My mother named me after the street that we lived on: Waverly Place Jong, my official name for important American documents.” ~ From The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan.
I guess it was around 30 years ago when I read Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, her wonderful yarn, actually a series of yarns, about the lives of four immigrant Chinese mothers and their four daughters. The story goes that one of the moms, Lindo Jong, named her daughter after the street that they lived on – Waverly Place.
When I first read The Joy Luck Club I was aware that much of it is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. What I didn’t realize is that there is an actual Waverly Place until I stumbled on to it many years later. That is so cool, I thought. When I walked that short, colorful little alley it was as if I was permitted for a few brief moments to enter the story. I enjoyed the book so much that I reread it years later and then was sorely disappointed by the movie version.
“At the end of our two block alley was a small sandlot playground with swings and slides well-shined down the middle with use. The play area was bordered by wood-slat benches where old-country people sat cracking roasted watermelon seeds with their golden teeth and scattering the husks to an impatient gathering of gurgling pigeons. The best playground, however, was the dark alley itself.” ~ From The Joy Luck Club.
While many of the businesses described in the book are fictitious, there is indeed a playground on Waverly Place, the Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground, built as a WPA project and originally named Chinese Playground. The book’s description of the alley itself as dark belies its actual appearance. Compared to most of Chinatown’s alleys, Waverly place is wide and airy. The buildings, festooned with flags and lanterns are a vivid palette of colors.
Waverly Place is notable for its bright colorful buildings, flags and lanterns and vibrant colored balconies.
Some of the buildings on Waverly Place are constructed of colorful bricks.
Amy Tan transported me to a San Francisco I didn’t know. She painted a story of a unique culture abiding, thriving and struggling in a small corner of The City. It’s a story of what legend tells us is what has made America great; small communities adding their own singular components to what has been popularly called a melting pot.
Sadly not everyone is comfortable with that notion.
“Chinatown is dirty.”
“The people there are rude.”
“It smells funny.”
“This is America. Why don’t they speak English?”
Those were the sentiments I often heard when I first moved to San Francisco in the mid-seventies. Over time it changed, we evolved and I’ve no doubt that Ms. Tan had no small part in bringing us around to not just acceptance but appreciation of what these diverse cultures add to our lives.
The ugly sentiments have become popular again. Nationalism has become chic along with the notion that bigotry, hatred and intolerance can bring back some perversion of greatness.
Chinatown is rich and alive with murals; colorful, gaudy and often reflective of the history of this unique neighborhood and of Chinese culture.
A martial arts legend christened Lee Jun-fan was born on November 27th, 1940 at Chinese Hospital in San Francisco. The world has long known him as Bruce Lee, the young man who brought martial arts films into the movie mainstream.
Forty-six years and a legion of martial arts films later, Lee’s classic Enter the Dragon can still claim some of film’s most extraordinary fight scenes. Muralist Luke Dragon has commemorated Bruce Lee with a brilliant mural at the corner of Grant and Commercial Streets in Chinatown.
After taking in the colorful mural go into the building it’s painted on, the Eastern Bakery. It’s the oldest bakery in Chinatown. Quaint and plain inside it turns out some scrumptious moon cakes.
The Bruce Lee mural replaced one of my favorite Chinatown murals that depicted fighting dragons. Below is a detail from that now defunct work.
At the corner of Sacramento and Grant is another Luke Dragon mural. The mural features Sun Wukong, also known as the Monkey King. Sun Wukong is a Chinese figure who first appears in the Chinese novel Journey to the West. Legend describes Sun Wukong as having supernatural powers bestowed on him through Taoist practices.
At just about every street corner of Grant Street you can find a mural. We came upon one that depicts a blank eyed Lady Liberty as a Buddha next to an eagle with a dragon’s neck. It’s an interesting work and I don’t imagine that it satisfies either Buddhists or self described ‘Muricans who fancy themselves patriots. For my part it doesn’t bother me in the least.
But for one tourist attraction, Ross Alley is, like many of San Francisco’s alleys, unremarkable. A few small businesses, a tagged door that opens into a benevolent society and a few spaces that are up for rent. The most prominent occupant is the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, where you can stand in line to go a few yards into the little bakery, watch ladies stuff fortunes into the cookies and then horseshoe your way back out with a free sample. If you want to take a picture it’ll cost you – a buck if memory serves.
Ross Alley has some history behind it. The oldest alley in San Francisco (as opposed to a regular street) the stories of Ross recall the popular historical Chinatown; the dark one that describes Chinatown as a haunt for opium dens, gambling parlors and brothels and what the city’s white population might have termed the mysterious secrets of the “celestials” (a term often used in 19th century America when referring to the Chinese).
My Urban History professor, Doctor Gelber used to call that sort of thing “pop” history. It’s the history that you see in the travel guides that focuses on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast and Chinatown as a dark mysterious lair, of smoky back rooms; drug drenched and sexually exotic.
Pop history likes to ignore the fact that Chinatown was a sanctuary from systemic and violent racism and a haven where the residents could practice their religious and societal customs and trade in goods and services common to their culture. That’s not to say that Ross Alley was sinless. Even before Ross Alley was enveloped into Chinatown it was known for housing gambling dens and bordellos.
