Sunday, November 12, 2006

chinatown

Went up to the City to buy hawk food yesterday and came home with something I haven't had in a coon's age. Americans call it a Chinese tamale, and it's called a ‘joong' (with a short double o like book), probably 'jung' or something like that in Pinyin.

It's a lump of sticky rice containing a layer of mung beans, some pieces of Chinese sweet sausage, a little roasted pork (sometimes more fat than pork depending on who you get it from) and a preserved egg yolk (which I usually flick out). All is wrapped in a layer of ti leaves, tied with string and boiled to death. We got them from Eastern Bakery on Grant St, which makes the best joong, with non-fatty pork and sausage that's juicy and not too sweet. They're big, bland, starchy and will stick to your ribs all day.

When I was a kid my parents would occasionally take a day trip up to the City and visit Eastern Bakery, Li John the butcher's, and a fresh noodle factory that was in one of those ubiquitous alleys. It was a long drive for a kid. As we passed the lake at the Monterey/Seaside border mom would unfailingly whip out her rosary and start praying. I grew up wondering if there was something specially holy about that lake, that she'd always do it there. Gilroy was a long straight stretch, except for the bit through Coyote: a left then right up what was called Blood Alley. One time we passed a semi-truck toppled from taking the turn too quickly, and a passenger car under it -- my kid's eyes naturally zoomed in on the blood inside the driver's window.

Miles on -- San Jose apparently never registered -- we'd be on a bouncy road, bouncy enough to make the riding fun. This was San Mateo, I would learn as an adult. The mental mark of "are we there yet" is passing the overflow inlet in Brisbane; in my imagination the road skims inches over a shining flat sea, like a path to an ancient castle. Finally, we would take the "Last SF Exit" and crawl onto Jackson Street.

Dad would park in the Portsmouth Square Garage, we'd cut through a gift store and into a sudden jam of jabbering shoppers, many of them wafting the menthol of Salonpas arthritis patches. I'd squeeze between throngs and past stinky Chinese herb stores to check out the boxes of toys and trinkets in front of the gift stores. I usually got one or two little things, as well as a guaranteed box of Botan rice candy (toy inside!) We'd come home loaded with pastries, joong, sausages, char-siu, Virginia ham, noodles, all kinds of Chinese veggies, and dim sum -- things that simply didn't exist where we lived. Many of them still don't.

We went places other than Chinatown, too. Where was not always clear, but they impressed themselves on my memory, waiting to be rediscovered. Some 30 years later I wandered into Justin Herman Plaza in pursuit of fledging peregrines, and was flabbergasted to find the strange blocky fountain I'd played on, where I'd almost fallen in. My dad said it was called "The Dog's Square Intestine," and I believed him. Where that name came from I have not the faintest, but he must have had a sense of humor back then.

Things change. Chinatown expanded another street up, the stringy old men spit a little more discreetly, and the pedestrians actually obey walk signals. Li John's is gone, Blood Alley is bypassed, Salonpas has gone unscented. But the stinky herb stores are still there (in fact, I think they've mated and multiplied), and fortunately, Eastern Bakery.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

there's chinatown in california? wow....

max inclined said...

Chinatowns, plural! SF, Oakland, and LA each have had one for like a century, and there's a multitude of smaller cities that have a big Chinese population and Asian-owned businesses.

California has a long history with Chinese, from the Gold Rush days. It wasn't a real happy history. The white folk would burn down the villages once in a while, wouldn't let the Chinese own property, or marry. Later on immigration was severely limited, and Asians (and Jews) were not allowed to hold management positions. It wasn't until the 50s that Asians had rights on a par with whites.

Now Asians are thriving economically and are becoming more politically active. (We're gonna take over the world [lol])