The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

February wanes; the Year of the Rat is done. A foul rodent of a year, leering through sharp filthy teeth has passed and given way to the ox. In ordinary healthy times San Francisco’s Chinatown would now be winding down from the February festivities. February is when Chinatown typically dresses up in it’s finest, brightest gold and red.

Chinatown in February has always, whether in lean times or flush, been a cultural feast. It teases the senses. The brilliant red of the ubiquitous lucky money envelopes, the multi-colored dragons and lion dancers and the big parade itself, a brilliant canvas of colors and joyful faces.

The popping of thousands of firecrackers; the beating drums and the clanging cymbals and gongs that accompany the gyrating lion dancers. Leave the acrid odor of spent firecrackers on the street and enter the aroma of a banquet room of New Years’ delights. The crunch and pleasing warmth of a freshly fried spring roll. And the tastes; the sweetness of rice cakes; juicy tang of a tangerine; a savory slice of roasted chicken or a whole steamed fish blessed with ginger and soy.

February is a time when the Asian community looks forward to prosperity and good fortune. This COVID year, prosperity and good fortune have been hard to come by. The Year of the Rat delivered a trio of curses; the virus itself, economic hardship and a spate of violence incited by a former president and his acolytes; a malevolent group searching for someone to blame, found Asians to be a target of opportunity.

Despite it all the community has been resilient. It’s pulled together to do what little was possible, while doing as much as it could to observe the changing of the Zodiac.

Anyone who has read this blog and my posts on Chinatown knows my affection for The City’s cultural jewel. It’s a place of memories that reach back to my childhood.

Readers of this blog also know that I usually stay away from kitsch laden, touristy Grant Avenue. I prefer to keep to the streets, the alleys and the shops where the community and culture are alive and authentic.

Early in February I took a Sunday walk up Grant Avenue, curious to see what COVID has wrought. On a Sunday during the run up to the Lunar New Year parade, one should expect to weave in and out of a nine block long stream of foot traffic; to join a crowd gathered to watch a troupe of lion dancers or to see people hopping comically away from a string of exploding firecrackers.

Below, Chinatown in the pre-COVID times. 

 

I expected a sparse crowd. What I saw at eleven in the morning was less than sparse. At times you could look up the sidewalk and not see a soul. Grant Avenue itself, usually packed with bumper to bumper cars, was clear of traffic.

A normally busy Grant Ave. sidewalk is solitary on a late Sunday morning.

 

Usually jammed Grant Ave bereft of traffic

For years I’ve walked up Grant Avenue and paid little attention to the shops themselves. The window displays of rosewood Buddhas, Chinese themed chess sets, costume jewelry, tea sets and t-shirts emblazoned with dragons long ago became trite and uninteresting.

And so on this late Sunday morning I must’ve walked two or three blocks before turning to look at the stores themselves. It registered

Little remains of what I’d long recalled and often ignored. The storefronts once bright and gaudy almost to the point of hurting the eyes are dark. Many of the stores are confined behind steel gates or concealed behind the cold, gray slats of roll up doors. The Buddhas, the chess sets, the costume jewelry and the tea sets that I’d sneered at for decades are gone. Almost an entire block between California and Pine Streets is shuttered. I was stunned, saddened and wishing that everything I’d made fun of could be back in all it’s garish glory.

A row of shuttered buildings on a late Sunday morning

Some of the idle shops are offered for lease. Others, well, even the building owners are giving up, having put up signs offering their properties for sale.

The venerable Eastern Bakery limps along. On any given day the shop itself would be packed with customers, shoulder to shoulder eyeing goodies in the brimming display cases and pointing out their selections to the busy staff. It would be a cacophony of commerce in Chinese and English.

On this day a sampling of the store’s baked goods are laid out on a table that barricades the doorway. Paper signs, hand scrawled with Sharpies offer pork buns, cookies and moon cakes. There is no cacophony, only a woman’s lone voice quietly hawking, “Pork buns for sale.” On what was once a plum location on Grant Avenue, the 97 year old bakery, the oldest in Chinatown, is sitting in an economic death valley.

The Eastern Bakery sits on the corner of Grant and Commercial. As I crossed Commercial I turned to see one of Chinatown’s many murals. I’ve seen the mural a number of times but on this particular morning I took note of the lady and the dragon. Their expressions struck me as somehow appropriate.  The lady seems strong, proud and stoic; the dragon angry and defiant.

