Pagoda madness

A native son counters the myths of Chinatown in a new book

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culture@sfbg.com

LIT Either I'm terrible at parking or Philip P. Choy was exactly the right person to author his recently-released San Francisco Chinatown: A Guide to Its History and Architecture (City Lights Publishers, 184pp, $15.95). We find a spot for my car in a well-hidden lot, tucked into an alleyway behind the Chinese Historical Society of America. It's the first sign of the day that Choy's knowledge of the area goes beyond tea shops and Peking duck.

"Chinatown..." Choy pauses as we stand outside a sidewalk stall whose owner angrily mutters at us (we're blocking pedestrian traffic by hovering over his dried sea cucumber display.) "Chinatown is real. There are people here living, relying on Chinatown."

Choy's newest publication is not just a faithful retelling of the enclave's social and architectural history. The book goes out of its way to dispel the stereotypes and fanciful constructions of the neighborhood that the outside world maintains. Choy was born in Chinatown, and as a co-professor of the first collegiate level class in Chinese American history at San Francisco State, he's well-qualified to tell its story.

With apologies to our embattled shopkeeper, we continue to examine the cukes, first brought to the neighborhood via 1800s trade routes between China and the US. We move past other stalls while Choy points out the historical importance of their wares.

He shows me sandalwood, traditionally burned in Chinese temples, and ginseng root, which had been harvested by Native Americans but became a staple Chinese delicacy.

Choy tells me that the Chinese — who were not-so-charmingly called "mongols" around about 1840 — have suffered alongside Native Americans and other people of color throughout our country's history, enduring ghettoized living situations and sub-par educational offerings.

As Choy and I wander Grant in search of the infamous pagodas that were built after the 1906 earthquake, we take a small detour up the hill to peek at Gordon J. Lau Elementary School. In the late 1800s a Chinatown father sued the city when his daughter was barred from attending other schools. Though the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, the school district opened the originally-named Chinese Primary School rather than integrate. 

We pass quickly by an East West bank, which was once the home of the first San Francisco paper, the Star. Around the corner stands a cheap retail center, originally the Mandarin Theater, a cultural and artistic mecca for neighborhood residents. Its once-lavish stage now serves as a platform for garish home decorations, its grand balconies now providing seating only to building debris.

Our whirlwind tour ends at the pagoda building Sing Fat, nestled at the corner of Grant Avenue and California Street. It was erected by the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce and prominent merchants in a post- 1906 earthquake attempt to repackage the once-funky Chinatown as an ornate, prosperous "oriental city."

But Sing Fat's pagodas are actually what Choy (an architect himself) calls a "Disneyland approach" to Chinese architecture: unstudied, inauthentic. The only legitimately Chinese quality of the structure is its green, yellow, and red color motif.

"Does any truly, authentically Chinese institution or edifice exist in Chinatown?" I ask, sidestepping tourists to keep up with Choy, who navigates Stockton Street with shocking deftness.

Choy reaches a hand out to avoid my death-by-delivery-truck and laughs. "Doesn't exist."

That's because Chinatown is first and foremost a Chinese American town. And for all its perceived exoticism, the neighborhood has been around since almost the beginning of San Francisco.

Comments

"As Choy and I wander Grant Street in search of the infamous pagodas "

It's Grant AVENUE, not Street.

Posted by Nancy on Sep. 05, 2012 @ 6:20 pm

We removed the word STREET above

Posted by caitlin on Sep. 06, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

A motivating discussion is worth comment. I think that you need to write
more on this topic, it may not be a taboo matter but usually folks don't discuss such subjects. To the next! Cheers!!

Posted by play hulkshare|play hulk share on Oct. 29, 2012 @ 7:31 pm

". A father who was unable to enroll his daughter in the racist SF public school system started the school to provide educational opportunities for Chinatown youth."
That's not quite accurate: Joseph Tape (of Chinese descent) sued the SF school district and its principal because his daughter Mamie was not allowed to attend Spring Valley Grammar School. It was the School Board that leased a building on Jackson Street (called the Chinese Primary School) to keep Mamie from attending the public Spring Valley Grammar School.in 1984. (page 166)

Posted by Guest on Sep. 06, 2012 @ 10:03 am

Thanks for catching the issue around the Chinese Primary School. Apparently there had actually been a petition to create a school for Chinese children since 1878, created by B.S. Brooks, but it had been ignored until Joseph Tape sued the district a few years later. The Board started the Chinese Primary School in order to adhere to the Supreme Court's ruling that Chinese youth had a right to an education, but stick with its agenda of rigid racism and segregation. That inaccuracy has been fixed!

