The Ornamental Orientals by Frank Chin
My computer isn’t my mother’s old typewriter. That’s for sure. She took a typing course in high school, bought a Remington portable to practice on. I was ten when I noticed she used the same machine every day at the same time. She typed ditto masters to the daily menus for her restaurant, the Canton Café on University Avenue in Berkeley. That night she told my father I’d asked about her typewriter. “Why’d he want to know?” he asked.
She took over the restaurant concession at the Lakehurst Hotel, in Oakland. After breakfast service, at 11:OO o’clock she unpacked her Remington and typed her menu. Once I found her with the machine detached from the bottom of the case. She was outside by the garbage cans. She held the black machine over her head. And shook it. I could see light shine through the keys. They moved back and forth like fishguts over a fish skelaton as she shook it. I yelped, “Your typewriter! Don’t hurt it.”
“I have to shake out the dust once in awhile.” She clenched her teeth and stiffened her cheek muscles as she shook the machine with both hands. All kinds of dust fell out. “It’s been years. It’s about time, don’t you think?” she said with a smile. Hard dust rattled into the garbage. Dry dust. Dust balls. Clouds of dust. Oily dust. Gobs of dust.
Every café and hotel restaurant she owned around Oakland and Berkeley had a booth, or a table where she had command of the kitchen. Every day she’d unpack the Remington at her place. She’d place a sandwich of onion skin, carbon paper, onion skin, carbon paper into the platen and rolls the sandwich of paper into the machine and type today’s date and then type today’s menu.
She’d place a carbon copy face down on a pan of ditto gelatin, and leave a carbon impression on the gelatin. She’d smother the carbon face of gelatin with a blank menu page, press, and peel off a printed menu. The gelatin lost more and more of the impression after twenty copies. Then she massaged the back of the blank and peeled. She rubbed the backs of the blanks longer and managed to get thirty copies before she melted the gelatin and put it in a refrigerator to set up a new blank surface. She did the same thing every day between 11 and lunch. Every day, but Wednesday. Wednesday was the day of “choir practice” and the dining room was closed. What did “choir practice” mean? Nobody working at the restaurant belonged to any choir. Anna , the old white haired waitress from Germany showed me a dagger with owned by her husband, and Marie the other white waitress dyed her hair, smoked and didn’t like anyone or anything. Ma inherited the two lonely old women when she took over the restaurant concession and became their friend.
When I got her Remington, I unsnapped the case and removed the cover from the hinges. I used the machine, to write letters and the texts of my cartoon strips and just write.
Mother’s carbon paper became manufactured multi-page, every page a different color, with carbon paper between each page. “Carbon sets.” The little machine noisily smashed through five-page carbon sets. CHINATOWN, MY CHINATOWN a cartoon book about Oakland was born on the Remington.
To mail a letter, or a manuscript I was taught to put the letter in an envelope. And the manuscript in a large envelope, weigh it and pay postage by the ounce. A letter up to one-ounce first-class mail cost 4 cents in my day. Put a stamp on the envelope. Drop the envelope in a corner mailbox, or in a box at the Post Office or on the Rural Free Delivery routes of farm country, put the letter in my mailbox by the road and raise the little red flag on the side. The mailman takes my letter on its way to the addressee, and leaves mail addressed to me, in my mailbox. The US Postal Department issued comic books that explained the information that fuels civilization’s progress in cartoons of letter and stamps and to mailman, and horse, car, airplane, trucks to a mailman walking the letter to the destination. All of that is past. The whole process stopped in the last century.
Out of that distant century and a world faraway in a memory of a gone world, on the computer, comes a message from cyber space :
From: Phil Song, the Yellow Journalist.
To: Hal Young, Cartoonist.
Phil and Megan Song were in L.A. They invited me to meet them for breakfast at Phillipe’s, on Alameda at the corner of Ord Street. Phillipe’s recalls the dreary charm of late night dipped sandwiches on French rolls at the Hof-Brau, way up Broadway toward MacArthur in Oakland. A straight drive up street from Oakland to the closet place for an hour’s escape from Chinatown.
