Tag Archives: chinatown

my Year (of the Pig) in China, Pt. 1

After having lived the past year in the pulse of San Francisco’s Chinatown, I feel as if I have just participated in either a dare or an experiment.

It’s a long story as to how I ended up at this residency hotel that I called home for the past year. It is disguised by name as the Grand Pacific Hotel. It is neither grand nor located on Pacific Street and I am still uneasy considering it a hotel since the place seems only to house people in a long-term-permanent-home manner, there’s nothing temporary or fleeting about its occupants.

Before I continue, please cast aside any preconceived notions that you may have about hotels or residences as they may fool you into thinking I had my own toilet, shower, or kitchen or that a maid service turned down my bed each night and left small squares of chocolate on my pillows.

Grand Pacific (exterior)

This indiscernible building, located on Stockton Street between Broadway & Vallejo Streets, is located in arguably one of the most active hubs of Chinatown. The entry is nestled between Yee Cheong Hardware and Asia Mall and directly across the street from Chinatown’s Walgreens. The exterior is a terra-cotta-colored brick spotted with small windows and lined with fire escapes. Homemade clotheslines are stitched into this façade and garments can be seen hanging to dry from nearly every window, in constant rotation as the dry are retrieved and the wet immerge.

The entrance consists of a set of heavy-duty doors that lock between the hours of 8:00pm and 8:00am. Once inside, you can opt for the stairs on the left or the yellowing fluorescent filled old brown elevator that climbs floors so slowly you’d be better off taking the stairs. There is a sign next to the elevator that claims the building was seismically retrofitted in 1992 per California State Law in the event of another large earthquake (the last big one to hit was in 1989).


You’ll notice the wall color first, best described as an asylum green from the waist down, where the molding is. The top half is white including the ceilings, which are higher than one might expect. The second floor is the site of the building manager’s office, which has a barred window facing a landing. Inside, you will usually see a very old Chinese woman who speaks no English sitting on an old fold-up chair in the corner, surrounded by filing cabinets and piles of paperwork. On occasion, you will see Karen, a younger Chinese lady who is infinitely friendly and enthusiastic and speaks more English than her older counterpart. You will sometimes see Mr. Wong, the kind Building Manager who speaks less English than Karen but more English than his elder.


My little unit, #405 (pronounced suh-ling-woo), was on the fourth out of five floors, half the size of the ‘biggest’ units they offer. It was a ‘cozy’ ten by ten foot box that included a small sink in one corner, a hardly larger closet in another corner, and a small sliding window that overlooked the gap in the middle of the building: a concrete pit. Another resident once asked me whether I lived “on the perimeter or in the vortex?” When I told him “the vortex” he made an expression with his face that could only be mistaken for somewhere between a grimace and a look of pity.


I, however, didn’t mind living on the inside circle of this structure. There was something safe and anonymous about it. It felt more private, too, since I didn’t have a window facing the bustling streets below. My room was well insulated from the sounds of the city and though I had expected the air to be more stagnant and warm since it faced a cement hole, it wasn’t. I received many a good breeze and gust of wind through my narrow window. Moreover, the four concrete walls of the pit served as an acoustic playground and I could hear the sounds of my fellow vortex dwellers. At the time, those sounds regularly served as a much-needed reminder that I wasn’t alone. A neighbor’s television, children’s chatter, and the resident who played Led Zeppelin covers on his guitar: they all became part of my Chinatown orchestra. There were bodies swarming around at all times of the day. Only four thin walls and 100 square feet of space separated me from the continual ebb and flow of that energy; it swirled like a perpetual dust storm in the halls, kitchens, and bathrooms.

My room was just two doors down from one of the two kitchens on my floor, a space filled with eight dirty electric burners, an industrial sink, and small cockroaches. The sounds of chopping on blocks drifted into my room regularly, as did the smells, which would range from an-almost-pleasant fresh steamed rice to a potent gag-worthy fishiness. The various odors would change directions with the wind in every hallway you walked down and every floor you visited. It felt like an olfactory adventure twenty-four hours a day, though I rarely enjoyed any of it.