Posted by Emily H. on Sep. 07, 2012 @ 11:49 am

Is this an opinion piece masquerading as a book review? While Philip Choy writes on page 150 that the theater "has been converted into a shopping area occupied by multiple concessions," Emily Hunt writes that the theater is:

"a cheap retail center, (that sells) garish home decorations..."

Some tourists, and for that matter, Chinatown residents actually enjoy buying 'garish home decorations' -- if they didn't these places wouldn't exist.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 06, 2012 @ 10:31 am

Did Hunt drive in from the Marin or what, who in their right mind drives to Chinatown?

Posted by marcos on Sep. 06, 2012 @ 10:32 am

In your review of Phil Choy's book, "San Francisco Chinatown: A Guide to Its History and Architecture (City Lights Publishers), I would like to make some comments about your choice of words in certain paragraphs.

1.)"Choy pauses as we stand outside a street food stall..."

I think the phrase, "street food" stall is very different from the "Sidewalk Stalls" that Phil Choy describes on page 123.
"Street food" has a whole different context in this day and age of food trucks, etc.

2.) "ginseng root, which...became a staple Chinese delicacy."

I would point out that ginseng root was used for medicinal purposes, like valerian root, and not a "delicacy" like sea cucumbers.

3.) ""urging readers to consider its quiet alleyways and one-bedroom apartments housing six people..."

I would call the SRO (Single Room Occupancy) exactly that--these single rooms are not "one-bedrooms," which implies more room and luxury than they really are.

Posted by Hwang Qian on Sep. 06, 2012 @ 10:36 am

On what planet is a one bedroom luxurious?

Posted by marcos on Sep. 06, 2012 @ 11:48 am

We've made your suggested corrections above

Posted by caitlin on Sep. 06, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

Grow a backbone. A stall is not a truck.

Posted by marcos on Sep. 06, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

SURELY there are more important people you could be goading

Posted by caitlin on Sep. 06, 2012 @ 3:47 pm

"The only legitimately Chinese quality of the structure is its green, yellow, and red color motif."

One doesn't need to be an art student to know that colors are just colors: not "motif.

"Choy, who navigates Stockton Street with shocking deftness."

Why is that so "shocking?"
Mr. Choy is 85 years old and has made it this far all in one piece. Long life noodles for Mr. Choy--a dozen lashes with a wet noodle for Ms. Hunt.

By writing such nonsense, Ms Hunt seems to be a member of the "ignorant outsiders" she writes about.

Posted by Wong Ch'ien on Sep. 06, 2012 @ 11:49 am

Any one that can dodge slow-moving packs of tourists earns high marks in my book

Posted by caitlin on Sep. 06, 2012 @ 12:21 pm

Thanks for catching the issue around the Chinese Primary School. Apparently there had actually been a petition to create a school for Chinese children since 1878, created by B.S. Brooks, but it had been ignored until Joseph Tape sued the district a few years later. The Board finally created the Chinese Primary School in order to adhere to the Supreme Court's ruling that Chinese youth had a right to education, but also stick to its rigid agenda of racism and segregation. That inaccuracy has been corrected!

Posted by Emily H. on Sep. 07, 2012 @ 11:45 am

Thanks for catching the issue around the Chinese Primary School. Apparently there had actually been a petition to create a school for Chinese children since 1878, created by B.S. Brooks, but it had been ignored until Joseph Tape sued the district a few years later. The Board started the Chinese Primary School in order to adhere to the Supreme Court's ruling that Chinese youth had a right to an education, but stick with its agenda of rigid racism and segregation. That inaccuracy has been fixed!

Posted by Emily H. on Sep. 07, 2012 @ 11:48 am

Outside of the historical correction relative to the Chinese Primary School, the dings against Ms. Hunt's account of her walking tour with Phil Choy are minor and overkill. She obviously found the encounter edifying, educational and enjoyable. I thought her article was delightful and illuminating.

Posted by Guest Chris on Sep. 11, 2012 @ 1:09 pm

I love that place, it's crowded indeed but it's a small glimpse of Asian spirit in an occidental culture, that's such an interesting mix. I am a fan of Asian cultures, everything about it fascinates me.

Posted by events in Hanoi on Feb. 06, 2013 @ 2:21 pm

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