San Francisco; Chinatown

Day 2B: Saturday March 16th:  We disembark the MUNI in  Chinatown, and  begin to walk down the bustling street. We were hungry and tired, but not finding what we wanted – a nice American Chinese restaurant. There were shops with open stalls on both sides of the narrow street. We strolled past baskets of unrecognizable vegetables and herbs, barrels of tiny metallic looking dried fish and fish fins, tubs of fresh fish on ice and poultry – raw and cooked – hanging in shop windows by their scrawny still-intact feet: all being visited by flies. Around us throngs of people, shopping for tonight’s dinner, bartering in the choppy sounds of their native tongue. John said he felt like he was in Blade Runner (the 1983 Sci-Fi movie starring Harrison Ford where the futuristic streets of LA look like Chinatown; full of Asians who do not speak English.) Our senses were overwhelmed with the unfamiliar sights, sounds and scents; a fishy, sour and spicy smell. The architecture of the old buildings was beautiful. Lots of red and gold painted trim. Chinese lettering everywhere.
We tried to ask several persons where we could find a restaurant, but got blank stares or were ignored completely.
“Where is the Hong Kong Buffet?” We wanted to shout out. I can only imagine what the four of us looked like, walking around with back packs, camera and Bill with his John Deere farmers hat and our white dumbstruck faces. It could have been no worse if we had been dropped on a street in the heart of Peking, China.
Jacky Chan 2, Ginny, BIll & Evelyn        Suddenly there appeared before us a little Chinese man, barely 5 foot tall. He looked to be about 45 – 55 years old, wore a dark cap and baggy pants. He was carrying a paper shopping bag. I’m not sure who spoke first, but when we realized we actually had an English speaking human before us we converged on our new best friend.
“Can you tell us where we can find a good restaurant?” He did not reply with an answer, but with a question of his own. “What you like?” We each took a turn trying to think of a dish we regularly ordered when we ate Chinese. “Sweet and Sour”, “Egg Foo Yung” “Kung Po Chicken” we each replied in turn. John had yet to answer, when our would-be host looked at him and asked “You. What you like?” John took his time, then replied “General T’so”
“You leader,” Jacky Chan Two (that’s what he told us to call him later) responded. “You answer last. The last shall be first.”
Bill picked up on this and said. “You know scripture. Are you a Christian?” With this opening Jacky proceeded to procure documents from his bag. The first one had little cartoon pictures on it along with Bible verses and other wise sayings, strategically designed to put any Midwestern white faced Christian tourist at ease. Jacky talked in broken, but very understandable English. He began calling John “Movie Star”, probably due to the wraparound sunglasses he was wearing.
“You like Szechuan?” he asked. We all replied “Yes.” So off we went, following our new guide to a Szechuan restaurant. But when a white box truck pulled up to the curb and the driver began to unload boxes onto the sidewalk, we lost our guide. “Wait. I be back,” Jacky assured us as he hastily joined a throng gathering around one of the unloaded boxes. At this point we could have made our escape. We debated among ourselves. Was this guy legit? Was he safe? But in the end we stayed put. As the voices rose and ebbed from the huddle it was obvious that they were all bartering for the contents of the open box. When I got a glimpse of the activity in the center of the circle I saw Jacky putting fresh whole fish into a clear plastic bag. As he emerged from the crowd, he dropped his new purchase into his shopping bag and rejoined us.
For the next 20 minutes we listened to and followed Jacky. When he came to a narrow alley, we got a little nervous. We thought it might be a set up, that we were sitting ducks being led to our doom. Evelyn said that she was sure it was a trap when she saw a man walking toward us as we moved deeper into this hidden dark world where we were the foreigners. But we soon realized that our fears were totally unfounded when Jacky took us into the ‘Fortune Cookie Factory’ where a little Chinese girl handed out fresh baked wafer thin cookies. [Later we learned that this is a very popular tourist destination.] This alley, Jacky told us, was the site where the 1980s movie ‘Big Time in Little China’ starring Kurt Russell was filmed.