The kitchen was usually crowded and so filthy that I never once made a meal in it. I limited my time in the kitchen to the mornings, when I would use one of the eight burners to heat a tin full of hot water for my instant coffee. I do not care for instant coffee, but for someone who had no fridge and feared dirtying more than was necessary (cockroach phobia), it felt like my best option. The single worst experience I had in that kitchen happened around eight o’clock in the morning one weekday.

I’d been stirred awake before my alarm had sounded for work by a scream so shrill I actually worried there was a child in danger. With some hesitation, I immerged from my room with tin in hand to heat my water. I entered the kitchen to find four or five residents crowded by the sink, chatting feverishly in Chinese. I thought little of this spectacle as my neighbors often used the kitchen as their common area for socializing and conversation. When I returned five minutes later to retrieve my now boiling water, I was witness to the beheading of the live chicken in the sink they had all apparently been gathered around. Blood sprayed the walls by the sink and I quickly realized that the sound I had heard earlier belonged to that of a squawking panicked chicken. I padded quickly away back to my room, trying not to appear ruffled (pun intended) and tossed my hot water down the sink, fearing that some blood may have landed in it during the commotion. From that day forward, like when crossing a street, I always looked both ways before entering the kitchen.

to be continued…



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the laundromat (take two)

i complained about discussed the laundromat once before on this blog. if you’ve read that post, you’ll have a very clear understanding as to why i hate it as much as i do. regardless, tonight’s post has very little do with that place. the laundromat was merely a vessel this evening, a vessel that steered me in the direction of the Cable Car Museum. this museum is half a block from my house. one of my roommates once counted how many steps our front door is from that museum and i believe the count was one hundred and eighty one (if memory serves).

this probably explains why tourists flock to our particular street corner(s). that and the fact that the cable car stops directly outside of my front door (literally). it is the stop for Chinatown. at this stop they yell, “this stop, Chinatown, two blocks, straight ahead” and point in the direction of Grant street, east of Powell street by exactly two blocks. i really don’t mind tourism and sightseeing and the like. but when you are barely awake at eight something in the morning and heading for work, the last thing you feel like dealing with is a gaggle of strangers/tourists on your doorstep (a.k.a. sidewalk outside of your apartment). it’s not always crowded, but i swear on some grave somewhere that whenever i am grumpy/excessively sleepy/or something all around blah, that’s when the crowd is gathered on the sidewalk outside of my building.

they stand there like a herd of cattle, looking around for instructions from other people (or maybe the heavens?) to tell them what to do next, regardless of the fact that the man on the cable car pointed, very obviously, in one direction towards Chinatown while yelling, “two blocks, straight ahead!” my roommate’s bay windows overlook this very fiasco which is why i know it so well. we love to watch from his windows and admire the lost people below. my former roommate would sometimes interject during this moment of silence, when they had just disembarked from the cable car, and yell once again “CHINATOWN! TWO BLOCKS! STRAIGHT AHEAD!” with his thick Italian accent. and we’d all bend over in stitches from laughing so hard. the poor tourists below looked at us like we were vermon, which would only make us laugh harder. i suppose it was one small way we could retaliate against the crowds on the sidewalk and the non-stop clanging of the cable car bells at weird hours of the night.

so, this evening, i was at the god forsaken laundromat throwing my clothes into one of the dryers. i had a large pair of headphones on while i was listening to the soundtrack from the movie Amelie. if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll understand why i was inspired to do what i did next (and if you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading this immediately and watch it now).

i walked across the street to the Cable Car Museum. it was closed, but some of the old and very aged windows were not. and some of the lights inside were still on. and the machines were still pumping their gears. i watched from the outside, mesmerized by the mechanical workings going on within. it felt as if i were staring at a beating heart – watching all those valves and springs work in unison to pump the necessary gases and liquids and what-have-yous to where they needed to be in order to keep things running smoothly. my face lit up and i felt a smile grow on my lips. i knew what i had to do.

i ran home, feeling inspired.

i went to my desk and, using a ballpoint pen, wrote a simple note (in a bold hand written cursive font) on a piece of white paper. it read,

“love and let love.”

i ran back to the Cable Car Museum and placed this note in one of the open windows, next to an old can of soda sitting on the same window sill. upon that note i placed a small white plastic sheep (maybe one inch tall). i hope that someone finds that tomorrow and smiles. i think i might just keep going back there every week to deliver kind messages. i don’t see why not.



