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Chinatown Ghost Tours Tell Neighborhood’s Chilling History

Dozens of tour members join Cynthia Yee as they gallivant through the old haunts of San Francisco Chinatown.

After dark, San Francisco Chinatown transforms into a spirited, mystic enclave full of chilling experiences and ghostly stories, all of which are tucked inside its spooky alleyways. If you don’t believe in the supernatural, there’s a good chance you will after taking one of Chinatown’s popular ghost tours led by the community’s leading historians.

Don’t let its name fool you. The tour guides aren’t paranormal experts; they aren’t psychics. These tour guides are Chinatown historians that let the neighborhood’s mystical folklore and unearthly history do all the talking during these 90-minute walking tours.

Two weeks ago on a Saturday, I ventured on one of these ghost tours led by Chinatown local and personality Cynthia Yee. Yee, 65, led her tour group into dark, dank alleyways that possess unique, ghostly stories.

Do you see the little white spots? Creepy...

One of the alleyways, Hang Ah Alley, told a spooky story of a woman named Anna Wong who died from heartbreak in her apartment after her husband died in battle during World War II. Her spirit still lurks in the alleyway at night. Some people from the group noticed little white spots that floated around Wong’s apartment building. Many believe that Wong is still alive in spirit in this alleyway, Yee said.

Another alleyway worth noting is the infamously known “Cat” Alleyway. Dozens of stray cats can be seen roaming inside this alley in the dark of the night. No one know who they belong to, Yee said. It is believed that these cats are actually reincarnations of the dozens of victims who were murdered in this alleyway over a century ago, Yee said.

The ghost tour shed more light on the mystery of Chinatown’s mystical alleyways during the night. These tours are offered every Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 p.m.. You can reserve a tour at their official website.

Sunday Streets Comes To Chinatown

San Francisco’s Chinatown is finally set to be graced with the arrival of Sunday Streets for the first time this year, announced Mayor Ed Lee last week.

The growing demand from neighborhood and merchant associations prompted a Sunday Streets date for this summer. Residents and leaders of Chinatown have long dreamed of pedestrianizing the busiest of streets, including the crowded, touristy Grant Avenue.

“Sunday Streets will allow residents and tourists to explore every nook and cranny in our streets,” said Anna Yee, a director of the Chinatown Community Development Center. “This brings the opportunity to work with all elements of the community.”

Though Sunday Streets will disable cars from entering Chinatown from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the event will provide breathing room on the streets mostly reserved for storing and moving motor vehicles.

According to CCDC senior planner Deland Chan, walking is the primary way of getting around Chinatown, which suits the nature and meaning of Sunday Streets—being able to explore every corner of a neighborhood on foot.

“It’s really great that there’s recognition that walking is the best way to explore the streets and alleyways of Chinatown,” said Chan. “This is not only great exercise, but a chance to get to know your neighbors.”

The first Sunday Streets of the season kicked off yesterday along the Embarcadero from Fisherman’s Wharf to Mission Bay.

This is the current tentative schedule:

* March 20: Embarcadero from Fisherman’s Wharf to Mission Bay

* April 10: Great Highway and Golden Gate Park

* May 8: Mission, including the popular route along 24th and Valencia Streets

* June 12: Bayview, on 3rd Street from Mission Bay, Dogpatch to Bayview Opera House

* July 10: Great Highway and Golden Gate Park #2

* August 14: Civic Center and the Tenderloin

* September 11: Western Addition, North Panhandle, Alamo Square and Fillmore

* Summer: Chinatown and North Beach

* October 23: Mission #2

Cynthia Yee: Rejuvenating The Golden Age Of Chinatown’s Nightclub Scene

The Follies impress dozens of seniors at Aegis Gardens senior center in Fremont with their stellar tap routine to "Razzle Dazzle."

