Leading the Ace Walks

This is for the July 2017 Carnival of Aces: “Ace-ing It Up Offline”

For a few months I led a monthly ‘Ace Walks…’ event through my local ace meetup group.


Oh, there were various reasons. First of all, at that time, I wanted more frequent offline ace meetups. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the way the local meetup group has worked for a long time is that there is a three month cycle – one month in Berkeley, next month in San Francisco, following month in the South Bay, repeat. I go to most (though not all) of the San Francisco and Berkeley meetups, but I have never been to the South Bay meetup because it’s not worth it for me to take the train down there (this is ironic, because I was living in the South Bay for part of the period of time I was figuring out whether or not I was ace).

Furthermore, the Bay Area ace meetups tend to center around the East Bay. That’s because the main organizers live in the East Bay, and the East Bay has more than 3x the population of San Francisco (even if you combine San Francisco and San Mateo County, there are a lot more people in the East Bay), so it is very probable that there are more aces in the East Bay than in San Francisco. However, those of us in San Francisco would prefer to have more meetups over here. I knew that some of the aces living in the East Bay did not know parts of San Francisco away from the downtown BART stations very well, so I wanted to share my city with them.

Another reason is that the regular meetups tend to happen in cafés and casual eateries, where one is generally obligated to buy something from the business providing the meeting space. This is fine, but I wanted the option of meetups which did not require people to spend money at the venue (people still have to spend money on transit, but they have to spend money on transit anyway). And even aside from the (non)commercial aspect, I just wanted a wider variety of ace social activities.

Yet another reason is that I was doing it at a time when I was immersing myself in San Francisco history and going on a lot of City Guides walks (BTW, if you visit San Francisco, and you enjoy exploring city streets, I recommend taking at least one City Guides walk – if you have trouble moving up and down slopes, I recommend the “Historic Market Street: Path Of Gold” tour because it’s one of the flattest of the regular tours). For example, I led a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge shortly after reading a book about the history of the Golden Gate Bridge, so I was able to pepper the group with trivia (such as the three times the Golden Gate Bridge was almost destroyed – the most ridiculous near-destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge was during the 50th anniversary celebration when so many people packed the bridge that they could not move and the bridge flattened out, and if the weight capacity had not been increased by retrofits in 1986, the weight of all of those people would have broken the bridge).

What happened?

I ended up leading about 5 walks (I don’t remember the exact number). Unsurprisingly, aces who live in San Francisco were more likely to show up than anyone else. Sometimes a lot of people showed up, and one time, only one other person showed up.

Incidently, my blog post “The Fake Ruin, the Real Ruin, and the Ruin in Waiting” was inspired by the Ace Walks (though it was inspired by the places we walked through, not by the aces themselves).

Looking back, I have really fond memories of the experience. I’m not sure how other participants felt.

Why did it stop?

Well, the proximate reason I stopped leading them is that I started travelling more, which meant that I was not necessarily in San Francisco every month, and planning my own travels made me less incline to plan walks (for example, this post is scheduled to go up almost exactly around the time I plan to depart for this trip). And nobody else proposed their own Ace Walks. And once I fell out of the habit…

Also, I am not as intensely interested in increasing the frequency of local ace meetups as I was before. I’m not sure why.

I think it’s be nice to have the Ace Walks continue, though at this point, I think I would prefer it if someone else led them. However, maybe I’ll get around to leading some more at some point (I’m more likely to do this if aces in the Bay Area nudge me to do it).

Apparently, Speaking Chinese in the San Francisco Surprises People Less than Speaking Chinese in Taiwan

In Taiwan, whenever I opened my mouth around strangers and started speaking in Chinese, people would be shocked. Not always, but often. This was even true if I was in some remote part of Taiwan where few foreigners ventured and practically nobody spoke English.

Furthermore, when I walked into bookstores in Taiwan, people would often be amazed that I can read Chinese. On the contrary, the few times I have entered Chinese bookstores in San Francisco, nobody raised an eyebrow.

