Return to Chinatown

You don't have to be a tourist to be entranced by a tour of old Chinatown's alleys

The air is mild and cool, the sun is pale and warm, and the birds are singing as if it were spring. As I enter Portsmouth Square, a young woman in a light silk shirt hands me a pinwheel of periwinkle paper. The Chinese characters on its blades twirl peacefully as I settle down next to a kiosk commemorating the day in 1846 when Cmdr. John B. Montgomery docked his ship here to raise the United States flag (much to the consternation of the Mexican government). The square, which grew up around the flag, remains the heart of San Francisco's first identified neighborhood.

"Portsmouth Square is Chinatown's living room," says 18-year-old UC Davis student Jennifer Wong, whose own family started out here, like the first Chinese immigrants, in one of the district's infamous SROs. "There is usually one bathroom shared by an entire floor. Each apartment is about 8 by 9; that's kitchen, living room, and bedroom for about five people. So you can imagine our need for open space."

Here, in the country's most densely populated neighborhood this side of Manhattan, the multilevel commons is thrumming with activity, rain or shine. The jungle gym teems with children while grandmothers watch and cluck nearby. The lower-level benches, most typically the milieu of newspaper readers and other quiet, and not so quiet, intellectuals, are dominated by an elder gentleman who reads his paper aloud -- very aloud -- in Cantonese, before offering his personal annotations, also in Cantonese, to no one in particular. To the north, just past a young man who wears little but a bandleader jacket and dingy drawstring shorts, the "library" gives way to the "game room," the northern courtyard on the lower level where men can typically be found playing Wei Qi, or Go. Upstairs, women take their constitutional walks around the sunlit square, waving to neighbors who spread cardboard over the benches where they'll sit to share gossip and news. The groundskeeper, a slender, smiling man with a very high red knit cap, rakes pine needles off the cement -- squick squick squick -- with quick jabs between benches and feet that are moved out of harm's way with nimble twitches of the ankle, an instinctive reflex born of many years' experience. In the center of the courtyard, teenagers gather in ever-expanding clusters while, under the pagodas to the east, men play Chinese dice and Sap Sam Cheung, a 13-card poker game related to Pai Gow. The beat cop makes an appearance, perhaps to ensure the gambling stays in hand, but everyone greets him by name, and he seems to enjoy his stay.

Larry Ching, the "Chinese Sinatra."
Paul Trapani
Larry Ching, the "Chinese Sinatra."

"You should go to Coit Tower at all different times of day and look," offers the groundskeeper with a smile. "It's always different."

"I'm from here," I reply, then quickly clarify, "From San Francisco," on the off chance he mistook me for a neighbor.

"Ohhh ... in that case, you should go with them," he says, pointing to Jennifer Wong and five other teenagers wearing "Adopt an Alleyway" T-shirts.

Composed mostly of alleys that don't meet the 32-foot-wide "requirement" for street cleaners, Chinatown is largely untended by the city. Any cleanliness in the neighborhood's narrow, pretty back-ways is the work of youth volunteers from the Chinatown Community Development Center, the same youth volunteers who lobby for affordable housing, visit elders to record oral history, battle to implement "pedestrian scramble" crossings along the Stockton Street corridor, and lead firsthand Chinatown tours.

"It was not fashionable to be friends with Chinese in the 1800s," declares Wong, explaining the Robert Louis Stevensontribute engraved in Portsmouth Square. "But Stevenson didn't really care what society thought of him. He lived less than a block from here. He was a friend."

The plucky genetics major swings her knee-length hair and leads us up to Ross Alley, where 16-year-old Wendell Lintakes over, explaining the function of benevolent family associations, which are housed in beautifully painted gilt buildings where newcomers may have their mail translated, find job opportunities, and apply for loans or scholarships.

"Mostly it's a place now for the old people to go play mah-jongg," admits Lin, referring to the rolling tinkle of tiles echoing through the alleys like waves breaking on sand. He shows us the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, a martial arts studio, and Old Yee's Barbershop, whose $6 haircut still attracts celebrities like Tom Waits, Clint Eastwood, and Matt Dillon.

The numbers don't add up.

"Crazy superstitions," explains Lin. "They pick addresses that will be lucky. Nothing with a four, because four sounds like 'death' in Chinese, unless the four is preceded by a five, which would sound like 'no death.'"

Lin bends down to show us a diagram created by the CCDC, a bronze map of Chinatown's alleys surrounded by lucky monkey-paw prints, embedded in the asphalt. He runs a gentle hand over the plaque and finds a piece of gum ground into its crevices.

"We're never done," he says, shaking his head. "We'll have to come back and clean that up."

Lin teaches us about the ghosts in the exceptionally narrow St. Louis Alley, which is better known in Chinatown as "Fire Alleyway," where lights are said to leap across the street from building to building, as did men when houses caught fire in the old days. Lin relates tales of brothels, opium dens, and gambling parlors, and the brief tourist trade built on tours of fake opium dens complete with phony addicts. He shows us the office where Sun Yat-senfounded the People's Republic of China. (It's now shared by the San Francisco Asian Taxicab Driver Associationand the Chinese Freemasons.) He tells us about the four blades of commerce -- laundry, barbershop, restaurant, and tailor shop -- and shares fond childhood memories of days spent in a sweatshop with his grandmother and 10 other doting women.

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