Dozens of seniors at Aegis Gardens senior center in Fremont sat before the Grant Avenue Follies as they jived to the high-energy Broadway classic “Razzle Dazzle.” The seniors ogled the dancers’ shimmery black sequined dresses as they began to groove and shimmy in their wheelchairs. For a full 45 minutes, the dance room morphed into a flashback of Chinatown nightlife in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Cynthia Yee, 65, saw the opportunity to rejuvenate the long-forgotten golden age of Chinatown’s nightclub scene with the Grant Avenue Follies, a troupe of Asian American dancers in their fifties and beyond. The seven-year-old dance troupe performs mostly tap and Hawaiian-style dance that evoke this glitzy era.

“Everything we’re doing now, we basically did in the ‘60s,” Yee said. “It’s a nostalgic trip for us and our audience.”

Yee recalls going to the famed Forbidden City nightclub at nine years old and being intrigued by the “Chinese Harry Houdini,” Ah Hing. She loved how Hing’s wife was his assistant, she joked.

Along with dancing, Yee performs magic acts with Native American magician Tamaka at school assemblies. Together they are called Tamaka & The Empress.

The Follies dancers make it a point to perform for others who are too frail to go out to see performances. Chuck Gee, former costume designer for the Forbidden City and the only male dancer for the Follies, said the troupe performs mostly at retirement homes, nursing homes and veteran hospitals.

“At the end of the performance when you see all those smiling faces, you realize that they love the attention.” Gee, 76, said. “It’s the human contact that makes performing special. They’re always very appreciative.”

Ivy Tam wows the audience with her signature Fan Dance.

The Follies dancers was originally composed of four former professional nightclub dancers, including Yee, from the nightclub era. Ivy Tam, a former dancer of Forbidden City in the early ‘60s, as well as the wife of its late owner Charlie Low, performs her signature fan dance for the Follies. She also designs the dancers’ ornate headdresses.

“Now I dance for a different purpose. It’s no longer for the money,” Tam, 75, said. “Most of the dance members are retired teachers. Dancing is now a part of our exercise.”

As founder of the Grant Avenue Follies, Yee received the national Jefferson Award in 2005 for her involvement with the Chinese Hospital Auxiliary and providing entertainment for patients at convalescent homes and hospitals. The dance group performs free of charge twice a month at senior centers throughout the Bay Area.

“Most people in these retirement homes knew about the clubs. Some even went there for their proms. I certainly did,” said Yee. “This is our way of giving back.”

Cynthia Yee leads a group of tourists and locals on a ghost tour through Chinatown's alleyways, telling them spooky ghost stories tied to each alleyway.

Dancing isn’t all Yee does for the community. She leads ghost tours of Chinatown on Saturday evenings where she teaches participants the rich history of Chinatown’s nightlife and spooky ghost stories. These tours are to fund her volunteer activities, which include knitting winter hats and scarves for the needy.

Yee, the tap-dancing tour guide magician, said that she’ll probably never retire.

“Performing or anything close to music and costumes is something that just doesn’t leave you. It’s the passion, I guess. I don’t know. Is that what you call passion?”

Portsmouth Square: A Means Of Communication Among Generations

Framed on three sides by Chinatown and a fourth by office towers, it’s hard to believe that Portsmouth Square held San Francisco’s original town square—a place that predates the California Gold Rush.

Now, this two-tiered plaza is the deck of a parking garage, as well as one of the very few gathering spots in Chinatown for elderly Asians and their grandchildren. Elders are often seen in large groups playing cards while young children gleefully run around the playground.

Portsmouth Square is considered as "Chinatown's living room" where elders meet up to play cards or mahjong while their grandchildren roam around and play in the playground.

“This place acts as a sort of connection among generations of Chinese-Americans,” said Chinatown resident Amy Cheng. “My grandfather used to take me here weekly as a kid.”

The square has become such a prevalent gathering spot that it’s been nicknamed the “Heart of Chinatown,” serving as an epicenter of recreational activities for all ages.

“There isn’t a lot of space in Chinatown to all meet in one area. Even homes are stacked on top of stores,” said Carmen Lim, a San Francisco State University student majoring in Asian American studies. “This park is the perfect place to spend quality time with friends and family.”

Cheng said her grandfather, Pat Cheng, taught her how to play mahjong in the park, providing her with prizewinning strategies. She spent most of her quality time with her grandfather as a child in the square.