I lived in Chinatown. I drew Chinatown as a cartoon town by the sea. I wrote plots of Chinatown by day and cartooned by night. Now and then I got full of Chinatown. I needed a short vacation. I searched the nightstreets of Oakland for French food. Italian. The chicken place with an Italian name, printed large over the back of the two story peak roofed house, built at the widest part of the triangular city block, formed by Broadway the street straight up it’s right side and the dark street veering off to the left, that was too dark for me to catch at night.
The house facing Broadway was painted all over with pictures of chickens feathered, cooked, and steaming among the colorfully lettered names of chicken dishes served inside. Open:10am – 10pm in green, outlined with red. “Prisoners chicken” grabbed my attention every time I drove up Broadway. I saw it was closed again.
The Hof-Brau was the only place open where a Chinaman could get a late night bite of White cookery. The roast beef was rare and cut thin. The same for their turkey. Good au jus. Good gravy. The men and women ate here in silence, as if eating was a private matter. Everyone ate hunched over their pile of food. The food didn’t warm their hearts. Nothing but the sound of food being chewed-wet and swallowed. The people seemed from the grave. Late-night folk I thought. On another night I learned they were from the cluster of hospitals that top Hospital Hill.
It’s no fault of Phillipe’s it’s so close to Chinatown as to be absorbed into Chinatown. A Chinese seafood restaurant directly across the street on Ord. Nothing but Chinese restaurants as far as you can look up Ord Street. The Phoenix Inn on Ord and New High Street closed earlier this year. It’s not Phillipe’s fault their dipped beef and sawdust on the floor reminds me of bad days in Oakland. But it does.
I e-mail back to Phil and Megan with a finger on a key of the keypad.
“How about we meet at Pho 87 at 1019 N Broadway ? It’s just a couple of streets up from Phillipe's on Ord to Broadway. Turn right on Broadway to the corner of Cottage Home. Nice family atmosphere and good soup, good noodles, and eggs and pork chops. Parking in the rear.
“They open at 8.”
“How about 9:30?”
“9:30 it is.”
I introduced the owner Mr. Nguyen to Phil Song. “This Phil Song, a reporter-writer for the American press. And his wife, Megan.” As he stood to shake hands, I introduced the couple I had last seen as a happy and cheerful, Chinese and White loving married couple who talked openly about it in my cartoon documentary CHINAMAN’S CHANCE, shot in 1971, in New York to the Viet owner of the Pho 87 restaurant, in 2010. 1971 New York was before the Golden Dragon Massacre in San Francisco in 1977. 5 dead. 11 wounded. Chinese and tourists. Tourists shot in Chinatown! Before Phil Song founded the Asian American Journalists Association in 1981, to encourage “fair and accurate reporting of Asian America,” and a long time before the Wah Mee Massacre in Seattle in February of 1983. 13 Chinese men and women shot dead. Where were the Yellow journalists, tv reporters, commentators and glamorous Yellow anchors looking like population of Yellows in the broadcast area of San Francisco and Seattle? They looked like the people that lived there but didn’t know the Yelllow news around the old hometown they were hired to look like and tell.
The Yellows had their faces on tv and their names in print, even their names on doors, but on the hometown tube and in the hometown paper no Yellow news, no Yellow stories, no Yellow history, no Yellow culture, no Yellow beat. More hometown faces, less hometown news. After 140 years of getting it wrong, Yellows are getting it wrong now. A Chinese reporter broadcaster unable to tell the difference between the 2 man Dancing lion for the 100 foot long dragon running on many feet I blame Phil Song. He presented himself as the Yellow Journalist chosen to lead the School of Journalism at Columbia University into detecting and reporting the news of Asia and Asian America to the art and science of making the news that’s fit to print.
He created the Asian American Journalists Association to provide Yellow coverage of Yellow news. He was a senior editor of the Oakland Harpoon of the famous Harpoon Building. The harpoon pointed building famous for making Oakland memorable. The Harpoon was Oakland’s last newspaper.. He created the position of Ombudsman and negotiated disputes between the paper and the readers. What did he accomplish? Phil was the Yellow Journalist columnist and commentator on the McNeil-Lehrer Report. He had status as an American journalist. His effect on journalism: The Frisco and the California papers around Oakland still get the 2 man lion mixed up with the dragon and think nothing of it.
“This is the owner. He was a 45 year old policeman in Saigon when the North took over the US Embassy in 1975.”