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kee-rutch-ez & tax-eez

i was mistaken when i thought that walking through chinatown with crutches would force people to notice me for once. and by notice, i mean somewhat acknowledge my existence. i’m not trying to be racist, but when i walk through chinatown, i feel as if i am wearing an invisible cloak. many a friend here in san francisco have complained to me about the lack of sidewalk respect they receive in chinatown. to which i always reply, “well, it’s because you have on your invisible coat !”

that is seriously what it feels like. it’s the worst on days when it is raining because most of the people walking around stockton street are a good six inches shorter than you are. this means that the sharpest points of their umbrellas are at eye level. it’s not unlike a slalom course. if you put on a pair of skis, you can feel confident that you will place in the top three at the olympics.

so, naturally, with a crutch under each arm, i believed i would receive some level of respect. however, i have found that my crutches only elicit more stares, causing people to stop in their tracks, sometimes with mouths agape. it’s reached a point where i don’t swerve around people, but merely pass through them. and yes, this means that i, more often than not, make unwanted contact with them. this only makes them scowl at me or even yell at me, but since i don’t understand chinese i have yet to feel offended. 

this may make me sound like a complete asshole, but really ? i’m just another human walking down a street who happens to have crutches which, in my mind, means i should probably have the right of way.

that said, i have even less respect for taxi drivers in san francisco than i did before i had crutches. after living in new york for four years, finding a taxi was never difficult. if a taxi’s “for hire” light was illuminated they would always stop for you. they would every so often decline my request for a ride if i was requesting a lift to JFK, but other than that, they’d always pick me up.

here in san francisco, you are hard pressed to find an open cab. they are few and far between. so you have two choices when trying to find a cab here :: you can expect to wait patiently at a corner with your arm raised until your hand grows cold because the blood has been drained from it. or you can call one. either way, good luck.

armed with a pair of crutches, i thought that my chances of catching a cab would be higher. lies.

in san francisco, if you attempt to hail a cab that has its “for hire” light on (therefore available), it will swerve, switch lanes, and get as far from you as possible. if you are on crutches, your chances of finding a cab are exactly the same. today, i attempted to hail six cabs, all with their i’m available lights illuminated. and all six times i was rejected. five of them blatantly passed me by regardless of the fact that i was waving one of my crutches in the air, hoping that they would stop for me out of pity if for no other reason. the one cab that flashed its lights at me as if to say, “i’m stopping for you” .. instead of picking up me and my crutches, picked up two business men who just barely beat me to the door of the cab.

did i confront the suits and the driver ? of course i did. but they didn’t care. the suits climbed into the back of the cab and the driver switched off his light and drove away. leaving me with my mouth open and jaw only inches from the pavement.

and as for calling a cab ? it’s a complete crap shoot. sometimes they show, but most of the time they don’t. you need to leave at least a twenty minute window for them to arrive, but always assume they won’t show.

the best part about crutches ? i’ll let you know when i discover it. so far they have afforded me a week off from work. a week that i didn’t want to take, but needed to take. the silver lining ? i did start a new series of paintings. i’ve also developed an addiction for Holbein’s Acryla-Gouache. so despite the unfriendly people who “share” the sidewalk with me and the cab drivers who ignore me, i’ve got some kick ass paintings in the works and that totally overrides the complaints mentioned above. but it’s fun to complain, it certainly does help to pass the time.


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trees & displacement

i always remember the trees when i feel i am in trouble. if i feel as though i am in some sort of mid-life mid-life ‘crisis’ – i look to trees for comfort. i have been doing this for almost three years. it all started in Seattle on one rainy drive home from work. i remember looking at some evergreens and feeling an overwhelming sense of calm. trees are so grounded. their roots reach deeply into the soil and hold them up, even against the strongest gusts of wind that grace the pacific northwest from time to time. from there, i learned to look at the sky and its colors and clouds and shapes. living in a city like San Francisco or New York, i am not surrounded by trees like i was back in Seattle, so i have been spending a lot of my time gazing at the sky from my roof. morning, noon, and night. before work. after work. and during the day when i am not at work. but my favorite time is sun down. when the clouds seem to retreat, slowly. and as they retreat, they catch colors from the setting sun :: pink, orange, coral, red, yellow, and purples and blues when dusk really begins to take hold. *sigh*