This struck me as odd. Sure, it is not unreasonable to presume that a random white person wandering around Taipei cannot speak Chinese. My experience is that most random white people wandering around Taipei cannot speak Chinese. But in remote parts of Taiwan which aren’t touristy, or even smalller cities like Changhua and Pingdong, any white people who are wandering around likely can speak some Chinese. And even in Taipei … is it so shocking that somebody who is in Asia can speak an Asian language??!!!

Now, I’m living in San Francisco. The overwhelming majority of white people here cannot speak Chinese. In fact, the percentage of white people in San Francisco who can speak Chinese is several order of magnitudes lower than the percentage of white people in Taiwan who can speak Chinese. Yet when I open my mouth and speak Mandarin here, it surprises native Chinese speakers a lot less than it surprises native Chinese speakers in Taiwan.

What gives?

I don’t know why this is. But I can speculate. First of all, Taiwanese people have told me that language is in the blood, and that Taiwanese people can speak Chinese well because of their ancestry, just as I can speak English well because of my ancestry (of course, only a minority of my ancestors came from the British Isles, and most of those ancestors were Scots-Irish rather than English, but Taiwanese people generally do not think about such things). These people believed that a) because the do not have white ancestry, they could not become fluent in English and b) because I do not have Chinese ancestry, I cannot learn how to speak Chinese. This is an extreme version of a common sentiment in Taiwan that non-Asians simply cannot understand Taiwanese/Asian culture, or hope to become fluent in Chinese. Hence the surprise when someone like me can carry a conversation in Chinese.

Native Chinese speakers who are in San Francisco are much less likely to entertain such notions. They generally have a much more nuanced view of white people, and are more aware that it is possible for people to learn additional languages. Though Taiwan itself is a multicultural society, it is not as diversely multicultural as San Francisco. In short, native Chinese speakers have a better understanding of what actually happens when very different cultures interact.

I Gathered, Cooked, and Ate Acorns (Part 2)


Part 1 is here.

So, what did I get out of this labor-intensive exercise of gathering and preparing acorns for consumption?

Well, first of all, it made me look at my surroundings in ways I had not before. Even though I grew up around oak trees … I never even really thought about the fact that they were oak trees, let alone try to observe them. However, once I got it into my head that maybe I should try gathering acorns, I started paying way more attention to the oak trees which have been there since before I was born (actually, they may have been there since before my grandparents were born). I finally made seemingly obvious connections such as, hey, this is a major food source for the local squirrels and scrub jays. In fact, as I was watching the acorns ripen, I felt a bit of competitive heat with the squirrels and scrub jays – I was concerned they would take all of the good acorns before I could (as it so happens, there are plenty of acorns for everybody).

I also looked out for oak trees wherever I went during the acorn season. I noticed that acorns in Santa Cruz and Niles Canyon were ripening faster than in San Francisco, which is why my first harvest was from Niles Canyon. I noticed there were two species of oak trees in Niles Canyon, but only one was producing acorns – I don’t know whether I was simply out of season for the other species of oak tree, or whether the climate in Niles Canyon simply is not right for acorn production in the other species (which makes one wonder how it could reproduce in the canyon).

Furthermore, many of the acorns from Niles Canyon had been infested with acorn grubs (larvae of a beetle which feeds on acorns), whereas I have yet to find any signs of acorn grubs in the San Francisco acorns. Granted, I won’t know for sure until I start shelling the San Francisco acorns, but it is interesting that the San Francisco acorns both ripen later and seem to be less (or not at all) afflicted with acorn grubs.

"Quercus agrifolia acorns Mount Diablo" by John Morgan from Walnut Creek, CA, USA - Acorns. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Quercus agrifolia acorns Mount Diablo” by John Morgan from Walnut Creek, CA, USA – Acorns. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

At first, I had hopeful notions that I could turn this into a real source of food. Some approaches to living in harmony with our ecology (for example, permaculture) strongly encourage getting food from trees since trees contribute more to the ecological system than, say, cereal grains, tree-agriculture does not require tilling the soil, etc. And as it so happens, some of the best examples of societies which managed to sustain itself for 10,000+ years without agriculture at relatively high population densities by getting much of their food from trees are … the indigenous societies of California, who had lived right here in what is now the San Francisco Bay Area.