“You were Saigon policeman when the Ho Chi Minh Northerners took over the city?”
“Yeah! The city of Saigon. Yeah!”
“Then you were there for the Tet Offensive in 1968?”
“1968. Tet Offensive. Yeah,” the owner said. “Vietnam wasn’t the same place after the Tet Offensive in 1968. The Year of the Monkey had the tingle of a real difference about the town. Everybody everything was different. I can’t tell you why different. I can’t call it a difference in what you callmood. Not a strange difference. Not a dangerous difference. A not unpleasant difference was about everything and everyone in sight. Sight was different. Not ugly like when too many men from the same unit have the same day off or the entire expeditionary force suddenly expects a new general in command of the Vietnam theater. Every draftee just stepped onto Vietnamese fertile ground fed by the riches from the rivers all around is suddenly a Vietnam vet dripping a hostile sweat not knowing what to expect from a stranger, more strange than he, to this country. The Commanding General, is all gruff and unproven stuff in starched fatigues and jutting his chin on tv. He looks just like a like a movie star. John Wayne was good enough for America, that’s good enough for Vietnam. My poor country.”
“But that was just yesterday, right?”
“That was our yesterday. We were all young in 1968,” I say.
“I was a 38 year old policeman not in a part of Saigon where soldiers of the world spent their days off from the War. I saw it. Flocks of Hawaiian shirts flapping their wings like vultures and like vultures, they turned their backs on the carrion they eyeballed over their shoulder.”
“It was a part of town, you say?”
“I was the father of three sons and daughter in Vietnam.”
“Not two daughters?” I asked.
“No. One there. One over here.”
“I have it right now,” I said. Actually I was more confused. What about the girl that worked at the old Pho and for time at the new, went to college, got her teaching credential, and was last seen here, sitting pregnant and visiting with her sisters? I didn’t ask. But I listened with all my ears. Was he a bigamist?
“My beat was a quiet part of Saigon that was much like Chinatown.”
“Chinatown. Just outside of where I have located the Pho 87, on Broadway.” He nodded toward the wall. Light shone in through the double doors at the front, the two high deeply set small windows, and the single door at the back. “Mostly neighborhood people and a few polite whites. The old Pho was in the next block along Broadway. A smaller shop. Far back from the sidewalk. There are cars in the parking lot in front of the Pho. Someone shot a 22 over the cars at the window.”
“A gunshot in Chinatown?” Phil said. “I’m shocked! Shocked!”
“No one heard the shot,” I said.
“You were in the Pho?”
“I heard the bullet hit the glass,” I said.
“He’s been coming into my place since the old place. Yes.”
“I heard a crack, and saw the glass craze into a giant snowflake,” I said.
“The slow, mostly spent .22 tapped the glass with a sound like a cracking egg, and crazed the glass into a large spider web. It didn’t shatter.”
“That’s right. It didn’t shatter.”
“You notice this place.” He indicated everything in this place. “Very little glass.”
“Very little glass?” Phil asks and takes a look around the walls.
“All walls. No big windows,” Megan says.
“Just like Saigon. A drunk man with a gun.”
“You didn’t find the man who fired the gun?” Phil asks.
The retired owner laughs hard. “Do you know how many .22 calibre pistols are in Chinatown? From the height of the hit, and looking through the center of the shot, it was easy to figure it came from across the street over the parking lot, across the alley separating Chinatown-Land from Chinatown businesses, to a spot over the parking lot to College Street, about the height of van roof, right under the mural on the back of the buildings that fronts on Hill Street.”
“Gunshots in Chinatown. Isn’t that something.”
“Gunshots don’t happen often. Less than one a year. Last year there were no shots fired in Chinatown. Not even the 4th of July. Nobody fires a gun. This is as peaceful in America as any day in Saigon. American and Japanese cars break the air with the rush of their bodies. Chinatown is a peaceful part of town. Saigon was prettier. There were more trees. Orchids grew wild.”
“You’re saying Chinatown is as peaceful as Saigon?”
“The same. Yes.”
“You say Saigon after Tet as peaceful?”
“Before Tet. After Tet the same peaceful. Peaceful but different.