There were tall brick buildings on both sides with colorful clothes hanging on lines and over the wrought iron fire escapes above us. Open windows filled the air with Chinese voices and pungent odors. The unique architecture was well worth the side trip down the alley. John began shooting photos, which got Jacky excited. He said “You like photos?” the question was accompanied with a pantomime of aiming and clicking a camera. “Come. I show you.” We all followed. What choice did we have? Jacky then directed John to follow him into a deep stairwell which led into a basement room. Again a very tense moment of indecision. To follow or not? John headed down first, so we all did likewise. The stairs led to a photo studio and there seemed to be some kind of discussion or class going on. So we quietly walked around the parameter of the room and looked at the photos; all of Chinatown and its residents; all very good.
After this we realized that Jacky’s only motive was to be our guide and to show us what he thought we’d like. Jacky asked “You like bakery?” “Yes.” So our next stop was a bakery where all kinds of heavenly looking pastries were displayed in the glass case. While Jacky was speaking in Chinese to one of the clerks Evelyn and I picked out some interesting looking delights. We each got a small lemon cake and I got something filled with sweet cream called a ‘Lady Slipper.’ Jacky got what he wanted, and headed out the door. When Evelyn went to pay for her items, she asked “Do I pay for his?” indicating the now missing Jacky. Yes of course she had to.
Back on the street, or should I say alley, we were finally led to our destination, a Szechuan restaurant. We invited Jacky to join us. We’d buy him dinner. He declined. He told Bill that he couldn’t eat for eight hours as he had taken some kind of herbs. “You can sit here with us then,” we asked. “I stay. Shoot the breeze,” Jacky smiled. He liked using this American phrase. It was a small casual place. We were seated and the waitress brought us a small metal teapot. We poured tea in the small cups and began to study the menu. It was not easy to decipher the selection. The usual American Chinese dishes were not evident. So with the help of Jacky we ordered. Evelyn pointed to a beef dish and asked “Is this hot?” The waitress just smiled. Jacky answered for her saying, “You order way you want.” So Evelyn looked at the girl and said “I want this mild. NOT HOT,” as she gestured with her hands, lowering them to indicate NOT HOT, MILD. I ordered an appetizer that looked like chicken fingers, Bill got a rice and beef dish and John ordered Kung Po chicken. Jacky said that we would share our food, that they would bring the dishes out one at a time. “You look. See what they eat. Know what’s good.” He indicated the family at the table beside us. They were serving themselves from several large bowls and platters on their table.
As our food arrived, Evelyn’s beef in a brown broth with cabbage and other things floating in it, came first. We again invited Jacky to join us. He declined again, but added “You buy me chicken.” “What kind of chicken?” we asked. He said it was back in the shop, indicating that it was hanging with his hands. I asked, “Are those chickens cooked?” “Yes. Some plain, some season.” So we agreed to go back to the shop and buy Jacky a cooked chicken when we finished.
Now Jacky is a very hyper active crazy little guy. He could not sit still. He got up from the table numerous times and went around the room looking at what others were eating. He headed into the kitchen more than once and back to our table, all the while jabbering in his native tongue. When he was seated I asked him his name. He was evasive. I persisted and he said “Call me Jacky Chan Two.” I said, tell me your Chinese name. “Just call me Jacky Chan Two.” So we did. We asked him where he came from and about his family. He told us he was originally from Hong Kong, been here for 32 years. That he studied theology at Berkley. He was obviously an intelligent man and well informed about world events. He corrected me when I said the new Pope was a Franciscan. “No. He’s a Jesuit.” When we asked if he was married or had any children, he said no. That he was supposed to be a missionary and that he had to sign something promising not to marry before they would pay for him to come here to study. He said he had been to New Orleans, Utah, Florida and several other places in the US. When I asked what church he attended, what denomination, he was like a politician. “I go to Episcopal, Presbyterian, any church, all church. I not one kind.” So Jacky knew how to keep his fish on the hook until he reeled them in.
