its sizable vote (mostly Democratic) is ardently wooed by every politician. Strange little transplanted world of bald-headed women who still wear the costume of their forefathers, of “sharp” university graduates who want something better than their fathers got, of bright-eyed children who play in the dank alleys and somehow remain charming and flowerlike.

Contrasts, confusion, conflicts. Neon and chromium fronts on buildings that reek of the ages inside. A million dollars’ worth of oriental treasures in a “Family Association” meeting room, opening onto a balcony that overlooks flat rooftops covered with drying fish. Phony pagoda corners on houses, a delight to the tourist but deplored by the young Chinese architects who want to see their section modernized as long as they're restricted to it.

“Traditional” Chinatown, its ancient customs revered by all. But the opium smokers arc dragged into court and the gamblers are trailed unceasingly by the cops and for years there wasn’t even a pinball maching to be found because some Chinese might bet on them.

Chinatown. You return from every trip through its byways with some new scrap of information, some new  acquaintance.

Albert Chow, the unofficial mayor, power in the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, a Number-1 man in the ruling clique known as the Chinese Six Companies. It was smiling Albert who took President Truman and  his family into a then new Grant Avenue restaurant called Kuo Wah—whose slogan in loud letters shortly thereafter brazened: “Only Chinese Restaurant in San Francisco Visited by President Truman and His Family.” Albert Chow—whose brother Jack is part owner of a rival Grant Avenue restaurant, the Jade Palace.

Chingwah Lee, the art collector, who played one of the leading roles in ‘The Good Earth’ and is always in demand by Hollywood. Chester Gann, the “Japanese” villain in many a wartime film, now running a camera shop on Grant Avenue because the end of the war meant the end of his usefulness as a celluloid bad man. Johnny Kan, Chinatown’s good-will ambassador, who has introduced hundreds of “outsiders” to the inside of his district and made them understand and sympathize with the way his people live.

Dolly Gee, for years the ever-grinning manager of Bank of America’s Chinatown branch, staffed completely with Chinese. T. A. Soong, brother of China’s once-powerful and still-wealthy T. V. Soong, who runs the Bank of Canton (he is chauffeured to work by a major in the Chinese Army, and when he walks into his establishment each morning the emplovees rise and bow gravely). Charlie Low, once a bus boy, now the wealthy polo-playing owner of a night club that made good because it was the first to feature Chinese chorines displaying bare legs to the endless dismay of Chinatown’s elders,

Chinatown. Where you instantly label your self a “tourist” if you order chop suey, an American invention. Where the clock in the Western Union office tells you what time it is at the moment in China. Where an Italan newsboy named Chester has been peddling papers at the corner of Jackson and Grant Avenue for so many years that he can now speak Chinese—with an Italian accent. Where a spot called the Shanghai Low casts modesty and even credibility to the winds by advertising: “A Visit to Our Cafe Is the Equal of a Visit to China.” Where Lum & Co. operate a store at 1000 Grant Avenue that is called, for absolutely no reason at all, “The Italian Grocery.”

Fascinating, the Chinese. They call San Francisco “Dia Fow,” which means “big town,” and the old-timers still refer to Grant Avenue, the main street, by its original name of “Dupont Gai.”

One of their favorite dishes is a sort of gruel known as “jook,” as prepared by Sam Wo in a tall, narrow three-story building on a side street. Sam’s jook joint does well. Every night there is the ceaseless clatter of soup bowls, the ceaseless singsong of many wagging tongues. Every night Sam Wo sells almost a thousand bowls of jook.

The names on the street signs, mellifluous, monosylabular, sometimes amusing. The Sing Fat Co., for instance, where there is no Mr. Sing Fat (the term merely means “Expanding Prosperity”). Likewise, an undertaking parlor called “Wing Sang Co.’—another way of saving “Everlasting Life.” And as for the drugstore named “Chaan Ning Hong Co.”—that means “Place of Abounding Longevity.”