“Other than the difference about everybody and every thing, the day after the weeklong (?) monthlong (?) Tet Offensive that was the first day or days or weeks of the Year of Monkey. The day Monkey yawned awake was a pretty peaceful day.” The owner genuflects and goes into the kitchen where the family cooks food and cleans dishes.
“How do you do it Hal?”
“How’d you find this guy with this story?”
“What he calls the day after Tet, he went to man who sold space on a boat and bought two boats.”
“He was a boat person?”
“He, and a woman I might have mistaken for his Chinese wife, a woman who speaks Chiu Chow Chinese. Three sons and a daughter. And I’m thinking, maybe her family.”
“Why do you say mistaken?”
“Leda, the daughter born in America has her mother working here cooking. A different woman entirely from the woman I thought was the owner’s wife. She comes smiling out of the kitchen, waves at me and sits with the retired owner or tea with Leda in what my mother would call ‘the dining room.’ She ran a hotel restaurant, as Phil’s folks ran a coffeeshop counter and booth palace, the Jade Dragon on Webster in Oakland.”
“What was the difference between your mother’s hotel dining room and my folk’s restaurant?”
“ In your place your food is served on a paper placemat on Formica. At the hotel your paper placemat is placed on a tablecloth over a wooden table.”
“That’s right! Table cloths!”
“Remember table cloths?
“Do they still have Formica countertops?” Phil asks. We laugh like crazy. A layer of ice seems shattered and melted away.
“Have you heard of a book by Yunte Huang called CHARLIE CHAN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE HONORABLE DETECTIVE AND HIS RENDEVOUS WITH HISTORY?”
“I’ve been living as a hermit.”
“Phil reviewed it for the Chronicle.”
“He calls your cartoons mocking Charlie Chan, ‘pugilistic.’ I used that in my review. He’s on C-Span from San Diego this weekend. He’s an Asian American Studies scholar from UC Santa Barbara who guest taught at Harvard.”
“At Harvard! Oh.”
“He was born in China, you know.”
“Unlike us American-born.”
“He came to America at fifteen.”
“And what will he say on C-Span this weekend…?”
“He will say, the Chinese-Americans should accept Charlie Chan because he represents the greatness of American art, ‘as the Blacks should accept slavery because without slavery they wouldn't have produced jazz.’ ”
“Naw! He didn’t really!”
“Isn’t that what you’ve been saying in your cartoon work?” Phil asks. “Really?” The conspiratorial smile drops and he asks, “Have you ever wondered where the 87 in Pho 87 comes from?”
“The Pho 81, is up the street in the Far East Plaza walk-thru Broadway to Hill complex near the corner of Ord Street. The Pho 81, was in the center by the elevator and quarter kiddie rides in the center of the way from Broadway to Hill or visa versa. Pho 71 was in the arcade across the street on Hill. Their French pastries were first rate. I figure they are the 71st, the 81st and the Pho 87 is 87th restaurant to be named ‘Pho.’”
“You’re the first Asian he’s asked that question that had an answer,” Megan enthuses.
“That was a rhetorical question, Hal.”
“What is that space there?” Megan asks and points the long pass-through slot between the dinning room and the kitchen. I chase her distraction, “A relic of the old restaurant that failed. I don’t know why it failed.”
“Look Phil, there’s Bogart and Dooly Wilson and everybody at Casablanca.”
“In CASABLANCA. They’re at Rick’s. Aren’t you surprised to see that here?”
“I think it was inherited from the previous tenant. You see it’s wired into innards of the building.”
“There’s not one Asian in that picture!”
“I think Charlie Chan and Benson Fong are at a table in the back, I’m not sure. All I know is the place had a forbidding presence. I wouldn’t eat here when it felt like there. They shut down. The vacant Chinese movie house next door gave the whole building bad karma. ”
“What’s the name of the theatre?”
“The Cottage Home. For the street. The movie house is still empty, but the Pho 87 has been a success in this spot for twenty years.”
“ Cottage Home Street. Of course.”
“The instant the Pho 87 opened , they had more customers in a day than that anonymous Chinese restaurant had had all the last year it was open. They took over another store front, and enlarged the place at the back. You can see the seam between stores. The floors were at slightly different levels. You’ll notice they still are.” I laughed a little too loud. Luckily a football game was on the tv. A yell or a cheer wasn’t unexpected. The wail and complaints of children took longer to become annoying than at restaurants where children were not seen.
