Sunday, November 13, 2005

A Sunday off in Chinatown

After a couple of weeks of work, work, work, I finally called Sunday morning an official holiday (at least until rehearsal in the afternoon) and after dropping Eric off at his gig with the Green Street Mortuary Band (more on that later), I went wandering through Chinatown, which I haven't had the time to do... well, since I moved here.

It's kind of fun to be a tourist in your own town every once in a while, and my only regret was that I didn't think to bring the camera, so the shots above and of the veggies are stock, so to speak.

Chinatown, even early on a Sunday, is full of activity, particularly on Stockton down near where it meets Columbus. That's where there are several vegetable and seafood markets clustered together. The whole family-- mom, grandma, grandpa-- seems to come out to rummage through the assortment of produce on the stands out on the street. It seems that carrying one, probably two, pink plastic bags is de rigeur and rifling through the vegetables with perfunctory disdain is absolutely necessary. Women toss aside baby bok choy, cabbages, pea pods-- rejecting this one or that one for invisible reasons.

As I walked along the crowded sidewalks, barely able to maneuver up the street, I saw a frenzy erupt over cartons of cantaloupe that hadn't even made it off of the loading pallet. Grey-haired grandmas were ripping viciously into the cardboard and yanking them out of the boxes with no regard for the guy who was trying to unload them.

I kept moving, avoiding the melee and staring at the odd assortment of things in the other bins, dried fish, seaweed, mushrooms, nuts. The oddest to me is the blistered looking bitter melon. But then, sometimes it's funny to think that things like durian and dried octopus look normal to me. I love the San Francisco fusion of the Stockton markets too-- the handwritten signs on pink paper in Chinese over some glossy, tawny, foreign looking object (is it a fruit, a vegetable, a fish, an insect?) next to a bin labelled in English "Washington Fuji apples."

Things are sold in the market with a lack of ceremony or romance. This is not at all like the Ferry Plaza Famers' Market, which always to me seems to be about the excitement of the story behind what you're buying -- organic mushrooms grown while the elves dance under the waxing moon, spices flavored with the blue flowers harvested by yak herders from the Tibetan plateau. None of that in Chinatown.


"For me?"

"Persimmon. You buy?"

I had a bit of a mission though. I'm on the hunt for a non food-related item: the custom made cheongsam or Chinese dress.

Think Maggie Cheung in "In the Mood for Love." Okay, it was kind of a silly story, but the dresses she wore in that movie were spectacular. I've done some research and there's a place called Dragonseed, where they will help you select fabrics -- silks, brocade, velvet -- and a style and then custom make a cheongsam on site. Or, if you have less money but more time, they'll send it out to Hong Kong and you'll have it within a couple of months. Thomas Tam, the proprietor was quite helpful and sympathetic to my plight as a tall woman. Off-the-rack cheongsams are usually made to fit shorter women, but in order to look like Maggie here, it is essential that you have the perfect fit, in the waist, the hip -- well, just the perfect fit.

After chatting with Mr. Tam, I made my way out along Clay Street. Down at that end of Chinatown, which is closer to the Financial District, there's a bit of a scent of firecrackers hanging in the air, like a perennial atmosphere of Dragon parades. Heading back toward Jackson, I passed the guy who sits out on the sidewalk playing an erhu, a lonely sounding Chinese stringed instrument.

Then in the distance, I heard the distinct sounds of a funeral jazz band coming up the street. I wanted to see Eric play, so like a groupie chasing a parade (which, in point of fact, I was) I retraced my steps and caught up with the Green Street Mortuary Band, a New Orleans style troupe that plays for Chinese funerals. It's another one of those great "only in San Francisco" things. The band, mostly local (mostly white) musicians, play New Orleans dirges as they walk behind a hearse that visits the places important in the life of the dearly departed. They snake through the streets of Chinatown on Saturday and Sunday mornings in black suits with crisp white military hats, stopping near Columbus Avenue, where I finally found them, with the driver and his assistant holding open the hearse's back door as if the deceased were about to step out onto a red carpet.

They played a last tune, and then the leader, who was standing in a Chrysler convertible with a gong, sounded three blasts. At each one, the band bowed. Quick as rabbits, the driver and his man shut the door, jumped into the front seat. The driver tossed out a handful of fake paper money from the window and they took off like the blazes for Colma, where the San Francisco cemetary is.

I love San Francisco.

Well, after all that, you ask, what did you have for dinner? Hmmm... something light. A nicoise salad with homemade avocado aioli and a Kir. Hah.

Yep, I love San Francisco.

My food loving kitty considers his options. Hmmm.. tuna? Anchovies? Mayonnaise? ... Or a KIR!

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