California, as you may know, is going through a major drought, and for some reason commercial nut trees (such as almonds) require a lot of water. However, these oak trees are doing okay and producing acorns without irrigation – in fact, oaks are so common in California partially because they are drought-tolerant. A number of people who are looking for ways to get food in ways which do minimal harm to the environment have been paying attention to acorns … and I wanted to see how practical it would be for myself.

Well, given the way our economy is currently set up, DIY acorn gathering does not make a ton of sense. It simply takes too much labor to shell and leech the acorns. Granted, there are machines which could do the shelling for me … if I were will to invest a few hundred dollars, which I am not. Leeching is actually not so much of a labor issue – for example, one trick used by modern-day indigenous people is to store acorns in toilet tanks and let the leeching happen automatically every time the toilet is flushed – but it just takes a lot of time/water to do it, and if you want to preserve the oil/starches, it gets more complicated.

Of course, it only seems like a lot of water because I got to observe all of the water used in the process. Considering that the oak trees don’t need any irrigation, producing edible acorns actually requires less water than producing edible almonds.

However, 400 years ago, people in the San Francisco Bay Area would not have needed money, nor would they have had ‘jobs’. They would have had plenty of time to do the gathering, grinding, leeching, and cooking, especially since they did not need to expend any labor to care for the oak trees themselves. And it was a social activity for them – I know shelling acorns would be more fun if I could chat with people I liked while I did it.

"Quercus agrifolia 2" by Franz Xaver - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Quercus agrifolia 2” by Franz XaverOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It feels satisfying to have participated physically in activities in some ways like the activities of those people from that older economy. It also feels satisfying to participate in the processing of my food from when it comes from the plant to when it appears in my mouth – and experience I have up to now only had with fruits and vegetables.

Maybe I’ll get better at processing acorns, or at least find less labor-intensive ways to do it, in which case it may become a semi-regular part of my diet. But even if it doesn’t happen, it was definitely an educational experience.

I Gathered, Cooked, and Ate Acorns (Part 1)

Shelled acorns, sitting in a jar of water.

Shelled acorns, sitting in a jar of water.

Ever since I was a young child, I knew that the indigenous people of northern California ate acorns from oak trees as their staple food. Acorns are high in fat, protein, and starch, and oak trees take care of themselves, so the indigenous people did not need agriculture to have a steady, reliable source of food.

As it so happens, I live near groves of native oak trees, yet it was only last year that it occurred to me that I could also gather acorns and eat them.

Once the notion got into my head, I started paying a lot more attention to oak trees than I ever had before.

Last October, I visited Niles Canyon. I noticed that, whereas the acorns in San Francisco were still immature, there were already plenty of ripe acorns in the canyon. Impatient as I was, I decided to gather lots of acorns in the canyon.

Under a big blue sky, we see hills covered with yellow dead grass with splotches of green trees on them, and a road winds around the hills in the bottom right

Niles Canyon – the landscape practically screams ‘California’

I had acorns, great!

Then I had to shell them and remove the tests. That was time-consuming, not in the least because acorn shells are soft … rather than cracking them off, it was more a matter of peeling them off. At least it’s a relaxing, not-mentally-challenging activity, so eventually I got a bunch of shelled acorns.

Now here is the real rub with eating acorns … they are high in tannic acid. Humans can tolerate tannic acid in very low quantities (indeed, a number of foods do have low levels of tannic acid), but acorns have way more tannic acid than humans can tolerate. On top of that, tannic acid tastes very bitter. The tannic acid needs to be leeched out.

“The Best Way to Make Acorn Flour” and “Acorns, the Inside Story” were my main guides for DIY acorn preparation. As recommended, I blended the acorns with water, made a slurry, and tried to change the water until the tannins were (almost) all out. However, I did not find their methods for changing the water entirely practical, so I ended up doing my own improvisations, such as using a baster to extract the tannic water.