Phil and Megan smiled. The attractive adventurers had met in the Phillippines in the Peace Corps. He an America born Chinese sports writer who was struck with who he was reporting on the teams fielded by good old Oakland Hi. The clash of sports excited words to spontaneously appear off the ends of his fingers typed on the page. The Oakland Hi Wildcat. That was him. Sports wasn’t just in his blood, it was his blood. Megan was a tall tomboy blond ready to trade in drunken bloody dialog from any John Wayne and Lee Marvin movie you wanted to play. DONAVAN’S REEF or THE COMMANCHEROS or THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE she was ready. She’s still perking with purposeful energy. She’s become an artist-baker. This year she’s baking experimental breads. Phil’s reticence has reached the point of being noticeable.
“ The tall handsome first son, married and opened a gold and jewelry shop near Alpine on Broadway.” I continue my story of the Pho 87. We all get a buzz from the business of the place . “The jewelry shop didn’t last long. I presume he’s moved on. Because I haven’t seen him round the restaurant on Broadway for years, now. They're Catholic. They're organized like a military unit, with a clear chain of command.”
“How do you know so much about this family?”
“I pick stuff up from what I hear.”
“Still prying, I see.”
“The old man, the Viet ex-cop, is just my age. I cartoon at the table. We exchange friendly talks now and then.”
Leda the 19 year old daughter pretty much runs the restaurant. At the start of the year she had her long hair cut. Traditionally a girl’s hair is not cut till she is married. The cut emphasized the shape of her face and head. Photographs of her at the desk taking cash or leading a customer to a table appear in on the web restaurant reviews. She tried to change the customer habits and her father's habit of starting the fires at 7:30 and opening at 8: the relatives who work at the restaurant arrive in bunches between 9 and 10. She starts wearing the rubber band that pinches her hair into the pony tail. I asked her if she planned to get it cut again? ‘My man likes my hair long,’ she said. The kitchen staff at the same time. The Pho 87 still opens at 8:am. She sits at table that gives her a view of the front door and all the tables on the floor.. When I’m the only customer in the house I catch her at her table with her cheek in the palm of her hand, her eyes looking at something on the table. She was the daughter born in America.
The front door swings open. Light falls onto row of tables against the wall. A large slim man in a black jacket over a black Tee shirt, and a shaved head and darkglasses steps into the fall of light. He looks at the oddly determined crippled man holding the door open, letting go and racing the closing door with a dead right leg and a vet hospital adjustable steel cane uneasily in hand. He hits the tip solidly on the ground and moves the leg in the motion of a frog leg swinging off into a leap and flopping a foot on the ground with clap of the rubbersoled shoe. Someone behind moves to help but a sharp gesture of Shaved Head’s left hand stops would-be help in its tracks. “Here’s Takashi Shimura as George Raft!” I say and nod toward the shaved head with my chin. Phil and Megan turn in their seats for a look. “He’s just walked in.” I say.
“He does look like Takashi Shimura. You know, dear, the leader of the Seven Samurai in Akira Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI. What a movie!”
“He’s the movie buff. Not me, ”Megan says..
“Takashi Shimura is the old samurai who has his head shaved.”
“So he can disguise himself as a priest, so he can disarm the kidnapper holed up in a hut,” Phil Song says and catches me with “I don’t get the George Raft reference. Raft reveled in being and playing guys on the wrong side of the law. Badguys. Takashi Shimura never played a badguy.”
The shaved head removes his sunglasses and pockets them. I wish he hadn’t. Everyone who stands to pass out the door is stopped by the look in Shaved Head’s eyes. . His look strips everyone to the skin and flicks them between the legs Everyone in the restaurant that glimpsed even an edge of the look is taken aback.
“I think I just saw the cost of war walk in with George Raft disguised as Takashi Shimura,” I say low and look down.
“What do you mean?” Phil’s reaction makes Megan turn to see. “The cripple?” Phil asks. The eyes go to Half Man Half Frog’s right foot flopping to the tile floor inside of the place.
“Look at his head, just over the left eye.”
