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By Louis Martin


IT IS SUMMER in the city, and the line for the cable cars at Powell and Market is long. No one but a tourist would have the time or patience for such a wait. In fact the younger tourists, accompanied by older tourist-parents, don't. They wander off in search of cold drinks, anything but the company of parents.

The sky is blue and cloudless for once, and it is hot in the line at mid day. The two teenagers return with drinks in large plastic cups with spill-proof tops. They are lanky boys with blond hair cut short, sort of punk-rock-surfer style. They look very Californian for speaking German. Back in line they look like young dogs on a short leash, anxious and eager for what is impossible in the presence of parents.

The mother is short, compact, the father vague. Though he wears some kind of captain's hat, he does not look like he is in control. He is also so short, he does not look like he could be the boy's father. He turns and looks to see if a cable car is coming.

"Nicht gehts!" snaps the mother at one of the boys who is about to take off again. He stops dead, as if yanked by an invisible leash.

Behind, two Swedish girls chat non-stop while a sad-looking wheel-chair clown blows up a skinny red balloon, then shapes it into a heart for a little girl.

Two panhandlers, one mean and tough, work the line for change. "We're almost there, can you help?" asks the mean one, as if to say, "Want to avoid a scene?"

Finally a cable car arrives. It is positioned on the old wooden turntable and rotated around by the crew pushing it, and passengers cram aboard. The driver engages the cable and the car begins to grind its way up Powell Street. Destination: Fisherman's Wharf, once known as Meigg's Wharf at a time when no tourist would be caught dead there.

WAVERLY STREET in Chinatown is off the beaten track. It is one of those narrow streets between the main streets of Chinatown. It runs from Sacramento to Washington between Grant and Stockton. You will see a few adventuresome tourists there - the wandering type - but no German families with would-be surfer sons.

Like the four-story brick building itself, the stairway is old. It seems to sway slightly as you make the ascent. But it is clean and freshly painted white. At the top is the Tien Hau Temple. Though the temple is "open," you have to push a buzzer to be let in.

Tien Hau is the Goddess of Heaven and Sea and this temple is the oldest Taoist temple in the United States. The original temple was built in 1852, the figure of Tien Hau having been brought over from China.

She was born on Meichow Island in the Fukein Province in 960 A.D. Nicknamed "Muk Neung" or the quiet maiden, because she was not heard to cry during the first month following her birth, she started meditation at the age of 11. She was said to have shown exceptional power of perception as well as a kind and sympathetic nature.

She was accepted by the Taoist high priest Yun Tung, who said of her, "You, being born with a heart full of compassion and good virtue, are destined to be a savior of the mortals."

There is story of an extraordinary occurrence when Tien Hau was 19. One day she was sewing when her brother and father had taken a trip at sea. She dozed off but suddenly awoke from a terrifying dream. She saw her brother and father in a violent storm. Somehow she jumped into the sea and caught her father in her teeth and grabbed her brother by the hand. She would have saved both but for her mother calling. When she heard her mother she opened her mouth to answer and her father slipped back into the sea. Her brother, however, she saved.

Ever since, Tien Hau has been worshipped for her power to help those in distress - especially those at sea - and that is why she had a special meaning to the early Chinese who came to San Francisco. The trip was treacherous and made in small primitive vessels.

In recent times the temple has been expanded to include a host of other gods, including Cheung Wong Yee, the God of Wealth, the magic physician Wah To, and the righteous Judge Pao Kung. As the stature of the Chinese has grown in San Francisco, so has the range of gods represented in this temple.

Burning incense, hundreds of oranges placed in saucers as offerings, and hanging lamps affixed with the names of the would-be prosperous - all these fill the temple. On an open balcony more incense burns, the smoke drifting with a Pacific breeze over Grant Avenue and the heart of Chinatown. Tien Hau Temple is not a modern temple. In fact it seems impervious to time. Walk three flights of stairs and you are back in 1852. The experience is free, though the goddess will gladly accept a donation.

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BACK ON WAVERLY, then around the corner on Washington you will find a shop - the Superior Trading Company - specializing in Ginseng. Go the other way, and surely you will find another shop specializing in Ginseng. It is an exceedingly popular herbal root with the Chinese.

"You take two a day, you don't need doctor," says the woman who sits like a lump at the counter. Though she is the least active, she seems to be the center of the busy shop. A young man is carting more sacks of Ginseng into the shop, and a young woman squeezes between the counter and the shop's entrance to a small accounting office.

"They try to cheat me," says the woman at the counter who has now been dragged reluctantly into conversation. Her voice is loud, that of a "wronged" woman. Superior buys raw herbs and sends them out to processing companies. It is the old story of the miller taking his share or a little more. Remember Chaucer's tale about Simkin the miller and the two students, John and Alan? A bawdy tale but one to remember and one with a lesson.

The woman at the counter doesn't get even - doesn't dishonor both the wife and daughter of her processor and beat him with a stick - but she does quit doing business with anyone who cheats her. "I can tell," she says pouting. In addition to knowing how much goes out the door for processing, she tastes what comes back. If the processed good is weak, she knows she has been cheated.

