San Francisco History

Care Free San Francisco
By Allan Dunn

Chapter III
The City Cosmopolitan

Many cities of our mainland claim to be cosmopolitan and are so only in name. Change, not only a man's environment, but his method of making a living and then his climate, and he soon becomes but a wraith and a caricature of his original, picturesque self—American in all save accent and instinct.

The cosmopolities of San Francisco are not submerged. They retain to a large extent their individuality, their language, their customs and their costumes. "For which the Lord be thankit!" Particularly is this the case with the Latin races—the Italians, Portuguese, Sicilians; with the Greeks; the Chinese—less striking with the Scandinavians, who have in deed not so far to go—and the Japanese. The destruction of the Tower of Babel brought forth not such a polyglottery as the common consternation of the great fire. You can stand at the Ferry Building and, whether only picturebook wise or not, pick out distinctly in an hour or so's watch, Kanaka, Indian, Filipino, Chinaman, Japanese, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Swede, Norwegian, Hollander, Frenchman, Mexican, and half a dozen others, besides the accepted racial differences of accepted Americanism and the tens of types and intertypes, with all their variations of color and patois. And all of these named, moreover, will be using their mother tongues and giving outward and visible signs—not counting garlic and like odors—of their nationality.

Many of them mass and serve the ends of the city: The French range as banker and high-class merchant, chef, bakers and laundry folk; the Italians as banker, merchant, wine culturist to fisherman or laborer; the Japanese from merchant to house servant, the Chinaman adding laundries to these last; and their colonies are substantial. The Chinese have their own city within a city, the Italians, Sicilians and Portuguese have their own hillside, partly shared by the lower class of French; the Japanese have burrowed into the residence district; and, save as these cosmopolities have modified their ways to suit the taste of their customers, they live as they did at home—with the exception of the Japanese and some of the younger Chinese.

As visitor you can meet them on the half-way ground of the soi-disant Italian restaurants, the guide-shown byways of Chinatown; you can "butt in" on their own familiar haunts and take your chances of what you see and hear, or if you speak the language, or even if you don't, and are really polite, you can make friends with them and find much worth the looking at or listening to. That depends entirely upon yourself. There are so many types of tourist, both at home and abroad. Nor is this chronicle a Baedeker.

Chinatown holds, it would seem, the greater interest with the greater mystery. With somewhat of superstition and lethargy as regards the world's affairs eliminated with his queue, the transplanted Chinaman is not so great a puzzle as of yore. We wonder at many of his superstitions, his pecularities of palate, his ideas of musical scale, limitations of theatrical staging and the like, but we know and understand something of his beliefs and customs, have an admiration for the broad tenets of his religion and many of his achievements in the arts and sciences; and, we of the West and those who have more than superficially visited the Orient, esteem him as a person of honor, of excellent family traits and a man of parts.

Many deplore the passing of the Old Chinatown with the fire. The weird fascination of underground cellars where gamblers played behind labyrinths of barricaded doors and passages, where the atmosphere was fetid with lack of sanitation and the reek of opium and strange, long kept edibles, where slave girls were celled, bartered or murdered at will; of polluted dens where degenerate wrecks sought solace in poppy-vapored dreams—all that is gone—but the Chinaman, leopard like, has not changed many of his spots. He still has his lily-footed wives and concubines who are kept in private seraglios, he still "hits the pipe" and gambles at will, still is his own lawmaker so far as he does not clash with the law of the white man—and at that rival tongs still use the highbinder and hatchetman on occasion, though the automatic pistol has displaced the ax.

Still is held the feast of the moon, the feast of the dead and quaint rituals for wedding, birth and funeral. Clang of gong, squeak of clarinet and fiddle and scent of incense are still local color. The gorgeous dragon flaunts abroad yet. In a tea house you might well be in Canton, as you eat strange preserves and sip Oolong. There is no occasion to put up the sign "Ichabod" over Grant Avenue, for the glory of San Francisco's Chinatown is far from departed.

There is less talk of danger from the guides, and the "rubberneck" wagon has hurt their income. The eye of the law is turned upon the district in kindly restraint, but Chinatown with its bazaars, its temples, its vivid costumes, its own distinctive shops and wares is vividly picturesque, and still carries hints of ancient civilization, pomp and power of bygone empire with vivid suggestion of a latterday awakening that is worth the watching equally of the careless and thoughtful onlooker.