The classic Chinese laundryman—obviously ready to wash your clothes at any time, day or night, as witness “the “Moonlight Laundry on Bush, the Starlight Laundry, and the Sunshine Laundry. To say nothing of Wo  Shing and Sum Wo. 

Even the ancient “No tickee, no washee!” wheese lives on in the minds of San Francisco’s Chinese, but with delicate, sardonic improvements. For example,  when the police recently announced a clamp down on  Chinese lotteries, an ancient Oriental refused a customer by grinning in outrageous pidgin English: “Solly. No tickee, cop watchee!”

But perhaps the most celebrated example of the Chinese sense of humor was this widely reprinted sign that first appeared in a laundry: “You ask credit, I no give, you get sore. You ask credit, I give, you no pay, I get sore. Better you get sore.”

Chinatown has played two historic roles—one of them involuntary—in the legends of San Francisco labor. The first union label was invented to distinguish white-made cigars from the Chinese variety. And the first organized strike in San Francisco was staged by Chinese almost 100 years ago. A crew was putting together a Montgomery Street building made of granite blocks shipped from China and marked in Chinese so they could be fitted together properly. One of the wiser coolies suddenly realized that only he and his countrymen could read the markings, so he declared a strike and won an immediate raise.

Then there is the celebrated tale of the green hats.

In the 1920s Foreman & Clark, the men’s clothiers, opened a branch store in Chinatown. Its manager, Gene Engle, now a successful restaurateur, one day featured a very special sale of green hats, and was appropriately amazed when the first day passed without a single transaction. He tried again the second day, with the same result. On the third day a Chinese friend tipped him off, According to ancient tradition. when Chinese wears a green hat, it means his wife has been unfaithful.

Problems, always problems. One of the nastier ones involves two or three “white” landlords who own apartment houses on the fringe of Chinatown. But they refuse to rent to whites, They’d rather rent, at gouging figures, to well-to-do Chinese caught helplessly between overcrowded Chinatown and the restrictive covenants. One Chinese who pays a fabulous rental for a miserable apartment sighed to me one night: “Every month I perform the neat trick of holding my nose and paying through it at the same time.”

More appetizing is the story of Suey Chong, who runs a trinket shop on Grant Avenue. He could scarcely believe his goggled eyes one day when into his little store strode Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt. She made some purchases and paid him with a personal check, which the awe-struck Suey refused to cash. Instead, he had it framed and hung it in his shop. Months later, to Suey Chong’s in Chinatown, came a letter from the White House, asking him to please cash Mrs. Roosevelt’s check so she could balance her account.

Incidentally, W. F. Doon, an ex-president of the Six Companies, recently named his new son Truman Doon, and shortly after received a one-dollar bill from W ashington inscribed: “To Truman Doon from Harry S. Truman.” Doon immediately had the dollar insured—for $1,000.

Chinatown. If it weren’t for its spell and its people, these “it could only happen here” stories wouldn’t happen. To explain:

On a crowded Kearny Street bus one afternoon two Chinese businessmen were talking to each other, loudly and volubly, in their native tongue. Suddenly one of them sneezed. The other hastily said “Gesundheit?” after which the conversation in Chinese continued.

Then, one recent Monday night Dr. Robert F. Gobar of Daly City drove into town for his regular weekly meal at his favorite Chinese restaurant. To his surprise  he found the place closed, although it had never before  been closed on a Monday. After he had banged on the  door for a few minutes, the Chinese proprietor poked his head out and said: “Sorry, we’re not open tonight.” Then, as Dr. Gobar registered surprise, he added: “Yom Kippur, you know.”

Yes, it's Chinatown and its people that, more than any other single factor, make San Francisco “different.” The proof came to me strikingly one day recently when I walked into a Chinese grocery on Stockton Street. Inside, the Chinese clerk was in the middle of a conversation with a white man obviously from Texas.

And—this is what makes San Francisco “different”— the one who sounded like a “foreigner” was the Texan.

One Comment

  1. Ron43 December 4, 2023

    Oh God I miss Herd Caen!

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