Half Man Half Frog canes and flops his way behind Shaved Head, and waits hidden behind the tv set playing to the room atop a wall of glass brick.
“A part of his skull is gone!”
“And a handful of his brain.”
Shaved Head nods to the halted people and lets them go with a gesture of his left hand.
Everyone nods to Shaved Head as they pass and swing the door open. Shaved Head opens the way for the cripple to swing and flop his right foot from the large ceramic tiles to the thinner linoleum tiles of the dining room floor.
Megan looks up, suddenly drops her eyes and blushes. Behind me, Half Man Half Frog laughs.
“Relax,” behind me a voice I take to be Shaved Head’s says. On a turn of my shoulder, I see that I’m right. “Don’t be embarrassed. You are why we come to Chinatown. Here Ho feels comfortable looking back, at who looks at him. He takes his time walking across the street here. Chinatown is where time is his to take. And I don’t mind staring down traffic .”
“Is Ho a Vietnam vet?” I ask.
I see Ho’s eyes twitch and he shakes his head.
Shaved Head says, “Please. Ask me no questions. And I’ll tell you no lies.” He wipes his palm over his shaved head and says, “ This is the Chinatown I knew from walking to and from Chinese movies. The two moviehouses that are… are gone now. The one on Cottage Home was called The Cottage Home. Great name for Chinese movie house. The Sun Sing, the New Star, moviehouse on Spring Street. I saw the Trio of Dragons Inn, there. It was a kung fu movie made with the art of ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS and a star comparable to Carey Grant. Have you seen either of those movies?”
Phil reached across the table and pulled my sleeve. “Hal,” he said low.
“Excuse me. Dir um jur,” I said.
“Um sa-ee. Anytime,” Shaved Head smiled without opening his mouth.
The employe-relatives walk in the front smiling and laughing. I smile and wave back.
“Who are they?” Phil asks.
“Three of the seven dwarves that work and play here.” I answer more seriously, “Relatives that depend on this place.”
“And they wave at you?”
“They see me every morning. Better to wave than a glower before they wash down and apron up,” I say. “The Pho 87 seems to be the only restaurant with customers enough to make it. I make it with "Joe sun" good morning in baby talk Cantonese. Amazing how many different people know ‘Joe Sun.’”
They turn toward each other, exchange a look and look around.
“There are Filipino hospital workers. Whites and Mexicans and Chinese from the Coroner’s office (?) service (?) Look around,” I say. “Uptight Koreans on the loose. Giant Samoans. The customers feel enough at home in this place to let their kids free to run up to the little pond of koi at the front of the restaurant, the other side of the tv set, and run back. Pho 87 runs like clockwork.”
“Dr. Martin Luther King said that he had a vision of the promised land , but he would never achieve the Promised Land.”
I’d had enough of being nice,“ Yea! ,” I said, “Though I live to be a hundred, I will never see what you call the promised land, not because I call the Whites White racists, but because I realize too late, that my talented friends, my good friends are White racists. My talented friends are afraid of Whites! And I blame my friends. They have led their people through a century of increasing self-hated to become the White man’s perfect racial inferiors.”
“No guts. No history. No culture. No art.”
“Really? No art? You don’t count your cartoons, of course.”
“No art but what pleases Whites. Ornamental art. Decorative.”
“All right. I can take a hint. Sorry you don’t remember happier days. Don’t make a cartoon book of this place, if you really like it. ”
We part at the table. Polite but suddenly cold. I stay at the table. I watch Phil and Megan leave. I have learned to say the most loathsome things low and not unfriendly, in a Humphrey Bogart sing song like my cartoon characters. I don’t enjoy the mischief pleasure my characters take in speaking their minds out loud. The pleasure that thrills me is theirs, they belong to cartoon Chop Chop, not me, not mine.
I feed the fish and play the wriggle of my fingers just above the splash of slippery mouths. Orange and black patches over predominantly white gold scaled fish are the largest of the solid fish bodies slicking through the tight waters of the round indoor pond.
Outside I see cars backed up on Broadway behind a car signaling a right turn at Bernard. Shaved Head stands in the center of the walk across Bernard. He has stared down a car making right turn and a car making a left turn off Broadway to Bernard. The drivers dip their heads and smile. He turns and faces the stopped line of cars that have turned right off of Hill and stopped. I walk across the street past Ho taking a long time to cane his way across the street. I walk past Shaved Head and step up to the sidewalk and walk down to the drive way of the corner motel and wait.
