As I kid, I visited my grandparents in San Francisco Chinatown weekly with my parents. They lived in the top unit of their triplex on Leavenworth Street while renting out the other apartments to immigrant families, helping newcomers get a foothold in the U.S. as others had helped them when they were new to the country.
I recollect Edwardian architecture with beige interior paint, dark wood trim in need of varnish, dim lighting, and a scent of Tiger Balm and sesame oil throughout.
Step-grandmother wore loose trousers with quilted satin vests. She decorated with plates of stacked oranges for good fortune, a wire tree with jade leaves in a ceramic pot, and a porcelain happy Buddha with laughing children cavorting over him.
My parents would take us all out for a meal. Sometimes we went to hole-in-the-wall cafes with delicious dim sum and plain-spoken waiters who greeted us with, “What you want?”
Sometimes we went to fine restaurants with splendid lanterns, carved wood trimmings, framed murals, and sea creatures in bubbling tanks awaiting their culinary fate. By the time I was not quite three, my mother proudly noted that I could eat with chopsticks.
Lunar New Year
At the lunar new year, we went to the Yee Family Association on Waverly Place where we saw walls covered in scrolls with Chinese calligraphy and an elaborate ancestral shrine that took up one wall.
Older men played twangy traditional music on stringed instruments, while ladies served cheap takeout food on paper plates. In the evening, there would be better food in the banquet hall of a restaurant.
There were also men smoking and gambling who scowled at my Caucasian father on our entry. They feared he was a policeman. My grandfather would rush to explain that he was my mother’s husband and that they needn’t worry about being reported.
I loved these events. I felt as though I had been admitted to a secret society. I would find an old wooden chair in a corner, eat chow mein and try to go unnoticed as I contemplated sunlight streaming through tall, lace-curtained windows, filtered by rising cigarette smoke.
All around me, people spoke a tongue I couldn’t understand. My mother had taught me little of her childhood language, Cantonese. But I could see that, freed from the struggle of speaking English, these mostly immigrant or first-generation people were animated, lively, and at ease.
We lived in the East Bay, so we also spent time in Oakland’s Chinatown, where I followed my mother down narrow aisles of tiny grocery stores to buy fresh vegetables, sauces, and Haw Flake candy. Afterward, she would pick up fresh barbecue pork and dim sum from her favorite takeout shops.
All this to say that I have a soft spot for Chinatowns. They formed a memorable backdrop for my childhood. It makes me sad now when I see so many of their businesses closed. I hope that those which remain weather the pandemic’s economic storm until better times return.