i made this painting in honor of all of the feelings above. you know that ‘if you could have one super hero power what would it be’ question ? well, my answer has always been, ‘to fly.’ i suppose flying in a helicopter is as close as i have ever gotten to that feeling. i imagine skydiving is the closest i could get – even though you are technically falling when that happens.. but, i’ve heard it ‘feels like flying.’ what a funny expression by the way, no ? because who actually knows what flying feels like ? if you or anyone you know has been born with the gift of flight, please contact me immediately. i need to speak to them.

why flying ? because i can’t imagine a feeling more liberating than just deciding to pick yourself up off the ground and fly to where ever you want to go. i know that i am not the only person to feel this way, but i know that many people say ‘invisibility’ when posed with the super hero question. so, yeah.

before i say anything else, let me say this :: i am not a racist. i care not about the color of your skin or the country in which you were born. i don’t care where people come from or what they look like – we are all human beings deserving of that rather vague concept that is happiness. that said, the longer i live in Chinatown, the more i feel a sense of cultural isolation. i have noticed that if i am in a deli in Chinatown – regardless of whether i am the first in line or in the middle – i am treated as though i were standing dead last. until i am the only caucasian left standing in the room, i will not be served. this happens nine times out of ten. it has reached a point where i have deliberately stopped frequenting most local delis merely because i am irritated at being treated this way. at first, i thought i was imagining things. i’d heard some stories from people that i know, but figured they were over-reacting. i was wrong. i now know that they were being dead serious and to be honest ? it breaks my heart – not just a little, but a lot.

so this feeling of displacement has slowly begun to seep into my sense of self. i know that i am not a bad person. i also know that if i am first in line i should be served first. so, standing in line at a counter where you are treated as though you have been bestowed with that ‘gift’ of invisibility, i am discouraged. i am not trying to blame the Chinese culture as a whole, though. i know that discrimination and ethnic injustice occurs every day in our country – i have just never been the ‘victim’ of it until now. and though my experience is extremely mild compared to most – i have a new found sense of appreciation for those that experience this on a daily basis. on a regular basis. on an at-least-ten-times-a-day basis. that’s not to say that i never felt sympathy for others before, but now i can say i feel empathy for them because in my own small way – i know what they are talking about and it doesn’t feel good. and yes, that is the understatement of the year.

[acrylic on watercolor paper]



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the painful details & thoughts on cable cars

as promised, here is the rest of my story. i won’t call it ‘part deux’ because it’s not really related to my previous post about flying cats and teaching my ‘driver’ how to drive my car.

before i go on, i have to tell you a little secret: IT’S RAINING HERE RIGHT NOW. having just moved from Seattle i felt that that weather report was somehow significant. i’m sure a day will come when i am in San Francisco when a rainfall will not seem so absurd. i know that it rains here, of course. but today marks my one week ‘anniversary’ arriving in this fair city and i was not expecting to see rain until, you know, November or something. so for all you haters out there (i’m mainly speaking to those in Seattle who, only upon receiving my text last weekend declaring that it was “80 degrees and sunny!,” replied to me with ‘f*** you’ or ‘i hate you’), well now that i think about it.. to all you haters out there, i’m sorry, ok? stop doing your wicked rain dances up there.. please ?

so i live very near to Chinatown on what is called Nob Hill. yes, i know. get your laughs out now, i’ll wait.. are you finished ? i’m more or less sidled up against chinatown, a bit north of union square (which is a major tourist and shopping hub), and only about a mile south of pier 39 which is the main fisherman’s wharf that tourists flock to like pigeons flock to bread crumbs. the best part about pier 39 is the seals. yes, barking seals on the docks. barking seals who are not even remotely afraid of people or crowds. i was down there last weekend for an airshow – it was fleet week in the city and the blue angels were in town and so on and so forth. the airshow was fabulous, but i still can’t stop thinking about all those barking seals. seriously. if you go to the fisherman’s wharf for any reason, may it be because of the barking seals.