Ho achieves the far side of Bernard. Shaved Head approaches.
“You really can stare down traffic in Chinatown!” I say.
He moves me to the center of a driveway into the Chinatown motel. He tips his head toward me. I move closer. He says, “After your question , I told Ho that if he tried crossing the street without seeing and being sure of every step, before he took it, I would tie an American flag to his head and tape a cup to his cane with a sign that read ‘Vietnam Vet. Grateful for any help can give. Thanks.’ ”
The half-man half-frog approaches us planting his cane , swinging his leaping leg and flopping his foot down, he could tell by the sound, it made later, when it was dawn.. Half Man maneuvers his left leg a solid step forward. He plants it and Half-Frog sets the cane for the launch of the frogleg and foot flop.
Ho points to Shaved Head and shakes his head and laughs. The nurse pulls a Mercedes up to the curb, and gets out to open the passenger door for Ho,
The Mercedez is a pleasantly non-glare hazy silver, sleek. And new. I stand back and watch as the friendly menace who avoided giving his name watches Ho through darkglasses bend, contort and throw himself through the open back door of the car that seemed to hold it’s breath for him. All the plush interiors I’d seen, were of empty and locked and touchy wonders of art and technology that screamed at the hint of a touch. The insides of this car was live and exposed. I looked inside and let the appointments of the interior out of a Robb’s Report ad dazzle me. I notice movement over the radio in front. A screen the size of a hardback novel opens it’s mouth on a map of where in the world this Mercedez now stands . Over a year ago I started noticing Mercedezes and Cadillacs, one Lamborghini parked in the Pho 79 lot. I only saw the Lamborghini once. Ho signals to Shavedhead, who reseats Ho out of the rear door through the front door. He walks to outside the swing of opening the driver’s side door. The nurse puts the car in park and gets out of the car with the keys in his hand. He gives them to Shavedhead. Shaved Head takes the driver’s seat. Touches something out of my sight and his seat seems magic fingers massaging his but and back, and the seat is his. The nurse lets himself into the back seat. Ho’s startled look with a hole in his head catches me looking in. Silently the passenger side window lowers and Ho motions me over to read what he’s written on his candybar size what’sit machine in his hand. “Three homesick Chinamen,” is written on the screen. He taps it and grunts a questioning lilt looking desperately into my eyes. I nod. The window silently slinks up and closes. The Shaved Head motors the Mercedes down Broadway toward Cesar Chavez without another word. It was true, the whole car caresses you with it’s every move. I was an outsider looking in. I too felt caressed by class, pure class.
The reason I couldn’t find the owners of the multi thousand dollar cars inside the Pho was I thought they were White. If the Whites weren’t in the Pho 79, they were with the sewing supply and sewing factory that occupied the rest of the building. San Francisco experience told me if I found them in the Pho, they would be White men. I’d met the Yellow owner of a new Mercedes.
Were they all homesick Chinamen? Where was home? Were they Chinatown, Los Angeles boys made good living in Beverly Hills, or were they from somewhere in China? Or Taiwan? Or Vietnam? Laos, Cambodia, Thailand? Or Burma… All countries that tell time by the moon.
The lunar year coming to a close is the Tiger. The last months are called “the monster is dying” The close of this Tiger’s been truly monstrous. I’ve through seven tigers. The coming Lunar year will be my seventh gentle Rabbit. I’m coming up on my eighth Dragon, the beginning of my third lifetime. I don’t think I’m up for a third lifetime.
When ma graduated high school in Oakland the Remington typewriter came with keys in letters and numbers in two sizes. Pica which was larger and got fewer characters per inch than Elite. Ma's Remington Portable stayed current through Chester Gould’s DICK TRACEY and his 2-way wrist radio. Walt Kelley’s POGO about an opossum and the animals round Okefenokie Swamp that act like people from current events in the real world. He cartooned a bombastic W.C.Field’s like swamp animal who spoke in letter penned with old ornament and 19th century frilled serifs and fonts I’ve only seen in books and ye olde movies of days gone bye. My portable computor can type and print in more styles and sizes of type than I had thought possible in the day when Dick Tracy 2-way wrist radio was pie in the sky. It was fun to be young wrestling Pica vs Elite in world where portable phones existed only in the comics. A third lifetime doesn’t seem worth the effort to see again and hear again.
