“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?”)