As night begins turning into day, the city of San Francisco beings showing signs of life.
People come out of their homes on their way to work. Buses and street cars begin filling up. The homeless come out of the alleys and doorways on Market Street.
This morning, I’m walking to Chinatown, passing through the Tenderloin, an area I describe as the “armpit” of San Francisco. I could walk around the area, but it would not be as interesting to go through it.
People in various states of disorder, ask for handouts in front of rundown buildings. One man with missing front teeth is shouting, to know one in particular.
Moments later he gets out of the chair and rummages through a garbage can. He stands out in his orange safety vest with “San Francisco Chronicle” printed on it.
With two garbage bags balanced on the end of two poles, a Chinese man searches in a dumpster for aluminum cans. There are elderly Chinese women who roam the city in the same way to survive. I saw one of them digging through garbage when I visited Japantown.
The scenery changes as I approach Union Square, where the Weinstein Gallery displays paintings by Picasso in the window. Banners on the light poles announce a new show at the de Young Museum with artists “Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne and Beyond.”
I take out my digital camera on Grant Avenue, as I pass through the Chinatown Gate. I plan to spend all day roaming the 30 blocks of this historic neighborhood, searching for “decisive moments” to capture on a memory card.
Produce stands and meat stores are starting to open their doors. In Portsmouth Square, seniors are doing tai chi. Another group is practicing line dancing moves.
I see a man doing tai chi on the pedestrian bridge leading to the Chinese Culture Center. He sees me taking his photo, but shows no concern.
Stockton Street is where most of the grocery stores can be found. In a town with few large chain grocery stores, Chinatown residents come here to buy vegetables, meat, seafood and herbal medicines.
On Pacific Avenue the Y. Ben House Restaurant is open and the room is filed to capacity. A crowded room in Chinatown means it’s going to be noisy. Voices overlap and create a constant hum of Cantonese and Mandarin.
The waitress leads me to a table with an older Chinese couple. They pay no attention as I sit down. The sounds of conversation blend with Miles Davis on my iPod.
There’s a long wait until the first cart piled high with bamboo steamers arrives, the woman at the table gestures towards the cart, like she’s saying “eat.”
My breakfast is a couple of orders of pork dumplings and shrimp balls. I always order these items to compare different restaurants. These are not as good as Dim Sum House on Beacon Hill back home.
On my second visit to Portsmouth Square, a large group has gathered to watch a card game. They slam down the cards they don’t want onto a piece of cardboard and scream each time they do it.
Gift shops, all selling the same tourist items are everywhere on Grant Avenue. Herb shops, barbecue restaurants, dim sum, noodle houses are on every block.
The same Chinatown t-shirt can sell $4.99 at one store and $1.99 at another.
People with tables on the sidewalk, sell pieces of jade and other trinkets in every shape and size.
In Ross Alley, I find a barber named Jun Yu. I walk in and motion with my fingers like a pair of scissors. As I climb into the chair, I take out my notebook.
His shop is a quarter the size of a studio apartment and has no running water or bathroom. He has boxes and newspapers stacked everywhere. Under the counters are radios that have been taken apart, their tubes exposed.
Two violins sit on a cluttered shelf next to a stack of Playboys.
“Pretty girls,” he says when I ask about the magazines.
On a wall are pictures of Frank Sinatra surrounded by cobwebs strung from the ceiling.
“I like the music. He came to Chinatown. I see him,” Yu says.
My Chinese is as bad as his English. He asks me if I’m a reporter. I tell him I used to be, but not anymore.
Yu has been operating in this shop for over 20 years. He is the third barber in this location. The two others before him passed away.
As he cuts my hair, I’m unsure what the end result will look like. I figure it’s worth a bad haircut to talk to him. I need quotes for my story.
Yu is weaning an outdated hearing aid that occasionally squeals with loud feedback. A wire leads to an amplifier clipped to his brown vest.
Do you play the violin, I ask. “After haircut, I play a song for you. I’ve been playing since high school,” he says.
He grabs a bottle of water but the spray nozzle doesn’t work. I wave off a fruit fly and then pass on the blue jelly he wants to put on my hair.
There are two other pictures worth asking him about: Yun posing with former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and current Mayor Gavin Newsom, who [was] running for Lieutenant Governor of California.
Both visited him during a campaign stop in Chinatown.
“He very handsome guy,” Yun says, pointing to Newsom.
Yun puts a CD into a machine and tucks a worn looking violin under his chair.
Yun swings back and forth as he plays along with a blue grass tune. When he stops, Yun is all smiles. “I still want to be a professional,” he says.
The Chinese Historical Society of America museum and learning center is located at the top of Clay Street in Chinatown. The museum contains one of the largest collections of Chinese American artifacts in the country.
According to its brochure, it “traces the history and cultural legacy of the Chinese in the United States.”
Volunteer Claudia Quan is at the front desk to take my $3 admission. “I believe in this place and keeping and maintaining it for our kids and grandkids,” she said.
“It’s not a big tourist attraction,” said director Sue Lee who was busy showing some guest around. Because it’s on a steep hill, you really have to want to come here.
The busiest month is May, when school kids visit during Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
The main exhibit area is more of an overview of Chinese in America, said Lee.
A display panel explains how poor adventuresome young peasants came to the U.S. for the gold and ended up working in every industry in the American West.
Ninety percent of the immigrants came from the Pearl River Delta region of China. The exhibit goes on to explain the Chinese Exclusion Act, formation of “bachelor” societies, family associations and the establishment of communities.
After the earthquake of 1906 some Chinese merchants hired white architects to add ancient Chinese motifs and classical architectural elements to buildings. This was to “promote a new, orientalized Chinatown,” according to the exhibit text.
Chinatown has not changed that much physically since I was last there, 18 years ago. Old dives like the Sam Wo restaurant and Li Po bar with it’s distinctive round entrance are still here.
“It’s a more diverse population from all over now. There are less Cantonese,” said Lee.
Across from the New Woey Loy Goey restaurant — yes that is the real name — I find Red’s Place Tavern.
“This is the oldest bar in Chinatown. All the people are local. They live around here and speak Mandarin,” said the bartender, a young woman in her early 30s.
I ask for a cheap beer. “How about a Bud,” she says.
Empty Tsingtao boxes are lined up against the wall. Pictures of customers line the top of the bar. A juke box is playing Chinese music and the television is tuned to a soccer game.
Cognacs like Remy Martin and Henessy are the most popular drinks at the bar she said.
The day is nearing an end and I head back to the hotel.
In Union Square, I search for a store selling Jeremy Lin’s number seven Golden State Warriors jersey, but luck is not on my side.
Walking west on Market past Bloomingdales and the Armani store, the street begins to change at Turk Street where there are empty storefronts, loan shops and topless joints. I begin to see more and more street people with black plastic bags and the mentally ill.
A hand written sign on the second floor of the Odd Fellows Temple declares the “world is coming to an end.”
As I search for a mom and pop store to buy a cold beer to take back to my room, I walk past a man urinating on the sidewalk and taunting those walking by.
On Sixth Avenue, I find a store with people standing around with nothing better to do. I put on my best “don’t mess with me ‘cause, I’ll kill you” look and make my purchase.
I cross onto a side street and turn my back a few times to make sure I haven’t been followed. Streetwise habits are hard to shake.
Dinner will be take out at the 7 Mission Vietnamese and Chinese restaurant next to the Carriage Inn.
I order the Combination Chow Mein to go. Six dollars and fifty cents buys me a carton of comfort food here in San Francisco.