Chinatown

Exterior of Chinatown’s Hong Kong BBQ at Night

This being Thursday, I visited the Central Library at 5th and Flower Streets, then took the Dash B bus to Chinatown. The last several times I’ve been downtown, I headed to Chinatown and dined at the Hong Kong BBQ Restaurant. Their Spicy Fish Filet with Black Bean Sauce and their Spicy Eggplant with Fish Fillet make for a great lunch. So great that I wasn’t able to finish my dinner.

L.A.’s Chinatown actually shares billing with Vietnamese and Thai restaurants. I always look for the little old lady sitting on the sidewalk who sells a bag of fresh limes for a dollar. There are numerous shops selling Chinese lacquerware, statuary, jewelry, clothing, and other goods.

I used to cook Chinese more frequently than I do now. It’s not great to eat white rice on a regular basis if one is diabetic. So I splurge occasionally and hope the damage is minimal. Maybe the fish fillet makes up for the carbs in the rice.

Things have not always run smoothly with the Chinese population in L.A. In 1871, there was a race riot directed at the Chinese in which about twenty Chinese were hanged from lampposts by a mob of some 500 Angelenos. Not one of the members of the mob lost their lives or served time for their misdeeds. It was probably the ugliest race incident in Southern California’s history, except, of course, what we did to the Indians.

 

 

The Lion Dance

Lion Dancer at Chinese New Year Parade

Lion Dancer at Chinese New Year Parade

I have seen perhaps a dozen Chinese New Year parades, and I am quite used to seeing dragons and lion dancers. What I find interesting, however, is that there are no lions in China, nor have there been for about two thousand years. According to an article in China Highlights:

In traditional Chinese culture, the lion, like the Chinese dragon, was only an animal which existed in myth, and there were no actual lions in China. Before the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), only a few lions had reached the Central Plains from the western area of ancient China (now Xinjiang), due to Silk Road trade.

Stone lions can be seen, however, acting as guardians to Beijing’s Forbidden City (see below). And Chinese images and beliefs relating to the mythical strength of the lion have spread around the world with the Chinese diaspora.

Stone Lion at the Forbidden City in Beijing

Stone Lion at the Forbidden City in Beijing

There are two styles of lion dance, the Northern and the Southern. Although most Chinese-Americans originated in South China, all the lion dancers I have seen at New Years parades were of the Northern type, which is associated with Chinese martial arts organizations. In the Northern style, only one person manipulates the lion costume. According to the China Highlights website, “Northern lion dances are more gymnastic, involving rolling, wrestling, leaping, jumping, climbing, or kowtowing.” It’s quite entertaining to see the feats of gymnastics performed by Kung Fu practitioners.

 

Old Cypresses

Stamp Commemorating the Chinese Poet Tu Fu

1983 Stamp Commemorating the Chinese Poet Tu Fu

It’s been a long time since I posted a blog about poetry. Today’s poem goes back over thirteen hundred years, from A.D. 766 to be exact. China’s Tang dynasty gave us two of the greatest poets who ever lived, Li Po and Tu Fu. The following is from the latter. It is called “Ballad of the Ancient Cypresses.”

Before Kongming’s shrine stands an ancient cypress,
Its branches are like green bronze, its roots just like stone.
The frosted bark, slippery with rain, is forty spans around,
Its blackness blends into the sky two thousand feet above.
Master and servant have each already reached their time’s end,
The tree, however, still remains, receiving men’s devotion.
Clouds come and bring the air of Wuxia gorge’s vastness,
The moon comes out, along with the cold of snowy mountain whiteness.

I think back to the winding road, east of Brocade Pavilion,
Where the military master and his lord of old share a hidden temple.
Towering that trunk, those branches, on the ancient plain,
Hidden paintings, red and black, doors and windows empty.
Spreading wide, coiling down, though it holds the earth,
In the dim and distant heights are many violent winds.
That which gives it its support must be heaven’s strength,
The reason for its uprightness, the creator’s skill.

If a great hall should teeter, wanting rafters and beams,
Ten thousand oxen would turn their heads towards its mountain’s weight.
Its potential unrevealed, the world’s already amazed,
Nothing would stop it being felled, but what man could handle it?
Its bitter heart cannot avoid the entry of the ants,
Its fragrant leaves have always given shelter to the phoenix.
Ambitious scholars, reclusive hermits—neither needs to sigh;
Always it’s the greatest timber that’s hardest to put to use.