Over near the corner of Washington Street, Li Po is all locked up with no foreseeable future. Li Po, the classic dive has served cocktails to tourists and locals for over 80 years. In an episode of the Layover, Anthony Bourdain sucked up Li Po’s famous Mai Tais before wobbling off to get a burger and a beer a few blocks away in North Beach; it was a classic Bourdain bender. I’d always wanted to go to Li Po even before Bourdain boosted its already landmark status. I have to add Li Po to my bucket list – assuming Li Po doesn’t kick the business bucket.

Li Po opened in 1937. It’s been nearly a year since the venerable old lounge has served a cocktail.

Half block away the Buddha Lounge, dark, narrow and as no frills as a dive could be is also padlocked. I’ve occasionally nursed a drink or three, bellied to the bar of the 68 year old saloon. Five bucks could get you a beer and some friendly conversation with the bartender.

Ironic humor. A statue of a Chinese warrior – properly masked.

Many of the restaurants hang by a thread. It seems that the physical layout of Chinatown with its narrow one way streets presents logistical problems for outdoor dining. Many of the restaurants would normally serve large families gathered at big round tables, set in an expansive dining room; impossible for a sidewalk to accommodate. The City has allowed a few street parking spots to be closed off and partitioned for outdoor seating but these little alcoves can only accommodate a fraction of what a restaurant dining room could hold.

I left Grant Avenue. I know that the days will come when those closed shops will reopen. They have to. Isn’t that part of the normalcy that we’ve been longing for?  Now they’re empty, like bodies whose spirits have left them. With better times those now empty bodies will receive new spirits and all the color will return to Chinatown.

February’s waning. A few day till March and I’ve returned for a quick visit. On the eastern fringe of Chinatown, on Clay Street I stop at Sam Wo, a tiny restaurant with a big local history. Sam Wo has been serving Cantonese food to locals and tourists for a century. But for the essential staff needed to keep the place afloat, Sam Wo is empty. There’s a line outside; well, it’s a line if you consider three customers to be a line. The line would be much longer in normal times. “Normal times;” it’s the phrase that’s become maddeningly overused during the past year. The phrase is long past being threadbare.

It’s one customer inside at a time. One lone employee stands behind a table located just inside the doorway. He’s there to take orders and hand out bags of food. He conducts business around a clear partition that divides man from public.

During the good days and bright busy nights, when the barrooms closed at two, the hungry after-bar crowd headed for the noodle shops. Sam Wo was one of THE places in Chinatown if you were looking to soak up the alcohol or ward off the impending headache with a late night/early morning snack.  Snack is an understatement unless you consider a platter heaped with chow mein to be a little nosh. On Friday and Saturday nights Sam Wo stayed open until three or until the last contented customer filed out.

With the bars shut down, the late night noodle joints are as dark and empty as the lonely streets.

I hadn’t been to Sam Wo in 45 years. Back then it was still on Washington, across the street and a few doors down from Ross Alley. At the old Sam Wo you inched through the single door, then past the kitchen and upstairs to the small dining room; small means really small – capacity about 50.

Forty five years later standing under the old 1930s sign that hawks Chow Mein – Noodles – Soups – Fish – Salad, I consider getting an order of beef chow fun to go. I could sit and eat across the street at Portsmouth Square where the locals, mostly older Chinese, meet to sit in the sun and chat. I think about it for a moment longer and then blow it off.

Forty five years ago beef chow fun was my Sam Wo go to. Looking up at the sign, a song that I’d heard on my drive into The City, Gary Moore’s Parisienne Walkways, keeps playing in my head; a sound track to old memories, four decades old.
“And I’ll recall that you were mine”, go the words.
I feel a surge of melancholy that chow fun in a Styrofoam box could only make worse.

Sam Wo’s historic neon sign, on duty (but for a short hiatus) since the 1930’s .

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12 thoughts on “Chinatown 2021: Misfortune

  1. Jane Fritz says:

    You paint the scene so well, Paulie. So sad, so very sad. And these kinds of scenes are playing out in big cities everywhere. Let’s hope the return to “normal” doesn’t take too long once the world is vaccinated.

    1. Paulie says:

      Hello Jane, The “world” getting vaccinated is the sticking point. We seem to be doing well in the U.S. Not sure about Europe and I’ve heard from you and other Canadians that Canada has been less than ideal. All of that said there are whole nations that are going to be pushed to the back of the vaccination line because they don’t enough horsepower, diplomatically and financially. What will we be done with them? Quarantine them thus marginalizing them even more?
      I think that within nations recovery will come quickly once the authentic “light at the end of the tunnel” becomes more reality and less the mirage we’ve been seeing for months.

