Thursday, September 9, 2010

Chinatown's checkered past

Duncombe & Ross Alley
Chinatown, San Francisco

After 3 years in San Francisco, I realized I have never actually spent any real time in Chinatown. Sure I used to live in North Beach, literally streets away from the divide into Chinatown and I rode the Dirty 30 and 45 Muni buses everyday to work for almost a year through it. I had never really spent anytime just being in Chinatown. Feeding into my China and anything criminal obsessions, John and I took a little night tour of Chinatown with host yours truly. For people I've traveled with, my tours can be informative and at times utterly ridiculous. The typical tour inclues a location appropriate Lonely Planet in hand and a makeshift microphone or better yet some sort of official tour guide 'flag' waving high, I've provided guided tours (sometimes unsolicited) to my traveling companions in South and Central America, Asia and Europe.

With a sense of adventure, John and I slowly walked through Chinatown from the Imperial Palace restaurant to our first stop, Ross Alley. I had googled on my iPhone the location of the alley, but was really unsure that I was actually going to be able to find the street sign in the almost utter darkness. The lack of street lights and random neon sign gave the walk and search an eerie feeling. After looking at random sides of buildings for signs and squinting to read, we finally found Ross alley. Ross Alley is located between Stockton and Grant running the entire block length between Jackson and Washington Street.
Ross Alley was home to gambling houses and brothels back in the famous Barbary Coast days. The alley contained over 20 hidden gambling dens. The gambling dens were often secret back room with classic cover-up store fronts and the doors were known to be booby trapped in case of police raids. They were violent places were people could win and lose fortunes or even their lives. Gambling was run by the Tongs and the more popular games were Fan Tan and the Chinese lottery.

Although the secret gambling dens and brothels have moved out (or so they say), looking down the dark alley its easy to imagine the glory days when Ross Alley was full of drunk gamblers and the whores were a plenty.

Next stop: Duncombe Alley

Opium Den, 1889
Duncombe Alley amazingly was located almost directly across from Ross Alley off Jackson causing me to believe this little city block was once one hot bed of illegal activity. Duncombe Alley was once the center of the great opium trade and where the poor and middle class went to get high in Chinatown. Opium dens started to pop up in the 1850s and spread to the non-Chinese San Francisco population within 20 years. In 1878 San Francisco passed its 1st anti-opium ordinance and in 1913 opium became illegal. Most opium dens had cover up store fronts with a tightly sealed basement or backroom for smoking.

I was pleased to find the alley was just as shady as ever. The sign was hidden in the shadows and was faintly highlighted by a depressing neon green sign. The lighting and fact that the alley could only be accessed by a metal fence with a deadbolt lined with barbed wire led me to believe a little opium was still being smoked. I took a few pictures from behind the fence and quickly got that childhood feeling that I was doing something I wasn't supposed to doing so we continued on. We strolled for about another half hour listening to the sounds of the sirens, the young teenagers talking boisterously trying to impress the girls, the old men in dramatic heated conversations and the random sounds of Chinatown.

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