“It’s Chinatown, Jake…”

by Michelle Gagnon

Promising to “bring to life the tales of San Francisco Chinatown’s supernatural past and present,” The San Francisco Chinatown Ghost Tour features a meandering walk through Chinatown’s alleyways just after nightfall. Our local Sisters in Crime chapter has been holding semi-quarterly “field trips,” and chose this as one of them, both for research and for fun. Not necessarily as much fun as holding a loaded weapon (our previous excursion was to a shooting range), but really, what can compete with that?

We met at Kan’s restaurant, where our hostess (Empress Yee) got us appropriately spooked by inviting us to share our own personal ghost stories and offering a brief discussion of Chinese astrology. She also showed us a family heirloom, a key that apparently flipped of its own accord. Whether it was just a parlor trick or not, it set the mood for the evening.

From there, we did indeed wander those alleyways. Along with a few scattered stories, some of which are local legend, others related to things her own family members experienced, we learned the origins of the term “hooker” and “Shanghied.” (Prostitutes on the upper floors of a building used fishing hooks to snag passing men’s hats. Apparently once a man has climbed three flights of stairs for his hat, he’s easily convinced to pay for sex. Perhaps because he’s worked up an appetite?)

That alone made it worth the $25 for me (plus we stopped in at the city’s own mom and pop fortune cookie factory. Very cool, and included free samples).

It was also fascinating to learn why residents of apartment buildings whose rooms face open alleyways hang eight-sided Bagua mirrors above their windows. I lived a few blocks from Chinatown for a few years, and noticed these little mirrors everywhere; at the time I simply figured it was some sort of strange decorating fad. Little did I realize it’s actually part of the practice of Feng Shui, designed to fend off bad energies from your home (and everyone knows, bad things come down alleys, both spiritually and otherwise).

I have to say, we definitely went through parts of Chinatown that I wouldn’t have been comfortable going through alone at night. Not due to any sense of heightened danger, but mainly because I wouldn’t necessarily be welcome. This is definitely a section of San Francisco where once the sun sets and the tourists have retreated to the restaurants bridging the main thoroughfares from here to North Beach, the alleys assume a life of their own. We strolled past sweatshops that afterhours converted to mah jong gambling houses, the clink of the tiles and light spilling out of open doorways. Our guide tipped us off as to which buildings housed the “real” Chinese mob, and gave us a brief history of the local family associations/tongs. She’s also a frequent consultant on films shot in San Francisco, and sprinkled the tour with everything from leftover sets from Nash Bridges (apparently the locals liked it so much, they asked that it remain after shooting) to showing us buildings set so close together the Jackie Chan happily climbed up the space between them doing stunts for one of his films. And along the way, we exploded lots of “poppers,” both to scare off any ghosts that might want to tag along and to provide some general giddy entertainment..

Good times, all. I head to Baltimore next week, and a tour of Quantico that I’m positively giddy about. I’ll tell you all about it when I return. In the meantime, a question for you: name your Chinese astrological sign, and whether or not it suits you (aka, “What’s your sign, babe?”)

My Ghost Story

by Michelle Gagnon

I know, I know…it’s a little early for Halloween material, but what the hey, it is my favorite holiday so I’m starting the celebration early. I kicked things off this past weekend when our local Sisters in Crime chapter took the “Official San Francisco Chinatown Ghost Tour.” I’ll describe that experience in more detail next week, suffice it to say it was well worth the money if for no other reason than I learned the true origins of the terms “hooker” and “Shanghaied.”

We opened the evening sitting around the lounge of a deserted Chinese restaurant sharing ghost stories, something I haven’t done since Girl Scout campfire time. So today I’m going to offer my best contribution to the genre. It’s been a long time since I thought of this incident, years, in fact. But it still makes a chill go down my spine…

People often ask why my books are set in New England when I’ve spent the past decade in the more temperate climes of the Bay Area. Initially it wasn’t a conscious decision, but when forced to reflect back on it I can safely say that for me, New England is just plain spooky. You get a sense of a past there that doesn’t exist in land of split-level ranch-houses and shopping malls. Add to that the fact that I grew up in a two hundred year-old renovated farm house with a ramshackle barn on the property that could easily have passed for the set of a horror film, and you’ll get some insight into my psyche.

In that barn, from the day we moved in until my parents finally left twenty-some odd years later, there was an aged, yellowing calendar on the wall. Since July 1952, no one had torn off a month. We bought the house from an elderly woman who had literally spent her entire life there, and had finally decided to move to a smaller, more manageable house.

Eleanor Cockrell told us that her father, a furniture maker by trade, had died suddenly of a heart attack in that barn mid-July, 1952. Apparently it never occurred to anyone to remove the calendar, or any of the spooky pieces of broken furniture scattered throughout. You would think that as a kid, having a barn like that to play in would have been a treat. Truth is, we barely went in the place. There was just something about it, an undeniable dark energy there.

Not that the rest of the house was any less spooky. I started suffering from insomnia when I was twelve years-old, and was therefore treated to years’ worth of odd late night bumps, creaks, and groans. Footsteps, where there shouldn’t have been any. If I closed the closet door in my bedroom all the way, at some point, maybe a minute later, maybe an hour, it crashed open again with a resounding “thump.”

“It’s an old house,” my parents would say, rolling their eyes. “Just wood settling.”

Strange things happened periodically, lights left on in rooms no one had been in, strange buzzing sounds bouncing around the house in such a way that even my parents were at a loss for an explanation.

But this one event I believe is indisputable. It was right before my parents were due to move out, and I was back home with a boyfriend clearing out years worth of old report cards and movie stubs (yes, I am a pack rat). Most of these treasured items were stored under the eaves in our attic. The Cockrells apparently hadn’t used the attic much in the winter, and Henry had built a large panel that could close off the staircase so only the bottom two floors would have to be heated. For the twenty odd years that we lived in that house, that panel had never been closed, not once. It wasn’t locked, but was almost too heavy to move, so we never worried about it.

It was one of those roasting hot, humid July afternoons that New England specializes in. My boyfriend and I were filthy from crawling around in the accumulated dust and dirt, dripping sweat thanks to the 100+ degree temperatures. As we headed downstairs to take a break, he muttered under his breath that this was the crappiest house he’d ever been in, and he couldn’t wait to leave.

That’s when it happened. Out of nowhere, the panel that hadn’t moved for decades slammed down on his head, sending him tumbling down the stairs and nearly knocking him unconscious. Hard to say if it was Henry taking offense, or another resident—I always suspected we had more than one of them rattling around, it was after all a very large, very old house. My boyfriend survived, but refused to return to the attic. And needless to say, that relationship didn’t work out in the end. Maybe Henry knew best, after all.

I love a good ghost story, so if you’ve got one to share, let’s hear it…