      1. Jane Fritz says:

        Paulie, I have a hard time responding to this without sounding pretty anti-American. Canada will get vaccinated. We don’t have domestic production of vaccines. Our govt (rightly, in my opinion) didn’t trust Trump not to prevent shipment of orders from the US, as he had done with PPE, so we ordered from Europe. To be fair, Biden wouldn’t let vaccine supplies go outside the country either. Supplies have been slow to arrive. They will arrive and we will all be vaccinated by fall or by end of year. We have trustworthy govts that prioritize the rollout. First healthcare workers, long term care workers, long term care residents, the extremely vulnerable, and indigenous communities. Next will be 70+, essential workers, etc. Since being vaccinated doesn’t change anything in the short term, or at least it shouldn’t. I’m afraid that a country with at least half the population who doesn’t believe in following rules that are meant to keep everyone safe and now has what looks like a free for all for who gets shots, while fully 1/3 of the military says they will refuse, doesn’t lead anyone on the other side of the border to think that a responsible response to COVID has taken shape. So I completely agree that the entire world needs to be vaccinated and that all wealthy countries must step up. How could it be otherwise? But this is going to take time. Producing a vaccine (which used to take 9 years to develop) for 3 billion people and distributing it is not simple. Most people I know (outside the US) have understood this all along.

  2. johnlmalone says:

    a sad and solemn post but your writing skills have lifted it into the realm of fine reading 🙂

    1. Paulie says:

      Thank you John. I still harbor the certainty that places like Chinatown will recover. Nowadays though I try not to use the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel,” because sometimes it seems that somebody on that end keeps adding more tunnel.

      1. johnlmalone says:

        I like that 🙂

  3. eden baylee says:

    Hi Paul,

    The overwhelming feeling I get is melancholy when I read your post. I’ve not been to the places of which you write so beautifully. I can relate to them, and I know similar places here in Toronto and other Chinatowns I’ve visited, but I’ve not LIVED your experience with this fascinating part of SF.

    I mourn the loss of neighbourhoods that thrived pre-pandemic; I imagine they will never be the same. Since you knew SF Chinatown during its vibrant times, it must break your heart to see what’s become of it.

    Part of why I don’t go out much is the sadness of seeing everything shut down—boarded up in some cases. There’s little to no foot traffic. It’s deathly quiet. The cold weather adds to the misery.

    I’d like to believe life will return to what it used to be, but who knows?

    Add to that … I cannot know for sure if all the people I care about will live to see the “new world” when we’re able to return to it. That’s the heaviness of this time — the uncertainty. Stores, restaurants, and other venues can eventually reopen but people cannot be replaced should they not survive. As a whole, I know humans are resilient, and we’ll create something new, but I’m grieving nonetheless. It’s not a constant grief, and it’s not in the forefront of my mind, but it’s there.

    As much as I want to remain optimistic and find snippets of humour in this surreal time, there’s no denying we’ve lost so much.

    I’ll say one thing though, one of the best things that came out of Covid — connecting to your blog.

    And on that happy note, I’m off to bed. 😴

    Good night,
    eden

    1. Paulie says:

      Hi Eden,
      There’s a lot here in your response and I hope that I can shine a little brightness after having blown a cloud over the whole internet.