Here is the acorn-water slurry.  The tannic water (brown) is at the top, with a light layer of starch, with a (slightly darker) layer of acorn meal below the starchy layer.

Here is the acorn-water slurry. The tannic water (brown) is at the top, with a light layer of starch, with a (slightly darker) layer of acorn meal below the starchy layer.

My first attempt … I thought I had leeched out the tannins, since I couldn’t taste it in the water, but I did not taste the acorn meal itself … uh uh. The results were inedible.

I tried again. I kept on changing the water again and again and again … and it just seemed to go on forever. Eventually, I was not sure whether there were tannins left in the meal or not, but what the heck, I was tired of changing the water so much.

The acorn meal, straight out of the jar.

The acorn meal, straight out of the jar.

After pouring out the acorn meal, I used a flour sack towel to squeeze out all of the water I could.

This is what it looked like after I squeezed out the water

This is what it looked like after I squeezed out the water

I then put it in a pot, added fresh water, and cooked it as a porridge. The results … there was still a faint tannic taste, but all I had to do was add a dash of cinnamon, and then I could not taste the tannins at all. It probably was no more tannins than are in foods such as walnuts (indeed, the tannic taste made me think of walnuts), so I figured it was not a health risk.

In my next attempt, I tried a different leeching method – I used whole acorns rather than blended acorn/water slurry, and rather than just using fresh water, I used a mix of water and baking soda. After a couple weeks I was getting impatient, so I tried the hot water method – boiling the tannins out of the acorns, and changing the tannic water with non-tannic hot water about every 15 minutes. A few hours later, I had boiled acorns with the tannins mostly removed (they could still be tasted, but not so much more than walnuts, so I figured it was safe). I then roasted the acorns, which made them a little firmer, but they were still fairly soft.

In addition to the acorns from Niles Canyon, I have also gathered acorns from San Francisco, so eventually I intend to shelling, leeching, cooking, and eating them as well. Hopefully I’ll get better at this process.

So, aside from edible acorns, what did I get out of all of this effort? That is a question I will answer in Part 2.

The Fake Ruin, the Real Ruin, and the Ruin in Waiting

"Palace of Fine Arts SF CA" by Kevin Cole (en:User:Kevinlcole) - originally posted to Flickr as Palace of Fine Arts. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

Palace of Fine Arts SF CA” by Kevin Cole (en:User:Kevinlcole) – originally posted to Flickr as Palace of Fine Arts. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

Recently, I have visited three places in San Francisco which are geographically close to each other, and together, make a statement about the temporary nature of everything people build, and how deal with it.

The Golden Gate Bridge, as seen from Marin County

The Golden Gate Bridge, as seen from Marin County

The first one I visited (recently) was the Golden Gate Bridge, shortly after reading Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge. As the title implies, the writer is a big fan of the Golden Gate Bridge, and goes on at length about how awesome the bridge is. However, he is also a historian, and he knows that all great monuments are destined to become ruins. The Golden Gate Bridge narrowly avoided destruction a couple times already, is in a major earthquake zone, and requires high levels of uninterrupted maintenance to remain structurally sound. The writer of the book admits that the Golden Gate Bridge will last at most a few centuries. In other words, the Golden Gate Bridge is mortal. The writer finds this romantic – he imagines how future generations may marvel at the ruins of the Golden Gate Bridge, wondering how the bridge was during its era of glory.

Sutro Baths in 1894.

Sutro Baths in 1894.

Meanwhile, that future can already be found at Sutro Baths, which is near the Golden Gate Bridge. It was once the largest indoor swimming pool in the world, and for over seventy years it was the largest glass structure in San Francisco, as well as one of the city’s icons. However, over the decades it fell into decline, starting with financial problems, which led to the building being neglected, then abandoned, and in the 1960s, destroyed.

Sutro Baths, as I saw it in January 2016

Sutro Baths, as I saw in in January 2016

Today, Sutro Baths is San Francisco’s greatest ruin, and is popular with sightseers. As a child, I believed it was the ruins of an ancient Roman bathhouse (I did not understand at the time that the Roman empire had been on an entirely different continent). During my recent visit, some children passed by and one said that it was a ruin of the Aztec empire. The ruins deteriorate every year, and as time goes by, the remains of the baths will erode and become unrecognizable.

