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Posts Tagged ‘Chinatown’


How would you feel if you walked into a restaurant this evening and were immediately greeted by the head waiter admonishing you in a broken English Chinese accent to “sit down and shut up”, then ignoring you completely or, if you were lucky, hurling the menu at you?  Oh, and don’t make the mistake of requesting an English translation of that menu if you want to avoid a further volley of vitriol. And if you are a woman, or have women in your party, keep a close eye on that waiter because he is prone to grope female customers (the only time he is likely to crack into a smile).

So how would you react?  Walk out?  Ask to speak to the manager?  Post an adverse review on TripAdvisor?  Sue the restaurant?  Punch the waiter’s lights out?

Well, that is likely to have been your experience had you visited the Sam Wo restaurant on Washington Street, between Grant Avenue and Waverly Place, in Chinatown during the decades following the second world war.  And it is equally likely that you may have chosen to dine there in the express hope that you would be on the receiving end of such appalling service.  Indeed, being insulted at Sam Wo became as much a “must do” San Francisco experience as drinking Irish coffee at the Buena Vista Café or driving across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Your tormentor would have been Edsel Ford Fong, the “world’s rudest waiter”, who, in the words of Stephen Jay Hansen in his excellent The Other Guide to San Francisco – or 105 Things to Do After You’ve Taken a Cable Car to Fisherman’s Wharf, “baits and berates male customers and shamelessly hustles every woman who enters his domain.  He’ll throw you a load of chopsticks with a brusque “Dry!” or spirit away your date to help him wait on tables.  He’s a refreshingly irreverent wit and an absolutely crazed madman”.

It’s No. 58 by the way (of the things to do that is, not a dish on the menu).

Fong, who was born in Chinatown on 6th May 1927, was an imposing figure measuring six foot and weighing 200 pounds, sporting a severe crew cut hairstyle and wearing both a long apron and permanent scowl.  He exploited his reputation brazenly, criticising customers’ menu choices, getting orders wrong (deliberately?), slamming food on the table and spilling it over the customers, refusing to provide knives and forks as alternatives to chopsticks, removing plates before the customer had finished eating, and reacting angrily to tips that didn’t exceed 15% (surely such an entertainer has a right to expect more?!). Unsuspecting white tourists were particularly fair game for his most patronising and scurrilous comments.

Herb Caen, the celebrated San Francisco Chronicle columnist, was a regular patron of Sam Wo and an amused advocate of Fong, repeating Edsel’s finest insults from the night before in the next morning’s edition of the newspaper.  Fong would respond by proudly waving it at anyone in the restaurant who was interested or wan’t, it was all the same to him.

He died in April 1984 but his legacy lives on in many ways, not least in the occasionally churlish service still prevalent at Sam Wo today, though it lacks the panache brought to it by Fong.  A series of club-level Asian food stands at AT& T Park are named after him, and his status in the community has been visually commemorated in his inclusion in the 200 foot long, 7 foot tall “Gold Mountain” mural depicting Chinese contributions to US history, painted on the side of an apartment building in Romolo Place near the intersection of Broadway and Columbus in North Beach.

Fong also appears in  Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin and was played by Arsenio “Sonny Trinidad” in the ensuing miniseries.

I’ll finish with an excerpt from the book where our heroine, naive Mary Ann Singleton still fresh out of Cleveland, and taken to Sam Wo’s by bumbling private investigator, Norman Neal Williams, bears the brunt of Fong’s ire:

“Hey, lady! Go wash yo’ hands!’

Thunderstruck, she turned to see where the voice had come from. An indignant Chinese waiter was unloading plates of noodles from the dumbwaiter. She stopped in her tracks, stared at her accuser, then looked back towards the rest room.

The sink was outside the door. In the dining room.

A dozen diners were watching her, smirking at her discomfort. The waiter stood his ground. ‘Wash, lady. You don’t wash, you don’t eat!’

She washed, returning red-faced to the table. Norman grinned sheepishly. ‘I should have warned you’.

‘You knew he would do that?’

He specializes in being rude. It’s a joke. War lord-turned-waiter. People come here for it.’

‘Well, I didn’t’”.

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As we were due to return the hire car by 2.30pm we felt we should make best use of it by visiting some of the sights less easy to get to by public transport or on foot.  Firstly, we drove out to Ocean Beach and explored the delightful districts of Parkside and Sunset, before stopping at 16th and Moraga to walk up and down the beautiful marble stairway with outstanding views of the Pacific coastline.   We noticed that many of the animal designs in the marble contained people’s names, presumably by way of sponsorship, and set me to look at the possibility of having our names included on it.