The food arrived, one dish at a time, each a little different than the last. Evelyn’s’ beef soup turned out to be so hot and spicy that it made her choke. What happened to “Order way you like”? Bill’s dish was a little better. The appetizer I ordered was good, crispy breaded chicken pieces. John’s Kung Po chicken was the best. We all ate some of it (except for our host). John liked Evelyn’s hot beef soup. He seemed to be the only one who was really enjoying his food, since he likes hot and spicy cuisine. We ate, talked and laughed. Jacky liked to tell jokes. One was a long story about a musician in China who went to Germany to see Beethoven. The punch line was ‘I’m decomposing,’ delivered by the late composer from his grave. Another quirk of Jacky Chan Two was his insistence on posing questions and/or riddles to us that we could not possibly know the answers to. Here’s how one of his interrogations went:
J: “You,” [pointing to one of us] “Three words sum up Bible” [holding up three fingers]
A1: “I don’t know.”
J: “No. You give answer. Three words.”
A1: “Love God and your neighbor as yourself.”
J: “No. Not three words.” [again with the three fingers] “You,” [pointing to the next person] “Three words sum up Bible”
A2: “I don’t know.”
J: “No. You give answer. Three words.”
A2: “The Ten Commandments.”
J: “No.” [pointing to third person]. “You. Three words.” [again with the three fingers]
A3: “Just tell me. I don’t know.”
J: “One word is Omnipotent.”
A3: “Omnipresent.”
J: “Yes. One more.”
A4: “Omniscient”
J: “Yes.”
This is only one of the many riddles and questions Jacky threw at us. He was relentless in his pursuit of answers and would not let any of us off the hook. As we were leaving the restaurant he started again. This time he wanted us to tell him why he had a rubber band around his flip phone. (as if he didn’t know).
“Why I have rubber band on phone?”
“We don’t know and we don’t care,” we wanted to shout out, but we played along with the interrogation until he finally gave in and told us it was to keep the display turned on when he closed the phone. Whatever?

At one point during our meal, Jacky got up and went over to the family who was just finishing up at the next table. He came back with a dish with some meat on it that he got from their leftovers, not leftovers off their individual plates, but off the serving platter. He brought over this meat and said. “Try. Good.” John did and he said it was very good. I tasted it and thought it was greasy. This whole scene was so strange to us. It went against everything we believe about civilized behavior in a public place. You don’t just go up to strangers and ask for food from their table. It’s just plain crazy. Later when we talked among ourselves about our experiences with Jacky we thought that maybe this is a Chinese thing, completely acceptable behavior, or maybe Jacky IS crazy and he was annoying the hell out of everyone in that restaurant. Or the last possibility we thought of is that the proprietor of this place knows Jacky Chan Two very well and that he often brings in customers, acting as a guide to wandering tourists looking for a Chinese Restaurant.
When we were done, there were a lot of leftovers. We asked Jacky if he’d like to take the rice and the two beef dishes home. He said he would so we asked for containers and filled them up for Jacky. Once we were outside the restaurant we asked Jacky where we had to go to buy him the chicken we agreed to. He said that we could just give him the money. So Bill asked him how much and he said “14 dolla”. So we gave him a Twenty. We took some photos of Jacky with us and said our goodbyes. We truly enjoyed ourselves with this one of a kind Chinese American who called himself Jacky Chan Two.
We laughed and talked about Jacky and our experience in Chinatown the rest of the evening. He gave us two hours of his time and he got a meal and $20 for his work. He was a ‘Gypsy Tourist Guide’ earning food and money using his language and people skills and his knowledge of his home turf, Chinatown, San Francisco. Thank you Jacky Chan Two. May God Bless you.

Read Previous Post Day 2: Sat. March 16th, Alcatraz and the MUNI
Read Next Post Day 3: Sun. March 17th, Muir Woods.

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