The trend of the Young Republicanism is interesting . On the day the edict for the clipping of queues went forth in China City, and the flag of the new party replaced the dragon, the trip through China City was an interesting one. The barbers sheared diligently and much long black hair doubtless later adorned the heads of unsuspecting Caucasian ladies. On one corner of Portsmouth Square I saw a Chinaman of the older order stand clad in orthodox brocades, be-felted shoes and button-topped hat, looking at two young chaps, apparently his sons, with much the same respect as a hen beholding her first brood of ducklings. The young men were garbed in the peg-top trousers and other eccentricities of the ultra freshman type, pointed shoes of patent leather, socks, handkerchief and tie to match; gazing with glee at the "old man" as he vaguely felt about the back of his head "In the place where his hair ought to be."

Outside the Saint Francis one afternoon two charming Oriental maidens, complexions like comellias, unspoiled by rice powder or paint, polished hair set with rich gold and jade, arrayed in dainty garments of light blue and rose brocade—two animated Chines lilies—walked with perfect poise past the ladies' entrance at the tea hour. "What charming little heathen," said a tourist lady. "Hush! Listen to their quaint talk," said her companion. What the Chinese lilies said was—"Yes, if I am not too fatigued." Shade of Confucius! Yet many a merchant who replies in kind to the "pidgin-English" you thrust upon him in his bazaar, will talk in perfect vernacular to you if you give him a chance. As it is you are likely to be charged for the underrating of his scholarship.

Oh, those bazaars! Despoilers of the pocket! Much that is metetricious is there, demanded by the casual customer; but if you desire the beautiful, treasures of silk brocade and embroidery, of carven teak and ivory, sandal and camphor wood, of bronze and silver and lacquer, enamel and porcelain, gold and jade, shall be laid out before you; much of the embroidered stuffs modernized into such enticement of shirtwaist patterns or made up in kimonos and mandarin theater coats or bags that the heart-strings of women and the purse-strings of their providers loosen simultaneously.

There are other wares in China City that interest but do not tempt. The dried lizards and seahorses, the ginseng and sliced deer horns of the apothecaries; the dried abalones, antediluvian eggs encased in river mud, dried fish, flattened out ducklings, weird "innards" of pig and cow at the butchers fail to appeal. Other edibles do. Lychis, preserved ginger and melon seeds, joings of sugar cane, almonds, cunquats and cookeis, fragrant tea, and many of the restaurant dishes are more than palatable. With rice, chicken and young pickled bamboo sprouts the Chinese chef can achieve a masterpiece.

The costumes, sensible and picturesque, constantly attract the eye. Color is everywhere, on great lanterns aswing from restaurant, store or temple, in splashes of vermilion on the walls where strips of paper may be reward for somebody's head or the result of a lottery. The children are always rainbow clad. Trouserettes of pink bordered with green, jackets of blue and yellow, headgear of tinsel and embroidery, and their wearers good-natured and healthy withal.

The temples of their gods, gorgeous in gilding and carving, are open to the public eye if not the understanding. The Chinaman views the incursion of the curious white folk with outward calm and doubtless inward amusement. They do not understand them, but "they buy, and at a good price." "Can one have too much of a good thing?"

Telegraph Hill! Once from here came the first signal of a ship's entrace through the Gate. It fronts the bay and a magnificent view. One chunk of it has been bitten out by ruthless contractors for the rock. On the slopes cling the homes of the Latin Quarter, not hovels, all habitable, and many picturesque. Goats are herded on its steeps, the twang of guitar and lilt of song come often from it at the purple hour. Spaghetti and red wine are staples at its meals. The streets that radiate about it are peopled by folk from the Mediterranean, come to a land where skies are blue and money much more plentiful.

Between here and Chinatown is a region called the Barbary Coast, a strange melange of Italian and Greek restaurants of lowly or of pretentious bills of fare. In the latter, the visitor sits at the next table to the Simon Pure habitue and furtively admires his handling of spaghetti. There are others which cater more particularly to the tourist taste, and cellar cafes where Italian singers alternate with ragtime artists, and the diners all stay till one o'clock, the closing hour for the music, rising to dance upon a crowded square of polished floor; places thronged always till no one has elbow-room.

There are other dance halls intended for the cruder pleasures of the laborers of the waterfront and the deep sea, and generally for those who earn their living by the sweat of their brows and the callouses of their hands. Quite decorous, on the surface at least, are these places and "vastly entertaining." In one the great dancing floor is circular and on it glides the passing show in the latest exhibition of "chicken glide" or "rabbit flip." You may join, an' you will. No one will criticize, all will tolerate your old-fashioned methods of following rhythm. The floor here is also the stage, and on it the entertainers of both sexes perform between dances. It is the understood thing for visitors to toss money on the floor as payment if not applause for the offering, and anything under half a dollar proclaims the "cheat sport." Girls are there as partners for the guests, and incidentally to keep the waiters busy. The sexes mingle at the great serving bar, if they prefer it, but to drink at the round tables is the correct thing, as is the treating of the entertainers.