Sutro Baths, also as I saw it in January 2016

Sutro Baths, also as I saw it in January 2016

The Golden Gate Bridge is almost as old as Sutro Baths was when the building was destroyed, but I expect it will have many more decades of service. However, some day, one way or another, the Golden Gate will meet the same fate as Sutro Baths, and be a even more spectacular ruin until the forces of wipe the traces of its existence off the face of the earth.

"Palace of Fine Arts and the Lagoon" by Edwin Deakin

“Palace of Fine Arts and the Lagoon” by Edwin Deakin

Within walking distance of the Golden Gate Bridge is the Palace of Fine Arts. As a young child, I was convinced that the palace was an ancient Greek ruin, just as I had once believed that Sutro Baths were the ruins of ancient Roman baths. When my parents told me that it was not, that the Palace of Fine Arts had been built in 1915, I did not believe them. It looked just like the pictures from books about ancient Greece and Rome! Of course, it was no accident that it looked like a Classical Greco-Roman building. It was built as part of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE), and is the one building from that world’s fair which still stands today in its original location.

2015 was the 100 year anniversary of the PPIE, and I attended one of the events celebrating the anniversary – specifically, a lecture about the closing of the fair. Even while the fair was open, a movement arose to preserve the Palace of Fine Arts, and it is thanks to those ordinary people that the Palace of Fine Arts has been preserved until the present day. There were people who wanted then entire fair, not just the Palace of Fine Arts, to be preserved, but it was impractical. The PPIE was built with the intention of being temporary, and it had been built accordingly.

Many people came to the closing of the PPIE, and there was much sadness as a source of much pride and joy in San Francisco came to the end. However, as the lecturer pointed out, the end of the PPIE was a planned end. The people of San Francisco had a chance to say good-bye, and it was dismantled in an organized fashion, not in the midst of a traumatic crisis. 1915 was less than ten years after the 1906 earthquake and fire which had destroyed much of San Francisco, and the lecturer claimed that taking down the PPIE on their terms and not the terms of a disaster helped the people of San Francisco heal a bit more from the trauma of 1906.

And a hundred years later, the Palace of Fine Arts still stands, having outlasted Sutro Baths and lasting long enough to co-exist with the Golden Gate Bridge. Heck, it is also a physical mark that, over a thousand years after the fall of ancient Rome, bits of ancient Greek and Roman culture continue to be part of the lives of the living, and is a promising sign that bits of our own civilization may continue to be with the living long after our own fall.

The Golden Gate Bridge is illuminated with the glow of the sunset

The Golden Gate Bridge, as seen from Land’s End (San Francisco)

Life is fleeting, and everything humans build is also fleeting. It is better to accept that, as the people accepted the mortal nature of the PPIE while they held onto the Palace of Fine Arts and celebrated the hundred-year anniversary in 2015. People also accept the fall of Sutro Baths, for most visitors would rather leave the ruins as they are rather than try to reconstruct the baths. In the present state of Sutro Baths I see the future of the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet planning for the inevitable decline and fall can greatly reduce the pain. And maybe the best of what our present civilization has to offer can be preserved far beyond its probable lifetime, just as the Palace of Fine Arts outlasted the PPIE by a hundred years and counting.

Some thoughts on racial (non)representation in a book about San Francisco – Part 5

So far, this series Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4) has focused on who and what is not represented in the book Season of the Witch and the panel discussing the book which I attended in early November. In this part, I was to talk about dynamics which may have caused the book to be biased in the way that it is.

The first is the black-white binary. Shortly after I attended the panel, I read the post “Asexual and Asian American” which mentions how the white-black binary of American racial consciousness excludes Asian-Americans. This made me think about the conversations about race I’ve heard at offline ace meet-ups, of which the most common theme is “When people talk about race, they often mean black people, and some of that does not apply to Asian-Americans like us” (quite a few of the people who go to SF Bay Area ace meet-ups are Asian-American). It is clear that Mr. Talbot made a effort to include non-white people in the book, but a disproportionate (compared to the San Francisco population of the time) of the non-white people he features, particularly in chapters other than the ones focused on non-white people, are black people. If someone thinks that ‘racial diversity’ means ‘represent both white and black people’ they might write a book like Season of the Witch.

