The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

My take on Len-Artist Challenge, A One Lens Walk

San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of my favorite places in the Bay Area – maybe even the world.

I try to visit Chinatown a couple times a month. When I was young, single, living in The City and didn’t know better I visited multiple times a week, usually stopping at a little bar on Ross Alley, called the Rickshaw Lounge. It was across the alley from Danny’s Dynasty. Both joints were divey (Danny’s looked downright dangerous) and the alley itself had an air of assault and battery to it.

Didn’t know better? I sometimes closed that place down, particularly when I was dating Hyung Suk, one of the hostesses who worked there. It must’ve been nice to be young and have the vigor, or bad sense, to leave a bar at 2 in the morning when you have to get up 4 hours later to get ready for work.

That was during the 1970’s, when 2 rival Chinatown gangs, the Wah Ching and the Joe Boys were feeling their oats. In 1977, 5 members of the Joe Boys shot up the Golden Dragon Restaurant on Washington Street just around the corner from Ross Alley.

I guess my love conquered all, even common sense.

The Golden Dragon is gone now, replaced by another restaurant. The dives are also gone, replaced by …  It’s hard to say what replaced the bars. There’s no indication of a saloon ever having been on that alley. Now housing a florist, a fortune cookie shop, a gospel center, and a neon bedecked boba shop, Ross is hardly foreboding anymore.

The Chinatown alleys are fascinating places. I cut through them often to avoid the crowds on the main streets, or well, just because. The old mystique is of opium dens, brothels, and gambling parlors.

Indeed you can still walk through an alley at night and hear the clattering tiles and animated voices that mark a Mahjong game.

***

I usually carry three lenses with me when I walk through Chinatown; a wide angle, a 70 – 300 mm zoom, and the usual go to, an 18 – 135mm zoom.

All of the photos in this post were taken through the 18 – 135.

St. Louis Street is a dark little dead end alley. It’s home to the Waiyang Benevolent Association, Leung’s White Crane Dragon & Lion Dance Association, and two or three other businesses which I might be able to name if I could read Chinese characters.

Saint Louis Alley, Chinatown, San Francisco

When you walk through the alleys, be sure to look carefully in all directions. Not for fear of getting jumped but to take in the atmosphere of a street that hasn’t really changed much in decades. Old brick buildings with iron fire escapes; casement windows, some stuffed with greasy blade fans, or papered over in lieu of curtains. But for the clothing styles hanging from the landings, you could be standing in the 1940’s.

Ross Alley, Chinatown, San Francisco

 

Ross Alley, Chinatown, San Francisco

The colorful and the trendy can also be found in the alleys.

Lanterns hang over the entrance to a boba shop on Ross Alley

You can’t walk a single block in Chinatown without seeing two commonplace sights. A colorful mural,

or a short narrow flight of stairs that leads to…

Some, like the one above descend into mystery. Hyung Suk took me down one nondescript flight of stairs that opened at the bottom, into a late night restaurant, where we joined the bar crowd in the early morning hours and feasted on congee or chow fun. That restaurant is gone now.

You can’t walk past two storefronts in Chinatown without finding some wonderful places to eat.

The Eastern Bakery on Grant Avenue, has been around for 99 years and is my go to place when I want moon cakes.

 

Grant is fine if you want to buy a plastic Buddha or a tea set or maybe a soon to be threadbare t-shirt.

One block west of Grant is Stockton Street. This is where the real people, the cool people, the local residents and those in the know head for. This is where you find the produce markets, the herbal shops, and the fish mongers. Here is where you stop to salivate in front of meat markets where gleaming strips of char siu, and bronze ducks dripping with ducky goodness hang in the windows. The butcher, wielding a gigantic cleaver will chop up your duck for you. You can either take the head or leave it.

Brilliant cauliflower at a Stockton Street vegetable market

 

Ducks

I took this particular photo walk on the first day of the new lunar year, the Year of the Rabbit. During the Lunar New Year celebration the neighborhood is all decked out in red and gold.