Chinatown is fun and an interesting place to live next to. i’m merely a block away from the main drag of shops and dim sum restaurants (all of them claiming to be the best dim sum in the city). of course i’m well versed with Chinatowns (don’t forget i lived in New York City for four years), but i’ve never lived so close to one. what i do live right next to, nay, basically on is one of the cable car routes in the city. those cable cars with tourists falling out the sides. and apparently cable cars do not stop when going around corners (safety hazard, no ? at least it’s forcing me to turn my head left and right when i cross the street) and even once the cars have passed by the tracks continue to rattle and buzz. i was informed that this was merely mechanical, but i am under the impression that i will be electrocuted if i step on the tracks. so if you ever come to San Francisco and you happen to be in Chinatown riding a cable car and you see some girl with oversized granny glasses leaping through the air as she crosses the street and skillfully avoiding the tracks on the ground – that’s probably me. i guess being in Chinatown makes me somewhat of a minority, so i probably look like a tourist, so leaping over tracks on the ground may not seem as peculiar to the people around me as they sigh and likely think to themselves, “stupid tourist.”perhaps Chinatown was a good pick for me considering my understandable fear of cable car tracks. oh, and lest i forget my passion for Chinese food. i’ve taken the liberty of cutting myself off from such a delicacy except for twice a month when i will allow myself to fall victim to its msg marinated deliciousness.

and i’m not kidding when i say that tourists are falling out the sides of those cable cars. they sometimes appear, at least to me, to be holding on for their lives as these cars careen around turns and fly down hills. first of all, there are car-cars everywhere and i swear, a foot too far out of that cable car is liable of getting severed. it’s much like a ride in an amusement park that warns you to: ‘Ride At Your Own Risk.’ in fact, i’m not sure why they don’t have some warning label of the like on the side of these cars. however, it does make schlepping up and down some extremely steep hills (another very serious fear of mine: i will, one day, topple from the top of nob hill and not stop rolling until i reach the bottom) far more entertaining when you make bets in your own head, like i do, on who will fall out of that car first.

three less amusing observations about these cable cars: 1.) when perched at the top of the hill they are about to glide down – the tourists feel it necessary to scream (and yes, some even take it upon themselves to throw their hands in air) like one screams upon approaching a steep decent on a roller coaster. this gets really really annoying after about the third time you hear it. i’ve taken to glaring at passengers when they do this and imagining them without their feet. 2.) living on the route means we (my three roommates and i) are subjected to the DING DING DING-A-LING of the bells on these cars. i thought the dinging was random until i realized that it is actually all manual. some poor schmuck has to work on the back of those cars ringing a bell all day and he has to be creative, too. coming up with new and different ding-a-lings regularly. i admire his creativity and his gusto, it’s just a shame that sound travels so well and we hear this ringing all the time. which brings me to my third observation.. 3.) these cars never stop. for a city in which things tend to die down around 10pm, unless it is a weekend, you’d think this tourist activity would also die down. i mean, aren’t they all in their fancy hotels sleeping at 3:00am? if not, they are surely too drunk to even consider taking a cable car back to their hotel – that’s what cabs are for. cabs are for drunk people and the airport.  but these cable cars, they go around all night long ringing their damn bells. i had to invest in a pair of ear plugs and having lived in NYC for four years i thought i considered myself quite tolerant of all city sounds. in fact, i love city sounds. i didn’t even hate the drunk people who would randomly and rather regularly go around hitting my buzzer at all hours of the night when i lived in the east village.

but, i am not actually complaining. i am very happy here and it’s things like those cable cars that are only making this more of an amusing adventure and will, no doubt, provide me with a plethora of good stories to tell. i forgot how great living in a city can be and all the crazy people that you may think are homeless – are actually your neighbors. i’m not even being sarcastic, i find comfort in things like that.

[iPhone camera][google images]


p.s. using my iPhone of late for picture taking as my camera is still in Seattle. honestly ? i didn’t forget my camera. i purposefully left it behind because of the chaos in my car – i was terrified it’d be broken by the time i got down to California. i will be reunited with it very soon, though !


Filed under design, illustration (both acrylic and oilt), photography