The other dynamic, which I am naming “Neighborhood Tunnel Vision,” is harder to explain, at least to people who have not lived in San Francisco. One time, a cousin was visiting from New York. He asked us, what is the center of San Francisco. He wasn’t talking about Twin Peaks, he was talking about the social center of San Francisco. My mother replied that there is none, that San Francisco is a set of villages which all happen to be next to each other.

I also remember, as I was walking around Naha (Okinawa), I ran into somebody from San Francisco who had moved to Naha just months before. However, it became clear, as we were talking to each other, than though we were both from San Francisco, we were not from the same San Francisco. I did not recognize any of the things which he considered the highlights of his San Francisco, and he did not recognize my San Francisco. It was as if we were from different cities.

Many cities have distinct neighborhoods, but no other city I have ever been to has such socially isolated neighborhoods as San Francisco (even ‘neighborhood’ is not quite the right word, but it is the best I can do for now). One could easily spend decades in one neighborhood of San Francisco and be oblivious to what is happening in most of the other parts of the city. If you ask me anything about Pacific Heights, India Basin, Telegraph Hill, Crocker-Amazon, Sunnyside, Noe Valley, etc. I am not going to be able to tell you much. Furthermore, we tend to assume that the San Francisco we know is the San Francisco, when, in fact, it is merely a San Francisco.

As you might have guessed by reading the previous post, I grew up in one of the western neighborhoods. I grew up having Chinese-Americans as next-door neighbors (I mean that literally), seeing lots of Asian-Americans inhabit the homes around mine, and attending public schools with lots of Asian-American students.

If I had grown up just a fifteen-minute walk *east* of where I did, and if my parents had, like most white affluent parents in San Francisco of that time, sent me to overwhelmingly white private schools (though the affluent white ‘liberals’ of San Francisco love to speak about how much they support public education and racial integration, when it comes to their own children, well, they often don’t practice what they preach), there would have been a lot fewer Asian-Americans in my youth, and I would probably be much less aware of Asian Americans, their cultures, and their issues.

This background is why a large gathering in San Francisco about San Francisco history with very few Asian-Americans present feels ‘odd’, and why a book about San Francisco history which speaks so little of Asian-Americans is also ‘odd’. It’s not just me. My dad, who also went to the panel, commented on the lack of Asian-Americans in the audience before I did. If I wrote a book about San Francisco history, there would be Asian-Americans (and white people) running all over the place, whereas including other racial groups would require a higher level of conscious effort on my part.

However, as you may also have gathered, I grew up on the edge of the neighborhood, and I have significant ties to the neighborhoods over the border, which are not ‘western’ neighborhoods (Haight-Ashbury and Cole Valley to be specific). For example, the closest library branch is in the Haight-Ashbury, and we are in the ‘service area’ of the same police station which ‘serves’ the Haight-Ashbury and is featured in Season of the Witch multiple times. The fact that I grew up near the border between these neighborhoods may make me more aware of just how different the neighborhoods of San Francisco can be than the people who live well within the borders of their neighborhood.

What of David Talbot? He lives in Bernal Heights. Though I can recognize the appearance of Bernal Heights Summit with its radio tower, it’s one of those San Francisco neighborhoods I know almost nothing about, so I had to go to Wikipedia to find out about its racial composition. I learned that it is a white-majority neighborhood with a significant population of black people. No mention is made of Asians, nor do I ever recall seeing Bernal Heights on lists of San Francisco neighborhoods with large Asian populations, so I presume there are not many Asian-Americans there. Given that that is where Talbot lives, it is not surprising that wrote a book about a white-majority San Francisco with a significant African-American minority which under-represents everyone else. It is his San Francisco. He must know about the large Asian-American populations in neighborhoods other than Chinatown … but knowing that they exist is not the same thing as having lived there. And I am guessing that he also has not lived in Chinatown.

