A Gentle Night in Chinatown

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It was a mid-week night, nothing spe­cial. We drove to Chinatown, parked on Webster Street in front of a furniture store selling beautiful rosewood and ceramic pieces. We peered through the window, shopping in our imaginations. “I’d take that one over there.” We walked down Webster to 9th and turned right, stopping to ooh and ahh at the art deco apartment building going up, all curves and angles and cream colors. We turned left on Franklin, passing Chinese restau­rants and stores, a grocery store with great baskets of fruits and vegetables out­side. A policeman and a policewoman passed us—on bicycles! Downtown Oak­land also boasts police who ride lovely, perfectly mannered horses.

We turned onto 8th Street and into our destination, the Szechwan Restau­rant, a small family-type place. We wanted the dinner-for-four special which comes with hot-and-sour soup, won tons, mixed vegetables, Szechwan beef, and ­best of all—Princess Chicken. The price per person is under $9. We drank two pots of tea; tea in a Chinese restaurant is better than any other tea in the world.

After we had read our fortunes aloud and had eaten our fortune cookies, the manager, a Chinese woman in her 30s, came to our table and we asked her about the Princess Chicken. The sauce is made with honey and garlic and chili peppers and sesame oil, she told us. Then she told us that the next time we come we should ask for some of the new items on the menu, too. Surely she doesn’t want to wean us from the Princess Chicken!

We left the restaurant and headed toward Broadway. Now the sidewalks were filled with Asian families enjoying that special summer weather in Oakland -warm from the day, but with a coolish breeze coming from the Bay. Daddies car­ried small children. Sounds of Vietnam­ese as well as Cantonese came by us.

At 10th and Broadway we eschewed the Pare Oakland, the grand highrise hotel and convention center, and chose the graciously restored Washington Inn across the street and down a block. With its bevelled, etched, and stained glass, its plush Victorian carpet, and its mahogany wood, the inn, which has fewer than 50 rooms and serves a lavish complimentary breakfast, is everyone’s ideal of a down­town small hotel.

We each ordered a rye Old Fashioned and John, the barman, said, “I never get that order, but earlier tonight someone else asked for it!” We exchanged banter­ing with three black businessmen, com­ing from a late meeting at one of the high rise office buildings in the area, who sat next to us at the bar. The three business­men finished their wine and, saying “Goodnight, John,” “See ya’, John,” left for their homes. They were replaced immediately by four conventioneers from the Pare Oakland. We whispered to the one wearing a big badge with a red ribbon and a green ribbon hanging from it, “Order a rye Old Fashioned! You can change your mind, but just do that first!”

John came over. “Hi,” said our con­ventioneer, “Remember last year you made me that perfect rye Old Fashioned? Could you make me another one just like that?” John looked at us and raised his eyebrows. We all began to laugh, and the conventioneer changed his order to Tuaca, a sweet liquor which we all tasted.

Finishing our drink, we left and walked back to Broadway, stopping to admire the almost-restored Victorian building on the corner and to exchange hopes that it would soon be filled with shops and businesses. Back on Broadway we passed a plate glass window and saw behind it a large room with some 50 peo­ple playing mah jong. Is there any game with more elegant gamepieces?

On the way to the car we stopped to admire a two-foot triangle of egg rolls, fresh from the fryer of a tiny Chinese cookery.

It was dark now, almost nine. We drove home around Lake Merritt. Its necklace of lights reflected in the black waters. The scene was a fitting end to a gentle Oakland evening.