Sunday October 10, 2010.
I went to Chinatown for breakfast this morning because it’s Ten-Ten Day. The day when Democracy and the Twentieth Century arrived in China. That unforgettable day in 1911 when Dr. Sun Yat Sen, of Chungsahn, Kwangtung Province was declared the George Washington of China. The joke was Dr Sun wanted to be remembered as China’s Abraham Lincoln. I got an e-mail from a breath of the old days of cartooning. Jeff from the old old days of Chinatown cartooning.
Double Ten Day. Let's pop firecrackers!
Isn't it amazing that nothing, I mean nothing comes up for a current ten-ten celebration on google search, except in Orlando, Florida, where they're celebrating a gay pride coming out festival.
Welcome to Chinatown, folks!
I drove to Chinatown at 9 in the morning for breakfast at the Pho 87 with a view of Mt. Baldy, with or without snow, on clear days, from the entrance, and a parking lot behind the sewing machine factory and supply building. I glimpse a uniformed band assembled across the street, as I wheel the car around the corner of Cottage Home and turn into the sewing factory and the Pho parking lot. On the turn I got the impression of a uniformed and black beret Vietnamese drill team. A yellow flag with thin red stripes across the center. I park the car and walk back for a look at the street before breakfast.
The old men I understand. The men that were in their twenties and in the service thirty five years ago, putting on the uniform again, and carrying a weapon of the time, I can understand. The weapons they carried with were their own. Springfileld .03's. M-1's with chrome plated barrals. M-14's. I didn’t understand the men the boys too young to have lived during the war. Why were they outfitted to fight a Vietnam war, lost before they were born? A fifteen year old marching like a Civil War re-creator in the Old South? The drill they practiced in front of the Pho 87 was, a relief. Drill from 1965-75. Military nostalgia. Not an unemployed outfit of mercenary Viet soldiers looking for trouble. The plated muzzles said they were show, not business. The dragon (not the dragon you climb into the belly to run, but the dragon carried on sticks) the Viet dragon stretched in the parking lot of the mostly empty shopping and restaurant complex across the street. Ten years ago Chinatown parades put up barriers at Cesar Chavez and started at the Chiu Chow temple and were led by the elders of the Chiu Chow up Broadway left on College, right on Hill, right on Bernard, right on Broadway, to put the parade on the right side of the road to pass in review in front of the Choong Wah Wooey Goon. That was ten years ago.
Traffic moved across Broadway at College, just one block down the street. Really? The Double Ten Day Parade wouldn’t march to Cesar Chavez the old Sunset Blvd? They wouldn’t march from the Choong Wah to the Chiu Chow Temple just the other side of Ord on Broadway?
I walked Broadway to see how far the parade would go. From the barriers set up at Bernard to College. Only one block. In the middle of the block was the reviewing stand in front of the Choong Wah Wooey Goon, and a few steps away were the saw horse barriers marking the end of the parade. No one was on the reviewing stand. There was no crowd waiting for the parade. The block the other side of College had a bust of Dr. Sun Yat Sen on top of a monument. There were fresh flowers around Dr. Sun. The L.A. blocks are long, but not that long.
I walked back to get breakfast. Leda asked me “what’s that going on? Why the girls dressed in pink? Why the band?”
“Double Ten,” I said. She didn't know what Double Ten Day was. Her father, sitting with a family that is combining with his, at their regular Wednesday get acquainted breakfast, got more acquainted, oblivious to Double Ten. Dr. Sun is a non-entity. Generalissimo Chiang is really dead. No more jokes about him living longer than Generalissimo Franco. Who’s Generalissimo Franco? Chairman Mao is just a fat man with funny hair.
When she’s off work she’s with her man. “Oh ho! Hot naughty naughty!”
“No, we mostly cuddle and talk.” I raise my eyebrows. “We talk dreams.”
I’ve achieved the age where I can enjoy the way Leda looks when she giggles as she jiggles as she walks without .shame or guilt.