Everything's Jake in Chinatown
Upon visiting San Francisco for the first time in 1882, Oscar Wilde described it as “utterly, inexpressively hideous,” but Chinatown seduced him. After wandering through its shrines, shops and opium dens, he concluded the “strange, melancholy Orientals have determined they will have nothing about them that is not beautiful.”
These days, it’s hard not to think of Chinatown as a larger version of the 30 Stockton, crowded with old, cackling women hoarding doorways and throwing elbows over greens. Still, I’m convinced the real Chinatown must still exist in the back alleys we pass by, somewhere in between Wilde’s romanticism and our cynicism. I follow the pink shopping bags to find it.
Location, Location, Location.
Sensory overload sets in the moment I step off of MUNI. Roasted ducks drip fat in the windows as they do in the mainland, laundry hangs on clotheslines up above like so many flags, cigarette smoke pours from the bars and dried, stinky herbs sit in bins on the sidewalk.
I’m hungry, and a shopkeeper points me to New Woey Loy Goey. Nine steps lead me down underground and I enter a brightly lit room with critter tanks of scuttling crabs. A group of men with crow’s feet crowd around a lazy Susan. Some read the paper, and some chatter over steaming cups of tea. As dishes start to pour forth from the kitchen, I decide to order “what they’re having.”
First, the soup. So simple and straightforward – pork broth with vegetables and the unmistakable kick of ginger. It clears my palate and my sinuses. The seafood plate arrives, and I can make out scallops, squid and the entangled limbs of unidentifiable sea creatures, before they disappear into my gullet. It’s the eggplant though that fulfills my every MSG fantasy. Tender and sensual, it’s indescribably lovely.
I Walk the Line
Belly full, I walk into Red's Place – a dive. Behind the counter is a beautiful woman. She looks like a time-worn version of a pin-up girl that you might find on a pack of vintage playing cards. Her lips are as full as her dress is tight, and both are red. She’s eating a white peach slowly and drinking tea. Every so often she looks up and smiles, showing her teeth.
The bar is full of men. Who they are, I don’t know, though they are Cantonese, they carry gold emblazoned cigarette boxes, they drink American beers and they all seem to all have the same buzz haircut. The bartendress cracks Budweisers open as fast as the men can drink them, and I feel a little embarrassed to have ordered a Tsing Tao. Johnny Cash sings a slow melody in the background.
A tattoo-chested and high cheek-boned man walks in, and a game of Liar’s Dice ensues. I grab my own sturdy leather cup of dice and play along, gleaning the following rules from sideways glances down the bar:
1. Shake your cups of dice and slam them down.
2. Peek at your dice to see what you’ve rolled.
3. Suggest how many dice you think were rolled, including your opponent’s. For example, "three 2s.”
4. Take turns making guesses, upping the ante each time.
5. If you think someone is bluffing, declare them a “liar.”
4. Reveal your die.
5. The person was bluffing, hopefully, and you reign victorious.
The game isn’t as entertaining as it is addicting, and I realize it’s just a way to pass the time. I finish my beer and end up back on the sidewalk, a little buzzed in the sunlight.
Stockton Street is choked and dirty, and hordes of women wade past broken cardboard boxes and rotting bok choy to chat and pick over produce. I need an escape route. Massage signs seem to jump out from every window, and I stop at a place called Ching's. Taking a deep breath, I climb the narrow stairway, half hoping to peek into a brothel.
A tiny college-aged girl in a purple jump suit greets me in broken English and offers me a massage, acupuncture or reflexology. I decide on the latter, and she leads me to a clean, bright room, where I fall into an oversized leather chair. A big warm towel is placed on top of me and my feet are lowered into a steaming bucket of brown herbs.
Minutes later my masseuse arrives. She’s intimidatingly large for a Chinese woman, both in girth and height, and her hands are meaty and strong. As she goes to work on my feet, I realize I’ve signed up with a sadist. This is the deepest deep massage of my life, and I suck air in through my teeth sharply from the pain, and exhale with waves of pleasure.
The toes and heel of my right foot go numb, succumbing to the unyielding, kneading pressure. The arch of my right foot is starting to swell, and while my masseuse barely speaks English, she points to her stomach and groans to explain how my foot is telling her that my stomach is “no good.” I’m aghast, but as I stand up, I realize my feet have never felt better.
Hungry again, I decide to feast wherever I see neighborhood folk clamoring and follow the crowd into New Golden Daisy, where vats of coagulating noodles are emanating heat. I order half a pound of the fried chicken drumettes and half a pound of the glistening wings. The men working don’t speak English, but somehow I manage to get what I want. My total is $3.
I take my little picnic to Portsmouth Square, a sunny spot near the triangular shadow of the Transamerica building. It’s surprisingly mellow, at least compared to Stockton Street, and I can hear a reed flute in the background. Old men bolted to their benches puff on cigarettes and glance over in envy while I devour my chicken. A circle of women practices the slow movements of Tai Chi.
It only takes a few minutes to realize the park is essentially a gambling house. A woman shuffles playing cards deftly with the confidence of a Vegas dealer. Others throw their cards down excitedly, waving $1 bills in the air. One group of men is particularly engaged. Their circle is very tight, and it takes some willpower to cut in and discover it’s a high stakes game of Chinese checkers.
As I get back onto the 30 Stockton, I feel relaxed, even with all of the jostling. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t hoped to find the opium dens, shrines and brothels that Oscar Wilde found on his visit so long ago, but still, what I’d discovered was invigorating. Chinatown held all of the intrigue of years past, and maybe even the charm. You just had to brave the backstreets to find it.