      >>>I mourn the loss of neighbourhoods that thrived pre-pandemic; I imagine they will never be the same<<<. They aren’t lost Eden. They will find a way and while they might never be the same, changes might be positive. We may not even notice the change. We’ll accustom ourselves to the changes. My piece largely focuses on Grant Avenue, the place that depends on tourism. A block west on Stockton Street it’s packed. I literally walk in the street between parked cars and the traffic flow so that I can get some semblance of social distance. This is small consolation for the ones who have lost their businesses or the restaurants that are just limping along. That’s not to say that the community hasn’t been staggered. Most of the Lunar New Year celebration was scrapped and the violence against Asians is unprecedented. We’d have to go back to the days of the Chinese Exclusion Act or the days following Pearl Harbor to find something comparable. Here’s my take on Grant Avenue. Yes it is shuttered. But it isn’t a situation like the midwestern city that has had it’s factory closed down and the biggest employer has left. Tourism will come back and that part of Chinatown will thrive again. It better, I need to go to Li Po and do a Bourdain reenactment - with a designated driver of course. How can I be optimistic after having written such a piece? I live in suburbia 25 miles or so from The City. What I saw in Chinatown was shocking and made me sad. It was far worse than I might have imagined. In the end though I had the luxury of coming back home where nothing much has closed. I go out every day and walk or run along the bay where there are no businesses to board up. But for the local restaurants that have been offering take out and the sight of people wearing masks you might not know there’s a coronavirus. Our perspectives are probably different. I’m guessing that you live right in the City of Toronto. Maybe you’re in the midst of the misery? Maybe what we see day to day shapes how we feel about the future. I think you’re right about the cold. I have a feeling (a hope?) that once your weather warms up moods will improve. Out here the low 50’s is cold and we’re usually in the 60’s and 70’s. Things will come back. Chinatown and the neighborhoods like it will thrive again. Maybe it won’t be exactly the same, but I think it will be close. Maybe this will help explain my feeling. Overlooking the ocean in San Francisco there’s a famous restaurant called the Cliff House. It’s been around forever. It closed over the summer and the overall feeling was that it’s gone for good; people will never sip wine while looking out the big picture windows at a sunset over the Pacific. Well, to quote what one particular blogger said to me, “Poppycock!” There is absolutely no way that building, with ocean views and the sound of seals on the rocks offshore, will remain empty. It might take time but someone will put a restaurant back in that building. This isn’t going to be permanent. My feelings about the people who have passed? Sadness is overshadowed by anger. We’ve lost over ½ million people and it didn’t have to be that way. You well know the situation here in the States. I don’t blame Trump for all of the loss. Loss of life was going to be inevitable. I do blame him for most of the loss and even though he’s out of office the effects of his lack of policy and of his denials continue. In the middle of everything, what little he did since March was made worse by the fact that he completely checked out from October on. Anyway, I don’t want to dwell on Trump. I guess that it’s easier to be angry than sad, even if anger carries less humanity than sadness. You closed with “I’ll say one thing though, one of the best things that came out of Covid — connecting to your blog.” I’m overwhelmed and honored. Thank you. The feeling is absolutely mutual. Feel better Paul

      1. eden baylee says:

        Hi Paul, I feel better today. 😀

        And thanks for your epic response.

        Like you, I believe things will come back in some way, but the landscape is going to look very different. Toronto is made up of neighbourhoods, and many contain eateries and small shops. I don’t see those reopening quickly.

        I live walking distance to the downtown core, and near Little Italy, Little Portugal, Little Korea. It’s an incredibly diverse area of town. We have an old-style movie theatre up the street that opened after years of renovation. It was the new hot spot right before Covid hit. Now, they sell wine and snacks out of the box office to stay afloat.

        One good piece of news. Residents of Montreal (where my mother lives) can now register for the vaccine if they’re 70 and over. They lowered the age from 80+. This is a huge relief for me given I haven’t seen my mom in over a year. She’s a healthy 79 year old with many friends, but she lives on her own. It’s worrisome.

        Any blogger who says Poppycock on your blog should be banned. 😉

        eden

    2. Dear Paulie and Eden,

      Yes, I agree with both of you that it has been rather deplorable that Chinatowns all over the world have been dramatically affected by the pandemic. It will take at least a year or two for things to resume as usual.

      Paulie, you have written very well about the Chinese culture and certain historical events. Thank you for your commendable effort in composing this special post.

      As for me, I would like to share with you my comprehensive post about Chinese New Year at https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2020/02/02/soundeagle-in-chinese-new-year-celebration-spring-festival-lion-dance-food-ornaments-traditional-culture-and-architecture/

      Please enjoy the said post’s attendant “attractions” and multimedia extravaganza taking you on a worldwide cultural journey.

      Though my said post is very long and encyclopaedic, the three navigational menus there can help you to jump to any section of the post instantly so that you can resume reading at any point of the post over multiple sessions in your own time.

      In addition, if you like cooking and eating, there are some fantastic food and yummy cuisines to tempt you in the post, plus a lot of videos showing how the Chinese New Year is celebrated in different countries and regions of the world.

  4. Scott Blake says:

    You weren’t exaggerating about the startling sight of Grant Ave. being deserted. Those photos, especially the ones showing the closed shops with the gates down, could be the perfect image of what the pandemic has done to us all. Li Po, another Chinatown dive in the grand tradition of the Rickshaw Lounge complete with lounge lizards.

    1. Paulie says:

      We’ve all been affected in some way or another I think the photo you speak of is a clear image of what has happened to many in a real sense. I think maybe that photo is an image of what’s happened to nearly everyone in a metaphorical sense.
      Li Po and Rickshaw are, were in the case of Rickshaw, both dives but I think they were different species. I can speak from experience about the latter, by reputation about the former.

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