The taxi dropped me off by the Dragon's Gate at Bush Street. I saw it right away: the neighborhood was different. Dusk's veil failed to hide the increasing number of converted office buildings and upscale, big-name chains moving in where bodegas and apartments used to be. These buildings used to be small businesses that housed hives of families. I'd read that the boom in the real estate market in San Francisco, fueled by the tech industry, had created a housing crisis for those with low and middle incomes. Ma-ma had been lucky that she owned our building, otherwise she would have been prey to the mass evictions that occurred. Growing up, I was accustomed to an insular neighborhood where the faces were as familiar as my own, but more and more, the demographics were changing. Gentrification was devouring Chinatown. Even knowing this, however, I hadn't expected the neighborhood to change so much in seven years.
I pressed my hand against one of the stone lions guarding the gate. This symbolic archway at Grant Avenue and Bush Street marked Chinatown. I'd grown up seeing this beautiful monument outside my window. In the past, the paifangs were the magical doorways of my universe. My mother's reclusive ways had afforded me a sort of freedom: even as a small child, I'd had the run of the oldest Chinatown on the continent while performing errands for my mother that she wouldn't leave the apartment to do herself.
A gathering fog brewed at the base of the gate the way steam rises from a perfect bowl of noodle soup.
I was home.
I should have gone straight to the apartment, but I feared the finality of what awaited me there. Instead, I kept my head down, veering by my old front door, speed walking past the familiar shops of our neighbors, hoping the fog would thicken like salted duck congee to conceal my arrival. I should pay my respects and visit them after my time away, but I wanted to do no such thing. I rationalized to myself that, just this once, my grief justified dismissing these cultural expectations.
I headed toward Stockton Street, escaping my deserted block with its faded signs and dwindling businesses. My neighborhood was struggling, as it had been most of my life. However, rumors abounded of a golden age during my grandmother's lifetime. I had mentioned this to Ma-ma once and she dismissed it as a fairy tale, wishes of those who couldn't change their ill luck or destiny. She had been a firm believer in the Chinese adage of keeping one's eyes on one's own plate and swallowing one's misery. Even though this wasn't how I wanted to live, I feared I had internalized that proverb and made it my own.
I turned the corner to face Old Wu's restaurant, the Lotus. Since the main entrance and windows faced Stockton Street, it was considered outside of the neighborhood, remaining prosperous and seemingly untarnished from the decay that had gripped the residents on my street. Its facade showcased the old world with its curved tiled rooftops, second-story balcony, and golden Chinese characters raised high above the entrance. A string of red paper lanterns zigzagged across this section of the street, bobbing in the breeze like ripe cherries in a bucket of water.
I had an unpleasant history with this place and its owner, but after so many years away, perhaps Old Wu had retired. My growling, empty stomach, and sudden cravings for cheung fun, zhaliang, and yin-yang fried rice, overrode any misgivings.
Evening had fallen and, as expected, the restaurant was nearly full of Chinese clientele. The noise from the dining room crackled in my ears, and I plucked out bits and pieces of conversation like picking up kernels of rice with chopsticks. Ma-ma and I had switched between Chinese and English at home. She was responsible for my fluency in Mandarin and Cantonese.
Old Wu, who'd always manned the takeout counter like a vigilant sentinel, wasn't there. I exhaled as the tension left my shoulders. An edition of the San Francisco Chronicle and the latest issue of Scientific American lay together wedged beside the cash register. No sign of the man, but his reading materials of choice remained, so he must be around somewhere. I chalked up his momentary absence to good luck.
The hostess greeted me at the podium, then led me to an empty table. Since Ma-ma had never left the apartment, we'd always gotten takeout, so I had never eaten inside the restaurant before.
I ordered our preferred three dishes and poured myself a cup of jasmine tea. I wished every restaurant had the customary teapot of jasmine or oolong waiting at the table. My stomach gurgled, impatient for the food to arrive. I'd purposely ordered more than enough for one person—the three dishes meant leftovers for tomorrow.