You need not fear "knock-out drops" nor violence, unless you attempt to force yourself behind the scenes. This is not your world, and you are lookers-on at sufferance for a consideration of profit. Across the street the dancing floor is a great oblong with a real stage at one end, and at the other a barrier against which packs the same sort of crowd you could duplicate at almost any port. Jack ashore, Jim out of work, Bill with his wages in his pocket—all looking to be amused. Jack, Jim and Bill are tackled persistently by the hard-working, tawdry-clad and made-up girls, ready to dance, more willing to take the percentage on drinks sold. When you come in sight-seeing from uptown it costs you a dollar for a glass of very indifferent anything you call for. Jack, Jim and Bill have a different schedule; and if you bring ladies with you you may sit in open boxes at the side of the floor and pay regulation cafe prices for your refreshment as you watch the dancing (much of which is extraordinarily good, generally graceful, often athletic, less fierce, but as original as the whirls of the Apaches) or the pitiful, clumsy gallantry of Jack et alii. Don't entertain the idea that these daughters of the lower world are utterly vicious. Their mode of life is not an easy one, and their wages far from idly earned.

There are dance halls monopolized by the negro, where again the dancing is unique and clever. There are dark alleys with darker shadows skulking about them where the seamy side of vice is tucked away, but most of the "entertainment" offered is open and above board. One trip to the Barbary Coast, aside from the really good restaurants like Dante's, Felix, Buon Gusto, Gianduja, Coppa's and a dozen of varying type, will prove probably exciting and interesting, but enough. It is the Montmartre of this Paris.

By day the region is decorous enough. The dance halls are closed and the stores cater to the needs of the dwellers of the neighborhood who do not participate in the night life and cannot help its establishment in their propinquity.

There are drug stores with talk of French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and ten other tongues within. Bakers with crisp, inviting forms of bread in foreign fashion. One store exclusively mends melodeons for the district. Brown faces, browner eyes people the streets. Tiny tots tend tinier bambini, older girls and sometimes the grandmothers herd goats on the hilly streets. The wives prepare in home style the macaroni, taglierini, the enchiladas and tamales you get at the restaurants, and there is a general flavor of Naples in the air.

Down at Fisherman's Wharf the lateen-rigged, brown-sailed boats line the pier-side, while blue-shirted, red-sashed Sicilians, Portuguese and Greek mend the tanned nets against another casting, or come in happy from a haul of striped bass, salmon or tomcod.

A simple, kindly folk, these of the Quarter. There are those of the race who have become powerful padrones, bankers, or the establishers of great vine growing and wine making colonies in Napa and Sonoma counties to the north. But those transplanted peasant and fisher folk, grading up with more money to spend, better education for the youngsters, better opportunity everywhere of getting on, preserve their native generosity and good manners, living happily under California skies.

There is no Mafia here, the Mano Negro has never shown the menace of its imprint. Perhaps because these sons of Italy are of a different type from the peanut seller, banana huckster, street laborer, "Ginny" of Castle Garden entrace. A kindly folk! Bid them buon giorno, and show a working acquaintance with their mother tongue and their house is yours.

I remember once, when the Bohemian Club gave a distinctive dinner, roaming the hills in search of a celebrated melodeon player. We found his mother sitting on an old wall (relic of the fire), wand in hand, watching the blue hills of Marin and a billy goat that resented our appearance. She promised the appearance of her boy, "the best melodeon player of San Francisco, " and insisted with evident hospitality on our having one glass of wine. So we went up and through her garden, gay nasturtiums and geraniums, through the neat house, sun and air swept by open door and window, on to a tiny loggia, vine clad, that overlooked the bay. There we pledged health and happiness, and there, as she looked at purple Tamalpais she told us of her Sorrento home, of the immigration of those yet to come, and of her husbank, buried back where she still thought of it as "home." Good had been their fortune, and while one boy, the musician, liked the town, the youngest was a fine gardener, and bye and bye, when Pietro married they were to live on a little ranch in Napa County, "with vines and an olive orchard, signor, vines and olives, as it used to be."

Chapter I | Chapter II | Chapter III | Chapter IV | Chapter V | Chapter VI | Chapter VII

Source: Dunn, Allan. Care Free San Francisco. 1912: San Francisco.


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