Noe Valley Voice December-January 1999-2000

Pokemon and Fortune Cookies: Exploring the Other Side of Chinatown

By Janis Cooke Newman

A woman in a padded silk jacket is sticking her tongue out at an elderly Chinese gentleman. The man places the tips of his fingers on her forearm and leans in closer so that her breath steams up his glasses. My 4-year-old son Alex and his friend Wesley stare in amazement.

"That man is a doctor," I tell the boys, "and this is some of the medicine he uses." I show them a display of dehydrated sea horses.

We are in the Tung Tai Ginseng Co. (1142 Grant Ave.), a small herb shop filled with ginseng roots shaped like little men, dried black mushrooms that resemble clods of dirt, and large flat pieces of white cuttlefish.

"Is that medicine, too?" asks Wesley, pointing to what appears to be a small dragon, flattened and mounted on a stick.

"Yup," I tell him.

"Cool," he says. And I am enormously relieved.

"You always take us someplace boring," Alex has informed me on the way to pick up Wesley. "We want to do something interesting."

So I've brought them here to Chinatown, where I'm currently trying to keep them from licking the deer antlers that are supposed to increase virility.

The woman in the padded jacket has withdrawn her tongue and is now at the counter having her prescription filled by an herbalist. Dried flowers, pieces of bark, and eucalyptus leaves are weighed on a hand-held scale balanced on a forefinger, and then piled onto small squares of pink paper. At the top of the pile, the herbalist places several dead bugs.

"What are those?" asks Alex.

The herbalist makes a clicking sound with his mouth.

"Cicadas?" I say.

He nods and gives each of the boys a packet of Haw Flakes, a plum-flavored candy.

Back out on Grant Street, we haven't gone 10 feet before Alex and Wesley spot a display of Pokémon cards. Pokémon pretty much rules on Grant Street. In every shop, the wooden back scratchers, sandalwood soaps, and meditation balls have been pushed aside to make way for Pokémon backpacks and baseball caps and plastic figures. I buy a key chain and a couple of cards, naively thinking this will prevent us from having to look at every piece of Pokémon merchandise on the street.

Tearing the boys away from the stores, we head up Jackson Street and cross over into unmarked Ross Alley to visit the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (27 Ross Alley). Just inside the door, a woman peels hot circles of cooked batter from a conveyor of little waffle irons. With one quick motion, she folds and bends the flat cookie around a metal bar and inserts the fortune. Another woman offers the boys a tin filled with flattened fortune cookies that look like full moons. They each take a couple, and I buy a bag of the folded ones for $2.

We wander down Ross Alley eating fortune cookies and listening to the clacking of mah jong tiles coming from behind basement windows. I read the boy's fortunes, narrow strips of paper that promise them great wealth and good luck in their personal affairs.

Cutting over to Waverly Place, we climb four flights of stairs to the Tin Hou Temple (125 Waverly Place). Inside, the air is smoky, and there's the sweet, spicy scent of incense. Alex and Wesley stare up at a ceiling covered with Chinese lanterns from which hang red prayer papers. Oranges are piled into little pyramids on several altars, lined along shallow shelves like candles in a cathedral.

"Can we eat these?" Alex asks. I stop him before he can remove one of the oranges from beneath the benevolent gaze of a serene Buddha.

"Why don't we have lunch?" I say, and the three of us go back down the stairs and out onto the street.

The restaurant is a couple of blocks down Grant Street, which gives Alex and Wesley plenty of opportunity to check out the rubber swords and toy handcuffs in front of the stores. I buy a notebook covered in Chinese silk (for less than $2), and then pull Alex and Wesley away from a terrifyingly real-looking plastic AK47.

I take the boys to the Far East Café (631 Grant St.) because of the private booths. One side of this 1920s-era restaurant is lined with a row of wooden compartments, all with curtains that can be pulled over the doorway. Alex and Wesley adore these booths. While they wait for their chow fun noodles, they hide under the table and take turns pressing the (mercifully) broken button that's meant to summon the waiter. I like the privacy as well. The little wooden compartment means that I don't have to keep reminding the boys to use their inside voices.

After lunch, we stop into the Chinatown Kite Shop (717 Grant St.), wandering among paper kites shaped like enormous dragonflies and long-finned koi. These elegant kites have absolutely no appeal for the boys, who are begging me to buy one covered with the bright yellow body of Picachu.

We walk back down Grant Street, lingering to play the little Chinese drums that work by twisting the handle and to roll those wooden massagers up and down our backs. It takes us half an hour to get to the corner. Eventually, I'm forced to buy a box of Pop Pops -- the tiny paper packages that explode when you throw them on the sidewalk -- to keep the boys moving, promising they can explode one when we get to the next block.

"C'mon," I shout to Alex, who has stopped to flip open a folding fan with birds painted on it and is now cooling off the back of Wesley's head. "We've got to get going."

"I can't," he tells me, putting the fan back and trying on a little round hat with a tassel on the top. "It's just too interesting."

Pleased, I crack open a fortune cookie, which promises me great peace in my old age. As the boys explode several Pop Pops around my ankles, I put the fortune in my pocket for safekeeping.