“My childhood friends wouldn’t have dared to challenge me in a game of mahjong,” Cheng said. “They knew I’d obliterate them.”

At first glance, it seems that Portsmouth Square is a run-down park where the entire pidgeon population in San Francisco seem to flock. But beneath this derelict veneer, this park is a conduit that helps channel communication among generations, no matter how far apart.

Walking Into Class On The Right Foot

Julie Yin, 7, remembers being teased at school for wearing makeshift straw sandals her mother made her. They were torn and ill-fitting, she said. What Yin needed was a new pair of shoes. Her own pair of shoes. Something to be proud of when walking into class.

“If someone gave me those small things, I’d be happy for the rest of my life,” Yin gleefully chuckled.

When Yin and her father were next in line at the San Francisco Chinatown Community Development Center on Wednesday, she grinned as she became the owner of a sleek pair of bubble-gum pink sneakers with bright white laces.

In partnership with the non-profit organization My New Red Shoes, the CCDC helped provide about 400 Chinatown children living in single-room occupancy hotels with new shoes and gift bags. The children ranged from kindergartners to high school seniors.

“Last year was the first time we held this event, but we’re much more organized this year,”  CCDC Deputy Director Norman Fong said. “Workers from My New Red Shoes toured many single-room occupancy units and were shocked by how many residents were crammed into one room.”

Yin lives with her father, Peng Yin, along with five other residents inside one single-room   occupancy space situated behind a grocery store on Stockton Street. Yin’s economic situation isn’t unique, however. SRO buildings are very common, making up 60 percent of all buildings in Chinatown, according to Anna Yee, a CCDC deputy director alongside Fong. About 65 percent of Chinatown residents live in SROs with an average of six people living in one unit, said Yee.

Mark Xu, a director for My New Red Shoes, said he was baffled by the meager living conditions these residents had.

“The bedroom was only large enough for a full-sized bed and an end table,” Xu said. “We hope that by providing these children these simple gifts, it would mark a positive step forward for them.”

This is not the first time CCDC partnered with My New Red Shoes. Last July about 300 children walked away with a new pair of shoes just in time for the beginning of the school year.

Lunar New Year Parade Still Exhilarates Despite Rain

A crowd of onlookers patiently wait in the pouring rain for the Chinatown New Year Parade to start.

Howling rains and gusty winds apparently weren’t enough to detract the tens of thousand poncho-sporting onlookers who welcomed San Francisco’s annual Chinese New Year Parade Saturday evening.

Astrologists say that the Year of the Hare brings forth calmness and tranquility, contrasting the stark ups and downs with last year—the Year of the Tiger. Many spectators wore elated grins as the parade commenced at 6 p.m.

“This is the fifth consecutive time my friends and I attended the parade,” San Francisco City College student Marissa Le said. “No amount of rain or hail can stop me from watching the parade.”

Le and her two friends, Allison Liu and Carla Nguyen, took refuge under a tree on Kearney Street as they ogled at the ornate lion dancers and elaborately built floats. They weren’t alone, however. Many families covered themselves in ponchos and hid under umbrellas, shivering from the blustery wind.

A young student from Gordon J. Lau Elementary School holds up a dragon figure.

“This is my first time seeing the parade in person,” Samantha McCauley of Vallejo said. “Getting this experience at the expense of drenched clothes is well worth it.”

Despite the roaring weather, many bystanders were invigorated by the loud snaps of firecrackers—apparently impervious to the soaked pavement. This provided enough adrenaline to keep hands warm and hearts beating.

This parade, which began in the 1860s when the Chinese community wanted to play a larger role in San Francisco, is billed as the largest Chinese cultural event outside of China. The parade evolved from a quaint communal gathering to one of the largest parades in the country, organizers said.

“The feeling of a close-knit community is still kept alive,” Kristine Wu of San Francisco said, huddling underneath a beach-sized umbrella with her family of four. “Although there seems to be a larger turnout every year.”

A Map Of Chinatown’s Alleyways

These are the alleyways you’ll see when you go on a Chinatown Alleyway Tour led by youth leaders who have grown up in the neighborhood.