"This good Ginseng," she says holding a box with the Superior label. "You buy, I open, show." She opens the seal on the box and pulls out thin-sliced strips of Ginseng root.

"Two a day, don't need doctor."

Across the street and up a little is Ross Alley. Once upon a time it was supposed to have had some twenty gambling dens, the doors fortified with iron plate to thwart police raids. The alleys of Chinatown are where the vice used to be - opium dens, prostitution, and gambling. Now it has Sam Bo Trading Company and a fortune cookie factory - weak stuff by former standards.

Sam Bo has all you need if you are headed to a Chinese funeral - paper money, paper for burning, and so on. Sam Bo also has the stuff you need to turn your life around and become prosperous. For the latter, old paper printed with symbols and scenes of wise old men will do the trick. And the price is a bargain. Even if these goods don't bring the prosperity advertised, they aren't going to break you.

Further down the alley on the same side is the fortune cookie factory. Two women sit at ancient machines; another fusses with the "finished goods." They all look weary, like mythological characters who have been assigned to a century of punishment for offending some over-sensitive god, and they do not look like they are expecting to be rescued soon. They are "manufacturers" and there is no colorful retailer's sign outside - only a small sign low down in the window. It says French Adult Fortune Cookies. Maybe that is a sideline. There is nothing risqué about the ones they sell to walk-in customers, anyway.

Watch out if you visit Ross Alley on a weekend in summer. It is a favorite spot of tour guides wanting to show the "real Chinatown."

Now if you are really adventurous and want to experience the real Chinatown, walk out the alley onto Jackson, cross the street and head up. Then enter Hue An Company. It is a Chinese pharmacy. There you will be completely ignored. Or, should you manage to grab someone's attention, you will be treated like a Great Bother. Savor the experience: it's authentic.

Which is not to say that all of Chinatown is unfriendly. Many try to bridge the gap. But many do not. From the beginning the Chinese have had a preference for their own culture, refusing to be "melted into the pot." And in some ways Chinatown is their fortress, as it was in the early days, when it literally protected them from attack. Originally they did not all congregate in one place. But in the 1870s when jobs became scarcer following the completion of the railroad, they came under attack for their willingness to work for low wages. Discriminatory legislation was passed both at the state and local level - the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a Queue Ordinance in 1876 requiring that all Chinese being held in county jail be shorn of their pig tails - and in San Francisco the Workingman's Party was organized by an Irish-born orator named Denis Kearney, whose constant refrain was "The Chinese must go!" It was not a friendly climate for the Chinese, and because of numerous acts of violence against them, they sought protection. While discriminatory legislation has since been repealed, there are still occasional "hate" incidents involving graffiti. In short, it is not surprising that Chinatown maintains a reserved attitude towards non-Chinese.

NOW IF YOU really want to do some unencumbered touristing in the summer in San Francisco, head out of Chinatown north on Stockton towards North Beach. But stop before you get to heady Columbus and walk into the Bay View Bank. Yes, that is right: the Bay View Bank. Some of San Francisco's best museums are the small ones spread out around town in the communities that know themselves and what ought to be preserved. The Bay View Bank seems to have North Beach down pat.

But now get this: the museum may be dark when you get there. That is because no one is in it. Where are they? Perhaps still at the corner of Powell and Market in line; perhaps listening to some fat seals bark on a wharf that used to belong to real fishermen. But anyway, they are not here and you will likely have the museum to yourself.

The North Beach Museum is upstairs and the lights will flick on magically as you enter. It helps if you know the current North Beach - beyond the Lucky Lady, that is. But in any case, you will get a better sense of North Beach in its early days than you will get any other way. There is more than photos, but it is really the photos and the carefully crafted descriptions that go with them that do the trick - and maybe the layout around and in the middle of the room by theme or era. And the good things, the real things they depict. Like food, baseball, community, the building of a church, and parades with pride but not necessarily sex.

Ever wonder about Fior D'Italia and its claim to be the oldest Italian restaurant in San Francisco? At the museum you will see wonderful pictures of it from 1886 when it was located at 492 on Broadway. You will see the big dining room lined with tables for a banquet for a visiting king, every table with half a dozen bottles of wine on it. And you will see Buon Gusto Sausage Factory with the full crew standing at attention - all smartly dressed and looking as though the job meant something. And you will see the true "Pride of North Beach," Virgil Aschero, heavy weight boxing champion in the 1920s in gloves and shorts with dukes raised and no suggestion of a kinky smile on his lips. He looks like he means business, and only one kind of business, the boxing business. And you will see three North Beach baseball players from the 1930s - all New York Yankees - Joe DiMaggio, Frankie Crosetti, and Tony Lazerri. They stand in uniform each with a bat - not in court on drug charges. Yes, those were different times. And if you've ever wondered about Italian fishing boats and what the difference is between a felucca and a silana - here's your chance to see if you can spot it. (Not much but you will have a better feeling for Italian fishing boats after you have stared for awhile.)

Ever wonder what Saint Peter & Paul looked like when it was under construction? How they built those spires that rise like protective arms over Washington Square? Or what Fisherman's Wharf looked like before it became an "attraction"?

Here you can wonder all you want and for as long as you want. It's cool in the bank and no one is going to push you out of a line that is going nowhere anyway.

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