Three views of Chinatown

For dinner, I had boiled lettuce with oyster sauce. From where I sat, I could watch the cook make it: drop half a head of iceberg lettuce into a big vat of simmering sauce, leave it for a moment, fish it out with a big strainer, put it on a plate, put some oyster sauce on it. I also had a big bowl of fish congee (rice porridge), with toothpick-sized slivers of ginger and a few chopped chives thrown on top. It was perfect food for a New Englander, not too flavorful and even bland, but very comforting. We were the only roundeyes in the place, so they gave us forks, just in case.

After dinner, we heard music, and followed the sound to the Chinatown Night Market. There were two ensembles playing: I’m not sure, but maybe this was Cantonese guangdong music. The singers seemed to know the people who stood around in the chilly night air to listen. One of the singers, a woman of indeterminate middle age, had a voice that wasn’t particularly sweet, but she was musical and expressive. She sang one song that everyone else seemed to know; people were nodding their heads and singing along. In the ensemble behind her, a man playing a lute-like instrument brought his little boy along, and the boy tried to feed him a lollipop while he was playing. Someone wandered in and started talking to a man playing a two-stronged bowed instrument (an erhu?); the musician smiled, and shook him off so he could concentrate on his playing. The woman finished the song, and the man selling old coins at a nearby booth cheered and clapped his hands over his head for her.

We stopped to look at an installation done under the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Art in Storefronts project. Artist Cynthia Toms created an installation in a building that had served as a boarding house, nightclub, and restaurant. We looked at all the objects that were designed to evoke memories of Chinatown, but what really stood out for me was the the slide presentation off in one corner of the store window, housed in something that looked like an old television set: a 1970s photograph of a Chinatown streetscape, a snapshot of a birthday party, a vintage photograph of Chinatown showing some people freeing a woman who had been enslaved in a brothel, a picture of that very building as a restaurant, and so on. We watched for five or ten minutes, then Carol stood out in the middle of the street to take a photograph of the store front.