I cannot read David Talbot’s mind, but my guess is that a combination of the white-black binary and the fact that he lives in Bernal Heights, and possibly seeing San Francisco through Bernal-Heights-tinged lenses, led him, when making an effort to include non-white people, to focus more on African-Americans, not Asian-Americans. And he felt that by including African-Americans (and including a token chapter about Chinatown) he has fulfilled his duty to racial diversity. Of course, the book is mostly about white people, to a degree which is out of proportion with the racial composition of San Francisco recorded by the 1970 census. I want to make this clear – it is white people, not African-Americans, who are over-represented.

Some thoughts on racial (non)representation in a book about San Francisco – Part 4

In the previous part, I discussed the fact that Asian American issues are almost totally ignored outside of their short chapter, as well as the (non)representation of Latino and American Indian people. In this part, I was to talk about a major change in San Francisco involving Asian-Americans which the book totally misses.

Okay, it manages to briefly mention one piece of the tranformation:

But the neighborhood’s quaint exterior masked a social tempest. Following the immigration reform law of 1965, which eased the longtime anti-Chinese quotas, a new wave of immigrants came flooding into San Francisco’s Chinatown, West Coast capital of the Chinese diaspora. The neighborhood’s dreary tenement buildings, welfare hotels, and public housing barracks were soon stuffed with families from Guangdong Province and other Asian regions that were the chief exporters of human capital to America.

In my opinion, this paragraph understates just how big a deal this was. I am not an expert on the post-1965 Asian immigrant wave to Chinatown, but even I know that it changed the language of Chinatown itself – before the dominant language was Toisanese, and during the 1970s, the Cantonese became the new dominant language.

However, there is another part of this story which the book does not make any reference to, and it is a part of the story which has had more of an impact on my life growing up in San Francisco than any of the many things which the book says about the Haight-Ashbury, even though I grew up within walking distance of Haight and Ashbury streets, and I spent much time in the Haight-Ashbury in my youth. That is the integration of Asian-Americans into the western neighborhoods (which are also known as the “outside lands” and “the avenues”, but in this post I’ll simply call them the ‘western neighborhoods’).

The book occasionally mentions the western part of the city as being the a set of conservative neighborhoods full of people who vote as homeowners and taxpayers. Even today, the these neighborhoods are the stronghold of middle-class (as opposed to upper-class) conservatism in San Francisco (though, of course, someone who is a conservative by San Francisco standards may not be considered a conservative in many other parts of the USA).

For many decades, the these neighborhoods was almost entirely white – by design. There were many measures which a) ensured Chinese people (specifically) could only settle in Chinatown and b) in the neighborhoods themselves, there were mechanisms such as covenants which forcefully kept Asians (and other disliked groups) from buying homes in an area. Failing those measures to keep Asians in their place … well, the first Chinese family which ever settled in the Richmond district found a landlord which was willing to rent to them, and then they received a great deal of harassment from their neighbors (their landlord was also harassed). Somehow, they managed to hold on, since as of 2010, when I learned about this family, they were still living in that location in the Richmond district.

However, today, these neighborhoods are just about 50% Asian-American. How did this happen? Many of the measures which forced Chinese people (and to a lesser extent, other Asians) to live only in certain parts of the city broke down during the Civil Rights era. The combination of greater freedom and the increasingly crowded conditions of Chinatown inspired many Asian-Americans to settle in other neighborhoods, particularly the western neighborhoods. And this was going on during the years that the book covers.

The western neighborhoods cover roughly a third of the city (it depends on how you define the borders). A third of a major American city was converted from segregated whites-only neighborhoods into racially mixed neighborhoods within the span of about two decades – is this not a major transformation? And why does a book which claims to be about radical change in San Francisco from the 1960s to the 1980s fail to mention it at all?

In the next part, I address two factors which may have caused to be biased in the way that it is – the white-black binary, and what I call “Neighborhood Tunnel Vision” (actually, I’ve never called it that before, I made up that name right now, but it is a concept I have thought about for a long time).