Our next stop was Twin Peaks.  It had been the first place in San Francisco we had visited on a coach tour back in 1995 and, to be honest, I don’t think either of us had taken much note of it then, more interested in later delights such as Fisherman’s Wharf and cable car rides.  The absurdity of that attitude was exposed when we feasted our eyes on The City laid out before us on this warm, sunny morning.  What struck me in particular was just how near everything was, you could almost take it in the palm of your hand and stroke it.  

We prised ourselves reluctantly from Twin Peaks and headed down into the Castro and the Mission where we tried to find a parking space close to Dolores Park to relax and enjoy the famed views of the city from there.   But it proved futile, after all it was Friday lunchtime, the sun was beating down and half of San Francisco had got the same idea – never mind, we will do it before we leave.

A tortuous drive back through the Mission and along the Embarcadero meant that we handed back the car to Avis on Beach Street less than an hour before we were required to.  By this time we were hungry and in Fisherman’s Wharf where we had a mediocre lunch experience on the previous day.   However, we had enjoyed a nice meal at Lou’s at Pier 47 in the past so felt comfortable in sitting down at one of the outside tables there.  We were not disappointed as my salmon cakes and Janet’s red snapper were excellent.

With the car returned it was time to collect our City Pass booklets which I had purchased online before leaving the UK.  We walked up Mason and Columbus in the blistering sun to Washington Square where, still replete from lunch, we crashed out on the ground with a cold drink.  However, we soon sought sanctuary on a park bench, as my damp shorts testified that the heat of the past few days had still not drawn the dew left by the incessant rain beforehand from the grass.

Washington Square was understandably busy with bikini clad girls stretched out in the sun, Chinese elders gossiping under the shade of the trees, a single hippie playing catch with himself and office workers resting on the way home to make phone calls to arrange their evening activities.

Refreshed, we walked through the heart of Chinatown to Union Square, stopping only to check the closing time of the restaurant we were planning to eat at later, and for Janet to have her first fix of DW Shoes on Powell whilst I collected the City Pass booklets from the visitor information centre on Hallidie Plaza.  We then used our 7 day MUNI passport for the first time in returning to the apartment.

The highlight of the day, with the possible exception of Twin Peaks, was the journey back into the time in the evening on the no. 5 bus.  After the no-show on Monday evening, which necessitated the life threatening cab ride to the Warfield, at least the bus had the decency to turn up tonight, even if we had more than a ten minute wait in the increasing cold.

The journey was uneventful until Fillmore when a middle aged woman with a motorised wheelchair got on.  The step onto the bus was lowered by the driver to allow her to enter.  The bus was very busy with standing room only at this point but the woman had to manoeuvre herself into the wheelchair user space a third of the way along the bus.  The next five minutes entailed those sitting at the front of the bus having to bring their feet up onto their seats to enable her to get past, when she then engineered a 27 point turn into her appointed position.  It was clear from when she told the driver where she wanted to get off that the same pantomine would be required sooner rather than later.

However, it got worse.  At the next stop a young girl got on with a child in a buggy, which would inevitably complicate matters a little.  But when TWO more girls got on with buggies at the very next stop, this was going to be very interesting.  Once we had reached Larkin and the female wheelchair user wanted to get off it looked an impossibility – until the three girls with buggies, noticing that seats had been vacated, leapt back into the seats, in an almost orchestrated manoeuvre,  with the buggies, complete with babies, in their arms, allowing the wheelchair to get through, and universal applause from the front of the bus.  In our experience there are very few MUNI journeys, especially at night, that cannot provide some such adventure.

We had decided to revisit our favourite Chinatown restaurant, the Great Eastern on Grant and Jackson, and despite the delay caused by the bus journey, we were found a table immediately.  Although the R & G Lounge that we had eaten at in 2008 was possibly the smartest Chinatown restaurant we have eaten at, the Great Eastern has now given us three consistently good meals and is thoroughly recommended – my scallops with straw mushrooms and sugar snap peas, along with shrimp fried rice, was filling and delicious.

And I can proudly announce that I completed my very first chinese meal without resorting once to a spoon or fork, even to clear the final scraps off my plate.  It was chopsticks all the way – and it was still warm when I had finished! 

A couple of large straight Jack Daniel’s for me and two gin and tonics for Janet at Vesuvio’s in Columbus and Jack Kerouac Boulevard completed our evening, apart from a relatively smooth if painfully slow MUNI bus home.

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