Louis Martin  
  ON THE PLAZA there are mostly old men now--Chinese--playing chess, checkers, and Russian poker. Some sit away from the games, staring into space or quietly talking. There is no fashionable dress here--jackets are tan or gray--and the energy level, already low, is ebbing. Except for a couple of plaques and a small statue, one would not guess that the plaza had any significance at all.  
  The place? Portsmouth Plaza in San Francisco. Or as maps usually show it, Portsmouth Square. But the first time anything happened there, San Francisco wasn't San Francisco. It was a pueblo called Yerba Buena that belonged to Mexico. That was before California came down with its first case of fever, one called the Gold Rush. Fewer than 500 people lived in "The City" that was to be.  
  But back to the plaza: What caused it to become "Portsmouth Square" was the arrival in the early morning on July 9, 1846 of Captain John Montgomery and the sloop-of-war "Portsmouth." Back then the water line came up to what is now Montgomery Street, one block below Kearney at the edge of the plaza. It wasn't a long walk up to the plaza to raise the Stars and Stripes.  
  And if there were any objections to this symbolic land grab, they were not voiced.
  Where old men sit and play checkers was also the site of the first public school in California. The time would be 1848, and no permits were required to build it. It was a simple one-room school for all grades, though not all races.
  Of course in 1848 gold was discovered at Coloma and the great rush to get it soon began. By 1853 the population of San Francisco had grown to fifty thousand. It became the financial center of California. It is hard to imagine the fever of the times in the spent look of the men who now play games to occupy themselves in the plaza.
  WITH GOLD FEVER came people from all over the world. And with them came Chinese laborers, mostly from the Canton province, where war and the lack of work made the risk of the trip to California seem worth it. While they were originally welcome, because they were willing to do jobs that others didn't want to do and for meager wages, by the 1877, when jobs were scarce, they were resented.

  The Irish, themselves on somewhat shaky social ground, were particularly resentful. Denis Kearney, an Irish labor orator said to be colorful of speech but ungrammatical, used to wind up every harangue with "the Chinese must go!"  
  But such sentiments didn't stop Robert Louis Stevenson from hanging out with the Chinese on Portsmouth Plaza when he lived in San Francisco in 1879 and 1880. Maybe it even encouraged the Scottish-born author of such exotic tales as "Treasure Island" and "Kidnapped" all the more. Part of his daily routine was to walk up from Bush Street and sit in the sun and chat with the Chinese. Stevenson, one of the original hanger-outers, moved briefly to San Francisco to be with his beloved--Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, whom he had met the year before in France while she was on vacation contemplating a divorce from her philandering husband.  
  Eventually Stevenson and Fanny married and moved with her three children to Upolu, one of the Samoan Islands, where he hung out with the natives, who loved his stories and called him "Tusitala," teller of tales.  
  Stevenson suffered lung problems all his life and was always moving in search of a better climate. One can understand how the sun of Portsmouth Plaza would appeal to him along, of course, with the radiance of being in love.  
  And, yes, there is a plaque for Stevenson in the plaza.  

  One block up from the plaza on Grant Avenue, the main artery of tourism through Chinatown, the first building in San Francisco was erected. This was 1835, long before Stevenson's sunny time; the building, dedicated to commerce, was the trading post of William Richardson. Since then, of course, the temples of commerce have grown mighty and tall, though most are built on land-fill east of Chinatown.  
  A MAJOR LAND GRAB, a first school, a Bohemian writer, the beginnings of commerce--as you can see by now, the plaza is chock-full of history. Look closely, and while an old man picks up a chessman, hesitates, then sets it down, you may be able to spot an apparition of the past. A young man with a queue--considered foreign or weird till recent times but now almost chic--crosses a plaza that has no parking garage below it. He balances a heavy load on his shoulders but steals a quick glance at the bay and the hills on the other side. He sees blue waters and oak-studded hills, sharp and clear.  
  As the chessman is placed upon the board, the apparition disappears with its load and a new one appears: it is 1906 and the city has been destroyed by three days of fire following an earthquake. It is the beginning of life in park camps for many. The government builds 5005 "refuge cottages." It is hard times for most. For some, however, it presents an opportunity.  
  Before the earthquake a movement was underway to move the Chinese to Hunter's Point in order to expand the financial district up the hill. With the Chinese displaced by the earthquake, a plan is put together by ex-major Phelan and others to move them to Hunter's Point, a location, then as now, less than desirable. In fact this plan is put together only six days after the earthquake. Empathy and opportunity do not seem to mix.  
  But the planners do not count on one thing: relief money for the Chinese from the Ching Dynasty. As it turns out, the Chinese are one of the first groups to be able to rebuild. The growth of the financial district is checked.  
  Patiently, now, an old man in a tan jacket moves an elephant, protecting the king in his palace. His opponent sighs, looking faintly disappointed, resigned to a game headed towards a draw.  

Simple paper board on park bench, hand drawn, and fancy board in Chinatown shop