 

 

On a Sunday afternoon during the Lunar New Year celebration the air is acrid with spent cordite and the sidewalks are littered with the red paper remnants of rolls of firecrackers.

According to legend the firecrackers were originally set off to scare away a monster named Nian. In San Francisco, they scare off unwary tourists. My ears are still ringing.

When I visit Chinatown I usually park in adjacent North Beach (Little Italy) and walk the few blocks to Chinatown. When I got to Broadway, the sort of unofficial border between North Beach and Chinatown I looked up and saw this pensive fellow day dreaming out of his fourth floor window.

In North Beach, I stopped at Toscano Brothers (also called Dago Bagels) for a bagel and a cappuccino. The beauties below wear a cape of melted cheese and a cap of jalapenos. The bagels are good, but the peppers will incinerate your pallet. I’ll have to admit it’s not a great paring with the cappuccino.

For more interpretations of A One Lens Walk, please visit Anne Sandler’s Slow Shutter Speed

20 thoughts on “My San Francisco: A Photo Walk Down the Year of the Rabbit Hole

  1. Toonsarah says:

    What a wonderful walk, full of mysterious alleyways and colourful details! I loved your tales of Chinatown in the 70s too. A great one-lens walk 🙂

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Sarah,
      Thank you for reading and commenting.

      Those were enjoyable times for me. I wouldn’t mind a quick time travel back – without the gang wars of course.

      Paul

  2. Deb says:

    Wonderful post Paul. I love seeing the world through the stories and photos of others.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Deb,
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Glad you enjoyed it.
      Paul

  3. Anne Sandler says:

    Paul, I totally enjoyed this post–both the narrative and images. Now, I want to take a photo trip to Chinatown. My favorite image is the old man in the window.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Anne,
      Thank you for reading and for your kind words. The man in the window was one of those lucky moments. I noticed a woman taking a picture with her phone pointed towards that window and looked up to see him.
      Paul

      1. Anne Sandler says:

        Some of the greatest captures are those rare lucky moments. It’s up to the photographer to take advantage of them.

    1. Paul says:

      Thanks Mr. M.

  4. Leya says:

    A colourful and mysterious walk, Paul…so beautiful. A place I will never visit myself – so thank you for taking us . Splendid photo as usual and my favourite is – the old man in the window.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Ann-Christine,
      Thank you so much for your kind words. I have a stranger with a cell phone to thank for that photo. I noticed her pointing her phone in the direction of the window to take a picture. And there he was.
      Paul

  5. chava61 says:

    Thanks for taking me back to SF’s Chinatown which I lived next to for about half year a long time ago.

    1. Paul says:

      Half a year living next to Chinatown. North Beach maybe? Both of those neighborhoods are my favorites. I lived the Richmond and the Sunset many years ago and have fond memories. The City is getting bashed in the media and with some good reason. That said I’d move back in an instant if I could afford it.
      Thank you for reading and commenting
      Paul

      1. chava61 says:

        I lived on the border between the Financial District (where I worked for over a year & half), Chinatown &. Nob Hill.

  6. Tina Schell says:

    Marvelous take on the challenge Paul. I’ve been there several times, more than once with some local friends who, like you, know both the ins and outs as well as the history. It’s a fascinating place and you’ve captured it beautifully. Loved the fellow at the window and also loved your B&W images. Terrific post!

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you so much Tina.
      Paul

  7. Thank you for taking us on your walk, Paul! Very fascinating!

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you Lisa, I’m glad you enjoyed it.
      Paul

  8. JohnRH says:

    GREAT selections. The monochromes are my faves, but pensive fellow is a great ‘people’ shot. The Dago Bagels look yummy, taken just one pepper at a time. P.S. I LOVE DUCK!!!

    1. Paul says:

      The Dago Bagels are indeed yummy. The bakery offers a great selection; breads, flat breads and sweets. Duck may not be the best but it’s up there.
      Thanks for reading a commenting John,
      Paul

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