My own personal history with Ross Alley recalls my early 20’s and began with Sandy. Sandy was a tall (she could almost look my 6’1″ self in the eye) slender Korean-American girl who grew up in upper middle class Davis, a comfy, bucolic university town just west of Sacramento known for tennis and for being bike rider friendly. A pretty good portion of Sandy’s childhood was spent learning to play tennis at one of the exclusive local clubs.
An avid runner who only dabbled in tennis I’d made the mistake of telling Sandy that I could actually play. She on the other hand was a very good tennis player and most of our games consisted of Sandy shagging my errant shots. She had a serve that I lost about the time it left her racket, screaming like a missile into a tiny corner of the service box. I usually caught sight of the ball again where it rested near (or in) the chain link fence that surrounded the court.
But for the times we slept together Sandy and I considered ourselves “just friends.” She was nothing if not straightforward. There were those times amid disheveled sheets as the morning sun cast it’s glow in the bedroom, that she would issue that matter of fact admonishment of her’s, “We’re just fucking, you know.” I suppose it was to make certain that I wasn’t allowing myself to be led down a path that I might mistake for permanence. Coming from a young woman like Sandy, “just fucking” could be any young man’s dream. On those few occasions when I did entertain some spark of commitment I found “just fucking” to be a little unsettling. But soon enough I would get my mind right to once again fully appreciate our arrangement.
Besides the aborted tennis matches we spent a few Sunday afternoons flying a dragon kite at the Marina Green, went out for dinner when we could afford it or took in an occasional movie. Driving home from Rocky (the first) I tried to convince Sandy that there was an important underlying theme in Rocky and maybe we should see it again to analyze it. Sandy, who was whip smart and levelheaded, called bullshit on that. Turned out that she was right. The only underlying theme in Rocky was a lesson in how to turn a nice little story into a franchise in order to make buckets full of money at the expense of chumps wanting to see the same movie seven, is it seven, or eight or nine, I’ve lost count, times over.
Both of us realized from the start that there were issues that put a lid on any sort of romantic long term relationship. First of all Sandy was a single mom and secondly she moonlighted at a strip club. The latter wasn’t a major problem for me except for the fact that I thought Sandy was one of the most intelligent people I knew and could’ve been doing something else. But I’m not one to judge that sort of thing. As long as you aren’t hurting people in the process you do what you need to do in this world to get by. Sandy figured that if she had IT, and she sure did (she’d done some modeling for Macy’s), then she might as well put IT to good use. It was the single mom part that wasn’t going to work out. She was doing fine as a single mom but we both knew that I wasn’t yet father material and she was cool with that.
And then one day Sandy quit the strip club and told me all about her new job. Seems that she was moonlighting at a bar in Chinatown and “why don’t you come down and check it out.”
The Rickshaw Lounge (where Sandy was the new hire) was located on Ross Alley, a one block long back street paralleling Grant Street and bordered on each end by Jackson and Washington Streets.
On a winter night in the 1970’s, Ross Alley was a dark, dank place pocked with ruts and potholes filled with rainwater that reflected the few dim lights in its close confines. Here the bustle of Chinatown was muted and the only sounds were of a distant siren, an occasional car passing along Jackson or Washington or of voices and the clacking of mah jong tiles in the upper floors of the alley’s drab buildings. If your notion of Friday night fun was to shiv an unsuspecting fool taking a walk through an alley then Ross seemed to be the place for you.
The Rickshaw was the absolute last word in dive bars, only with an Asian twist. Right across the alley from the Rickshaw was another dive bar Danny’s Dynasty. Both were located dead center of the narrow, shadowy lane; just a half a block to cover but on a dark night seemed like a mile long no man’s land. Standing between the clubs a knot of young men chatting in the shadows. But for the occasional glow of a cigarette you would hardly know they were there.
This was just after a time when two feuding gangs, the Wah Ching and the rival Joe Boys had made headlines in the local news that culminated in a shooting that left five people dead at the Golden Dragon restaurant on Washington Street, just yards away from the mouth of Ross Alley. The Rickshaw was in essence, in the middle of the shit and frankly I thought Sandy a little nuts to be exposing herself and me for God’s sake to this danger.
I have no idea how I made myself go down that alley the first time. I imagine that I waited for someone, anyone, to show up so that I could innocently tag along in their wake as they walked point.
Entering the Rickshaw one found a little room that, despite the layer of cigarette smoke was well lit by dive bar standards. It had a welcoming appearance that belied the intimidation just outside in the alley. Or maybe the relief of having passed through the alley just made it seem that way. Just inside was a little fountain, a faux waterfall trickling into a little pool. On the left as you entered was the bar, tended by a chain smoking Chinese barkeep named Tony. A row of little black tables and chairs ran down the right wall into an alcove at the back of the room where there were more tables and a few bar benches upholstered in red vinyl with black stains and a few tears; the classic motif for that sort of place that’s probably classified as something like, “early modern honky tonk.”