Kongming (Zhuge Liang) was the chief minister of Liu Bei, one of the imperial claimants in the Three Kingdoms period. The poem shifts between the tree at the shrine to Kongming near Wuxia gorge (one of the Three Gorges); another tree at the shrine to Kongming and Liu Bei in Chengdu; and the allegorical equation of timber and talent – 材 and 才 (cái) – etymologically the same word. The Brocade Pavilion was built by Tu Fu near his house in Chengdu.

Ancient Chinese Cypress

Ancient Chinese Cypress

In talking about old trees, the poet is also talking about old age. I love the line “Its bitter heart cannot avoid the entry of the ants.”

 

El Pueblo de Los Angeles

The Chinese American Museum on North Los Angeles Street

The Chinese American Museum on North Los Angeles Street

The City of Los Angeles got its start in a large block bordered on the north by Cesar E. Chavez Ave, on the east by Alameda Street, on the south by Arcadia Street, and on the west by North Main Street. The area is variously referred to as the Plaza de Los Angeles, Olvera Street, and sometimes as El Pueblo de Los Angeles. It is in this block that two of the city’s ethnic populations are commemorated, the Mexicans on Olvera Street, and the Chinese at the Chinese American Museum.

Martine hasn’t feeling too well lately, so I proposed we take a slightly low-energy visit to the Chinese American Museum. We started by eating at Las Anitas on Olvera Street, where Martine had a plain Pollo a la Plancha and a corn tortilla, while I had Chile Rellenos and Jamaica (a tasty hibiscus flower drink, pronounced hah-MYE-kah).

Then we strolled around the museum, which told of the Chinese struggle to find acceptance in a racist America. In addition to exclusionary laws forbidding more of them to immigrate, there were laws on the books forbidding them to own property or to marry with other races. This was rather difficult, as in 1852 there were 20,000 Chinese immigrants, of which only 17 were women.

Below is a photo of the replica of the Sun Wing Wo General Store and Herb Shop within the museum:

Sun Wing Wo General Store and Herb Shop

Sun Wing Wo General Store and Herb Shop


After visiting the museum, we also had time to see the 1884 Plaza Firehouse (the oldest in L.A.) and Union Station, where I arrived on the El Capitan from Chicago at the end of December 1966 to begin my sojourn in this city.

Support Your Local Chifa

My Local Chinese Restaurant in Miraflores

My Local Chinese Restaurant, the Chifa Jin in Miraflores

I got back from Peru on Tuesday night—as usual in the middle of a blistering heat wave. Finally, I have enough energy to take up with my blog again, even though it’s hot enough to melt prestressed concrete outside.

Although Peruvian food is, by and large, excellent, I was surprised to see so many Chinese restaurants all over the country. In Peru, they are called chifas. Why are there so many of them? As I wrote in my blog entitled The Guano Economy, many Chinese are descended from the coolies brought over from mainland China in the 1800s to mine bird droppings from the islands off the coast of Peru.

It’s a far cry from guano to won ton soup and fried rice (called chaufa in Peru), and there are interesting differences for what passes for Chinese fare in the United States, but the quality runs from the acceptable to the delicious. The best I had was my fun with pork at the Wa Lok restaurant in Miraflores on Angamos Oeste. I liked Peruvian won ton soup better than American, because although the won tons are not wrapped around any meat, there are usually big pieces of pork and chicken along with the lasagna-like noodles.

I ate Chinese in Lima, Puno, and Machu Picchu Pueblo. In every case, the food was inexpensive and well prepared. It was nice to have a familiar backup to the usually omnipresent Peruvian cuisine.

 

“Don’t Read Books!”

Chinese Scroll

Chinese Scroll

Don’t read books!
Don’t chant poems!
When you read books your eyeballs wither away,
leaving the bare sockets.
When you chant poems your heart leaks out slowly
with each word.
People say reading books is enjoyable.
People say chanting poems is fun.
But if your lips constantly make a sound
like an insect chirping in autumn,
you will only turn into a haggard old man.
And even if you don’t turn into a haggard old man,
it’s annoying for others to have to hear you.

It’s so much better
to close your eyes, sit in your study,
lower the curtains, sweep the floor,
burn incense.
It’s beautiful to listen to the wind,
listen to the rain,
take a walk when you feel energetic,
and when you’re tired go to sleep.

—Yang Wan-li (1127-1206), “Don’t Read Books!”