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A Walk through Chinatown

Photo of Chinatown

By Marjorie Leet-Ford

Once upon a time, the upstairs apartments in Chinatown had no doors – just curtains – so the kids ran freely from one to another, like a family with a hundred members. The two lower stories were for men only. Each floor had 100 bachelors – and one bathroom, one kitchen. I was told this story by a man who grew up in one of the apartments. In the 1920s and ‘30s his father was a butler, his mother a maid, and like all Chinese they were only allowed to leave Chinatown when they were going to a job. As a boy, this man dared to cross Columbus Avenue into North Beach, and he was beaten up. Later he rose to the top of a Fortune 500 company, and he now lives in a big house in Seacliff. He likes to tell of the four principles that have made it possible for so many to make way in their new world: respect, family, education, and a surprising one – “swallow your anger.”

It was hard not to be mad. Chinese children weren’t allowed to go to the public schools. Lots of families earned their living by shrimp fishing, so shrimp fishing was outlawed. When the 1906 earthquake burned Chinatown to the ground, San Franciscans wanted to grab the location – moving the Chinese to a spot far south. But lots of these infuriating stories have happy endings, and they didn’t come about by explosions of fury. On weekdays Christian women turned their churches into schoolhouses and taught for free. After the earthquake the mayor of Shanghai wrote that if the Chinese were moved from Chinatown, Shanghai would discontinue trade. So the Chinese stayed – and rebuilt a small world of bright-painted buildings, pagoda style roofs, decorated balconies and hanging lanterns. Tourists came, with money.

As a docent for the Chinese Culture Center, I lead groups of school children, diplomats, retirees and professors up the hills and down the alleys. – Did you know there are tunnels under the alleys, where sheep, cows, pigs and chickens used to be kept? – If you guessed that, you’d get a pretend gold star, blown like an air kiss. There are tiny mirrors mounted on walls, so evil spirits will bounce off. These mirrors are hard to spot, and every time you find one, you get a star. There are plaques over doors saying Eng Family Association, Wong, Lim or Toy Family Association. Spotting one of these gets you another star. It restores my belief in innocence to see how some kids relish their imaginary stars. “I have fourteen.” “I have seventeen!” A few guess (or know) why the pagoda style roofs swoop up. (So the evil spirits will flip off.) One girl had an answer that got her three stars. She raised her hand and said, bashfully, “Because it’s beautiful. Evil spirits don’t like beautiful.”

In Chinatown I am known as Auntie Marjorie. If I were a man, kids would call me Uncle Ford. These titles are part of the first principle inculcated into Chinatown’s children: respect. The family associations are headquarters for the second principle that keeps the people strong – loyalty to family. I imagine these Family Association buildings are packed with hundred dollar bills. For more than a century members of the Eng and Wong families have given their associations money each month – to pay for medical care, help for the elderly, funerals, and scholarships. (Principle Number Three: education.)

It’s great to lope up the hills ahead of hoards who huff and puff (“How can you stand it?”) But on the steep stairs up to the Tin How Temple, about 70 stairs, I let the others lead the way, so I can huff and puff in private. Sometimes a woman named Susan, who speaks English, tells of how incense is lit as a signal to God, how and where to kneel and pray, how to burn offerings in the fireplace, and even how to tell your own fortune by tossing a big cup of bamboo sticks.

The curious come by bus from all over the state – and by plane from Singapore, Baltimore, even Harvard – to see what there is to see: the fortune cookie factory, the music store, the markets where you can buy live frogs, turtles, fish, roosters and many birds; the world’s coolest playground, examples of China’s ancient art of puppetry, the barber who plays the erhu (a violin-like instrument); and the religious stores where you can buy gifts – everything from a tuxedo to a Mercedes Benz to a sixpack of beer, all made of paper – to burn for a loved one who’s died. (The Mercedes goes up in smoke, and your dear one can drive it around heaven.) You might want to look into the Heritage Walks offered by the Chinese Culture Center: 415-986-1822.