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A Breath of the Orient
San Francisco's world-famed Chinatown, like the rest of the city, is changed since the big fire, and the Chinatown of today is but a reminiscence of the old Oriental city that was set in the midst of the most thriving Occidental metropolis - The City That Was. There has never been much of Chinatown that savored of Bohemianism, but it has always been the vogue for visitors to make a trip through its mysterious alleys, peering into the fearsome dark doorways, listening to the ominous slamming doors of the "clubs," and shuddering in a delightful horror at the recumbent opium smokers, pointed out to them by the industrious guide. And when they were taken into one of the gambling houses and shown the double doors, and the many contrivances used to prevent police interference with the innocent games of fan tan and then were shown the secret underground passage leading from one of the gambling houses to the stage of the great Chinese theatre, two blocks away, they went home ready to believe anything told them about "the ways that are dark and tricks that are vain," for they were sure "the heathen Chinee was peculiar."
Chinese restaurant life never appealed to Bohemians, and when it became necessary to entertain visitors with a trip to a Chinatown restaurant the ordinary service was of tea and rice cakes, served from lacquered trays, in gaudy rooms, and the admiring visitors could well imagine themselves in "far off Cathay."
Then came the fire and Chinatown, with the rest of the down-town portion of San Francisco, passed away. In the rebuilding the owners of the properties concluded to give the quarter a more Chinese aspect and pagoda like structures are now to be found in all parts of the section. The curiosity of the tourist is an available asset to Chinatown, and with queer houses and queerer articles on sale there is always plenty of uninitiated to keep the guides busy, but from a city of more than twenty-five thousand Orientals in the midst of an enlightened city - an Asiatic city that had its own laws and executed its criminals with the most utter disregard for American laws, it has changed into one of the most law-abiding parts of the great city. With the passing of the queue came the adoption of the American style of dressing, and much of the picturesqueness of the old Chinatown has disappeared.
But with the changed conditions there has come a change in the restaurant life of the quarter, and now a number of places have been opened to cater to Americans, and on every hand one sees "chop suey" signs, and "Chinese noodles." It goes without saying that one seldom sees a Chinaman eating in the restaurants that are most attractive to Americans. Some serve both white and yellow and others serve but the Chinese, and a few favored white friends.
Probably the best restaurant in Chinatown is that of the Hang Far Low Company, at 723 Grant avenue. Here is served such a variety of strange dishes that one has to be a brave Bohemian, indeed, to partake without question. Ordinarily when Chinese restaurants are mentioned but two dishes are thought of - chop suey and chow main. But neither is considered among the fine dishes served to Chinese epicures. It is much as if one of our best restaurants were to advertise hash as its specialty. Both these dishes might be termed glorified hash. The ingredients are so numerous and so varied with occasion that one is tempted to imagine them made of the table leavings, and that is not at all pleasant to contemplate.
We asked one of the managers at the Hang Far Low what he would order if he wished to get the best dish prepared in the restaurant, and he was even more emphatic in his shrugs than the French or Italian managers. He protested that there were so many good things it was impossible to name just one as being the best. "You see, we have fish fins, they are very good. Snails, China style. Very good, too. Then we have turtle brought from China, different from the turtle they have here, and we cook it China style. Eels come from China and they are cooked China style, too. What is China style? That I cannot tell you for the cook knows and nobody else. When we cook China style everything is more better. We have here the very best tea."
This may be taken as a sample of what to expect when visiting Chinatown's restaurants, and while we confess to having some excellent dishes served us in Chinatown, our preference lies in other paths of endeavor. We suppose it is all in the point of view, and our point of view is that there is nothing except superficiality in the ordinary Chinese restaurants frequented by Americans, and those not so frequented are impossible because of the average Chinaman's disregard for dirt and the usual niceties of food preparation.