|Ross Alley in San Francisco Chinatown|
In the bustling streets of Grant and Stockton and at Portsmouth Square in Chinatown San Francisco, I relished the fact that I heard Toisanese spoken nearly everywhere! From the merchants in the mom & pop stores to the elderly Chinese men and women sitting around the benches at Portsmouth Square or in passing on the street, hearing my native tongue gave me such an amazing sense of comfort and belonging.
At New Asia Restaurant (suggested by Howard Chan and Cousin Joey), where we had dim sum, one waitress commented “You’re a Toisanese girl.” For a split second, I felt proud that she recognized my dialect, and then my thoughts were dashed by the thought, “She thinks I’m a country peasant…” Isn’t that awful how I’ve been conditioned and brainwashed by our own people’s stereotyping and bias? But I got over it and was thrilled to converse with people in Toisanese. I loved that I could be understood! Having grown up in the San Gabriel Valley area of Southern California for 30 years + where I rarely heard Toisanese being spoken (except at home), I felt an overwhelming sense of belonging in SF Chinatown.
At the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Ross Alley I chatted in broken Toisanese & Mandarin with the elderly man greeting visitors and handing out samples of flattened fortune cookies - and he tossed in freebies with our purchase. We dodged kung fu students practicing their moves along the alley and I reminisced about how wonderfully Chinese everything was - so different from my typical Americanized everyday life in Honolulu.
Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I grew accustomed to being an outsider as an ethnic Chinese; I looked Chinese but couldn’t communicate in Toisanese at the restaurants or stores in Monterey Park or Los Angeles’ Chinatown since everyone spoke Hong Kong Cantonese or Mandarin (from the influx of Taiwanese), so I’d speak English. But here, I felt at home.
Sure, I’d visited San Francisco numerous times on college drives up to Berkeley or SF with roommates back in the day. My most vivid childhood memory was when I was around 6-7 years old with my pwa pwa grandma visiting SF Chinatown to see her older sister Yee Pwa, the nice chatty grand auntie with gold teeth and a warm welcoming spirit. She lived in a no-frills single room studio in the heart of Chinatown and seemed content and happy - without want for anything. Unfortunately, we never kept in touch with her kids (our cousins) and she passed away a few months ago.
Queen's Bakery Shlai Keh Ma (Rice Puffs) but to no avail. We found several packaged versions from Taiwan in the Chinese grocery stores but I was hoping to find the fresh, light, chewy soft rice puffs that were once a childhood delight. I'll just have to wait till my next trip to L.A. to find the childhood pastry.
But until then, I've left my heart in San Francisco....
RANDOM ANGEL ISLAND ADDENDUM: In 1997, I visited Angel Island Museum (former Immigration Station) via ferry in the SF/Bay Area. If you haven't heard about it, Angel Island is the Chinese "Ellis Island" of the West Coast. My paternal grandfather "Yeh Yeh" was detained along with many other Chinese immigrants anywhere ranging from two weeks up to years for the grueling interrogation required in order to enter the U.S.
When we were having a family dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park with Yeh Yeh many moons ago, a grandpa dining with his family at the next table randomly asked about my grandpa's Chinese name. It turned out that they were both detained at Angel Island at the same time! I was amazed at this gentleman's memory after 50+ years and wished I could have captured more historical information about their experiences.
I visited Angel Island shortly after performing the role of Ku Ling in Genny Lim's "Paper Angels & Bitter Cane" play at the Morgan Wixson Theater in Santa Monica. The play was based on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and highlighted the hardships and discrimination that many Chinese (mostly Toisanese) experienced at Angel Island from 1882 to 1943. My Yeh Yeh passed away around that time when I garnered a "Best Character Actress" award for my portrayal of Ku Ling.