Chinatown in San Francisco sits like a pearl in an oyster an unexpected gem in an odd location. Being a slice of China itself it represents both the authentic folk ways of the people and the cheap mass production mentality of it’s government. All of this lies slap in the middle of one of America’s most artistic cities.
For roughly eight city blocks a casual visitor will be solicited by both the exotic and unusual as well as the simple and mundane.
If one comes to find Chinese herbs, spices, or foodstuffs, then Chinatown has them fresh and in abundance. On the other hand, if one seeks inexpensive mementos to give to family members back home, once again Chinatown fits the bill. T-shirts, snow globes, figurines, and every other conceivable good that can be sold cheaply and carried away with ease are on display there.
The atmosphere has a definite appeal for tourists, with garish architecture designed to convey the image of an imperial China from thousands of years ago. Whether it represents the true China, most wouldn’t know for sure. It seems unlikely though that every shop and tall building in China is brightly colored in green, red, turquoise, and gilded with gold paint.
The street lamps are covered in a charming faux patina and sport tops that resemble pagodas. But these aren’t the first things noticed when looking down one of the main streets through Chinatown. Perhaps one’s initial attention is drawn to the paper lanterns hanging from cables that form a canopy above the heads of passersby.
But before the reader dismisses the place as a tourist’s monstrosity, if he just peeks below the veneer he’ll discover a genuine article, a name brand.
This is a living city with real people. For instance, the smells of freshly prepared Chinese food override the visitor’s notions of what that style of food should smell like. No sooner is that clearing the nose than the scents of freshly picked fruit puncture the air with their ripeness.
Chinese folk of every conceivable age and vocation live and work there. Scurrying across the streets at almost anytime are little old women carrying long sticks across their shoulders with plastic grocery bags on either end.
Add to this the scores of Asian youth that assist their families in the small street shops and the picture is nearly complete.
It was in this environment that I found myself not long ago. I had just been satiated by an absolutely perfect example of Peking Duck served on Chinese style pancakes when I decided to stroll down a few streets.
I don’t remember the particular thoroughfare on which I found myself that early fall afternoon, but it was on a slight incline. People, both tourists and natives, were whisking past me when I was confronted by a sight that may have been commonplace to some, but struck me profoundly.
As the faceless drones were shuffling about, there was a sudden clearing around an old Chinaman dressed in a three-piece suit and tie who was walking my way. I say "old" but he was indeed ancient. His years quite possibly exceeded 95, but even he might not have known their number.
His yellow skin had a darker shade than most and was wrinkled to the extreme, as if he had been placed in a food dehydrator. He resembled the shriveled and brownish colored ginseng roots for sale in some of the Asian medicine shops.
Quickly glancing at his face, I noticed that his eyes had disappeared, leaving only small slits in their stead. He was completely blind. What happened to those organs which so many take for granted? They merely retracted and atrophied from a gradual degradation and consequent disuse.
Due of that seeming loss he walked gingerly, with slight but methodical steps. In no way was his gait a plodding one. This is probably the way, I thought, when one loses the faculty of vision. We "sighted" ones rather stomp than walk. This relic of a bygone era stepped with gentleness and trepidation.
What astounded me then and still leaves me marveling as I write this, was that he kept moving; there was no deviation. As if driven by a steely willpower or drawn by a burning passion, he walked forward.
This man, I thought to myself, has seen many sunrises and sunsets. He has seen his children weaned at their mother’s knees and then grow old themselves. It is likely that he buried his wife and perhaps some if not all of his children. For that matter, he may have outlasted some of his grandchildren. And here he was, almost certainly alone in life, walking with purpose.
I have known many people that had families, careers, wonderful talents, and great promise that fell into a greater personal disrepair than this exemplar to humanity, and all for a lack of meaning in life.
Too often we "stomp" through our daily customs, without utilizing the other vision that we may possess. At the end of the matter, we tend not to travel as far as we otherwise could have.
Another fact did not escape my attention: in spite of no longer being able to see others or himself in a mirror, he still maintained his personal grooming. Although appearing to be clean shaven from a distance, closer inspection revealed silvery stubble on his chin but nowhere else. I realized then that his face no longer produced as much hair as in the days of his robust, testosterone driven youth.
One place where he kept a healthy shock of salt and pepper hair was his head. With a razor sharp part in his hair, he expertly combed it over to one side. Every single line left by the comb’s teeth was still visible.
What pride the old man had in himself! Refusing to go about his day without looking his very best, it must have taken hours to bring his coiffure into order. But to not prepare himself in that fashion would have been unthinkable to him.
His immaculate attire was equally impressive. Of course, the wardrobe was admittedly frumpy and out of style, but that’s excusable. The traditional white shirt that he wore was crisp and freshly pressed, although it no longer fit snugly about the neck. The garment was sized right at one time I’m sure, but not after decades of gravity’s compressing effects and the loss of appetite common at that age. Suffer no illusion, his tie was neatly knotted and meticulously positioned with a tiepin to cap it off.
I can’t visualize this proud lion ever begging for food or shelter, even if his last meal were several days ago. No, he would smile graciously and decline a handout with his last breath. The only way to help this rare specimen, is to allow him the privilege to earn his own money and then pay his own way.
Soon he was gone as other well meaning people scampered past. He never saw me, but I had the uncommon honor to see him. And yet one question still lingers in my mind to this day: to where was he going??
A Sketch of a Chinaman
- Written by: Joshua Hennen
- Category: Prose
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