After constructing a fortress of takeout containers around my laptop, I was ready for the virtual tour of San Francisco Chinatown neon signs this Wednesday evening. Established in 1848, San Francisco's Chinatown is the oldest in North America. It's a longtime tourist favorite that has never been co-opted and continues to retain everything that makes it special: language, identity, culture, traditions, and an influential and fascinating history. And then, of course, there's the amazing architecture, alleyways, and signage.
The virtual tour was conducted by historic sign preservationists SF Neon and benefitted the Chinese Historical Society. The presentation was cool and covered the history as well as the engineering behind various vintage neon pieces. it was especially great seeing process photos of the Lipo Lounge sign being rehabbed, one of my all-time favorite signs in the neighborhood (whose history included basement punk shows for a time in the 90s/00s). However, the most interesting sign in the presentation was not the most flashy (the building's more recent owners painted over it, *cry*), but whose recent beige camouflage belied a fascinating hidden history.
The immigration process for Chinese family members coming into San Francisco was rigorous and ridiculous. Some of the questions were standard citizenship questions, and others feigned to confirm your identity by asking questions like "How many stairs do you have in your house?"and comparing the answer with a family member, according to the Angel Island Immigration Station website. Do you know how many stairs are in your house? I don't. Immigrants were detained on Angel Island and kept from communicating with family members who might help coach them with their answers. To get around this, the community set up a system. At the Ginn Hardware Store on Grant Street, neighbors would leave messages for detained family members taped underneath the lids of teapots at the hardware store. Then Chinese kitchen staff working on Angel Island would bring the notes into the facility and stealthily pass them off to the intended recipient.
"Most often they were passed at mealtimes to the table closest to the kitchen where the association's officers sat. A waiter, for example, would serve an added dish of food and say ga choi (Cantonese for "added dish") or some similar phrase. This would be a signal to look for a hidden message which another could later deliver to the addressee."via Found SF
The Ginn Hardware Store is now closed and the sign obscured. SF Neon and other advocates are working towards having a plaque erected to commemorate the perseverance of early Chinese immigrants and this unique contribution to San Francisco history.
If you want to catch Part Two of the neon sign tour, sign up here, and be sure to leave a donation to the Chinese Historical Society.