Many passengers on the California Street cable car are bewildered when they come across a street lined with red jellyfish. Intrigued, some hop off, and, like California Street, disappear under the lanterns into Grant Avenue.
The bear and its cubs lose themselves in the land of dragons — San Francisco’s Chinatown.
In this sea of red and gold; in the company of those dangling jellyfish, the treasures of the East are laid bare for the inquisitive: troves of overripe produce, transparent urns of medicinal riches and rows of steam buns, white like ivory. A miasma of aged ginseng and dried mushrooms overwhelms unfamiliar visitors. Still, they venture on. Fascinated by curled dragons dormant on lampposts and ageless floral patterns, they can no longer justify turning around.
Tourists and San Franciscans alike claim that walking into Chinatown is like stepping into another country. Their ambiguity is accurate: for all its visual pretense, Chinatown isn’t like China. Sure, storefronts full of black ink calligraphy mark their Chinese character. The crimson threads and the green pagoda roof tiles hearken back to a temple somewhere. Droves of roast duck, glistening in their roasting juices, hang by the neck in restaurant windows and evoke comparisons to Peking kitchens. Still, nowhere in China will you find a place quite like Chinatown.
This Chinatown is the haphazard collection of the entirety of Chinese culture, a vibrant tapestry dedicated to immigrant waves of different eras. From Taishan, arrived the first railway workers. From Canton, alighted panners, dreaming of Californian gold. From Hong Kong, came ladies who became infamous madams. It’s as if each immigrant arrived looking to shape this little enclave of China in their image of home. What resulted was akin to a Chinese hot pot: the pot itself is instantly recognisable to any Chinese person, but the contents are unfamiliar, even foreign.
Regardless, Chinatown thrives. It survived an Exclusion Act, an earthquake, gang wars and the bubonic plague. Chinatown harnesses its fiery dragons and many-faced deities to sell trinkets like panda plushies. It is unfazed by oriental exotification. White-haired Tai Chi practitioners continue to brandish their fans with methodical precision; dedicated temple-goers still light incense sticks and burn joss paper, seemingly impartial that their heritage has been commercialised; reduced to twelve zodiac animals on tourist tees.
Ironically, many visitors are just as indifferent. A common Chinatown tourist is of Chinese descent. Its exotified history is why some in the Chinese diaspora view San Francisco’s Chinatown as their overseas Mecca. They come to see everything their “race” represents and all it fails to live up to. To them, Chinatown is a site of pilgrimage to seek solace in their ancestors’ wanderings and salvation for the loss of unknown traditions.
Therein lies the wispy resignation in Chinatown’s quiet carry-on spirit. The China that these residents collectively know, is lost. The possibility of that red passport is gone. All they have left is this Chinatown concoction.