I ordered my usual drink of choice, Jack Daniels which may or may not have been Jack Daniels. According to legend just about any brand of liquor that you ordered at the Rickshaw had its true origins from a well bottle. In the case of whiskey, Jack Daniels was probably Ten High in disguise. Sipping my Ten High disguised as Jack Daniels I followed the custom required of any newcomer to a bar, that is I glanced around as covertly as possible without drawing attention to myself as a new arrival.
The crowd which I took to be all customers was a mix of a few Asian men and one or two Caucasian men, all a good 10 years or more older than me, and a whole lot of Asian women. Sandy spotted me at the bar, came over and sat with me for a few minutes and explained what you could loosely term the house etiquette.
I learned from Sandy that the women were in fact not customers at all but employees with a simple job description: ask a customer to buy her a drink, usually tea or a soft drink, and then engage in polite conversation. There was no obligation on the customer’s part but if he chose to engage, custom called for him to tip his temporary companion. That was something that I didn’t have the financial horsepower for so I simply sat quietly at the bar, sipped on Ten High disguised as Jack Daniels and established myself as the barroom cheap skate since I was turning down offers of conversation left and right. It was to me an extraordinary experience that I found out many years later actually has a name – a hostess bar.
After a period of not hearing from Sandy I went back to the The Rickshaw to see how she was doing. I ordered a Jack Daniels, aka Ten High, and asked one of the ladies what was up with Sandy. She told me that Sandy hadn’t lasted long at The Rickshaw. She thought that Sandy had gone back home to Davis.
My guess is that, given the culture of that workplace she probably had trouble fitting in. Sandy may have been of Korean descent but she was basically American suburbia. Most of the women there spoke to each other in their mother tongues; Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese. Sandy didn’t know enough Korean to ask where the bathroom was. Or maybe she went back to craft a new beginning. She could’ve been an attorney, or a high powered accountant or a VP of just about anything and I wouldn’t have been surprised to find that she’d become any one of those. In any case I’d seen the last of Sandy.
I walked down Ross Alley during a recent visit to Chinatown. It didn’t seem quite so foreboding as I’d remembered it. On the contrary Ross Alley, decked out in lanterns and banners, is downright inviting. I walked the half block to dead center of the alley and there was no longer a Rickshaw or a Danny’s Dynasty. Both spaces were empty and up for rent. There was not a trace of either of the dives. They could just as well have been something I’d dreamed up.
Because of the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, Ross has become something of a tourist attraction. The San Jose Mercury describes Ross as one of the top attractions in Chinatown and for the life of me I’ve no idea why. With the disappearance of The Rickshaw and Danny’s Dynasty and no more shady figures lurking in the shadows it’s lost its charm; just another nondescript San Francisco alley.
The tour guides play up cat houses and card dens and ignore Ross Alley’s appearance in the movies Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Karate Kid II, and Big Trouble in Little China, They also don’t tell the story of a barber on Ross Alley who was reputed to have cut the hair on some famous heads, among them Frank Sinatra, Matt Dillon, Peter Ustinov and Michael Douglas. They don’t tell the story about the little dive hostess bar where John Lennon, Ringo Starr and Billy Preston stopped for cocktails in 1964 after a concert at The Cow Palace just south of The City. I’ve no doubt that if Anthony Bourdain and The Rickshaw had shared the same era that little dive would easily have been showcased in an episode. It was just a Bourdain kind of place and I guess that’s one of the reasons that felt a sort of coolness about having lived the experience. If Bourdain couldn’t write about it then why not me? Right?
There’s a plaque at the Jackson Street entrance to Ross Alley that tells a brief, somewhat questionable history of Ross Alley. Of course there’s no mention of The Rickshaw or Danny’s. Standing in that space between where Danny’s and The Rickshaw once operated, about where those shady looking characters smoked in the shadows I thought a little plaque telling a short story of The Rickshaw might have been fitting. Not to commemorate the place itself but the volumes of stories that are contained in that empty shell; a little nod to the many young women who lived a marginalized life and found themselves at loose ends in America, doing what they had to do in this world to survive; chatting it up with men who paid them for their conversation.
To be clear, The Rickshaw Lounge was not a modernized version of “pop” history. There was no mysterious back room that housed drugs or crap games. There was no secret bordello in a hidden basement and the young women working there weren’t plying any illicit trade. If there was anything illicit going on there it was a swindling barkeep mixing cheap hooch into top shelf bottles.
A young tourist couple strolled past me, she reading from a guidebook that probably told of gambling dens and bordellos. I was tempted to stop them and tell them that over 40 years ago there was a hostess bar at that very spot, where friendly, pretty young ladies from across the Pacific captured lonely men in conversation; a place once visited by two of The Beatles. They probably would’ve dismissed it as the ramblings of an old fool.
I’d visited the Rickshaw a few times and chatted with the ladies; all nice girls who often talked about “back home.” It seemed like a hell of a way to make a living but I’m not one to judge that sort of thing. As long as you aren’t hurting people in the process you do what you need to do in this world to get by.