Noe Valley Voice September 2002

Hong Kong without the Jet Lag
Visiting the Chinatown Night Market

By Janis Cooke Newman

Two ladies in glittery sequined blouses are singing high-pitched arias in Cantonese, reading the words off a karaoke machine. Watching them from the edge of the stage is a woman whose black-haired baby is tied to her back with a cloth printed with dragons. Beside the mother stands a group of jostling teenage boys, martial arts students still dressed in the ruffled satin pants that make up their Lion dancing costumes. At a small table nearby, a man in a porkpie hat is reading the palm of an elderly lady wearing a padded jacket made of Chinese silk. Across the way is a stand filled with lime-green and lavender tassels meant to bring good fortune. The rows of colorful tassels flutter in a breeze that smells of pork buns and curried fish balls.

These could easily be the sights, sounds, and smells of the Temple Street night markets in Hong Kong. But they're not. Instead, the booths crowded with jade Buddhas and $10 Rolexes, Hello Kitty lunchboxes, and soapstone animals from Chinese astrology are lined up in the center of Portsmouth Square, at the corner of Kearny and Washington streets in San Francisco.

This is the Chinatown Night Market, which was started three years ago by the Chinatown Neighborhood Association to encourage residents and tourists to visit Chinatown at night. When I first read about the night market, I realized that I'd rarely ventured past North Beach after dark myself, and wondered what nighttime on the other side of Broadway was like. What I hadn't expected was a slice of Hong Kong a couple of Muni stops away.

My son Alex, however, is less impressed.

"This singing is horrible," he says, covering his ears. It is perhaps too much to expect a 7-year-old to develop a true appreciation for Chinese opera. "I want to go buy something."

Buying something is Alex's main motivation for being here. And as I look around at the stands overflowing with Spider-Man T-shirts, iguana pencils with retractable tongues, and tiny bare-chested Bruce Lee figurines, I'm sure he'll have no trouble spending his allowance. My husband and I are tougher customers, however.

"How about this?" says my husband, holding up a futuristic eye mask made out of metal. "Wisdom Eyes Massager," he reads from the box. "Make our sight world be clearer."

"Very practical," I say. "But how can you pass this up?" I show him a live-action painting of a waterfall that comes complete with the sound effects of running water and birds chirping.

Alex, meanwhile, has moved on to a collection of tabletop fountains, one of which features a water-spitting hippo.

We push through the throng of people shouting to each other in Mandarin and Cantonese, past booths selling bolts of Chinese silk and packages of underwear, Tweety Bird key chains, and mahjong tiles. At a table where the sign reads, "Any English name in Chinese calligraphy for $4," two men with raised paintbrushes argue about the correct translation of the name "Mock." A little farther along, we find a booth that sells CDs of Chinese pop tunes and videotapes of couples ballroom dancing.

We stop at a quintet of people playing music on traditional Chinese instruments -- a wooden flute, a kind of dulcimer played with flat-edged mallets, a two-stringed Chinese violin, and something that resembles a mandolin with wings. Nearby, a group of men are huddled around a board covered with potsticker-sized wooden checkers, excitedly debating the outcome of the game.

At the Lollicup Café stand, we buy "Refreshing Pearl Tea," which comes with a straw thick enough to suck up the large pearls of tapioca floating in the milky liquid.

"How do you like it?" I ask Alex.

"It's okay," he says. "But the round things feel like eyeballs."

We linger at a booth filled with elaborate wigs and embroidered gowns, and watch as a little girl is transformed into a character from the Cantonese opera. Her long hair has been pulled back and her small face covered with pink and white makeup. The little girl shuts her eyes, and a woman in a smock draws two arching black eyebrows on her forehead that resemble spider legs.

Near a stand selling sneakers with retractable wheels in their soles, my husband is sidetracked by a watch whose face is decorated with a waving figure of Chairman Mao.

"Look!" says my husband, dancing around in front of the booth. "His arm is the second hand!"

The watch is $15, and the vendor will not bargain. "It's very special," he tells my husband, who nods in agreement.

A couple of minutes later, my husband is wearing the waving Mao watch on his wrist.

"I guess you found something after all," I start to say, when I spy a table piled with small Chinese silk purses the perfect size for holding a lipstick, some money, and the car keys.

"How much is this?" I ask, holding up a black and red purse.

"Eight dollars," says the man behind the table.

I bargain him down to six, and then buy a second purse of gold silk.

On our way out, we pass by the karaoke stage. The two ladies in the glittery blouses have been replaced by a younger woman in white go-go boots and a Marlo Thomas hairdo. The younger woman is singing a Britney Spears-type love song in Chinese and displaying an impressive mastery of microphone technique. I listen, feeling once again as if I'm standing on a street in Hong Kong.

"I'm tired," says Alex, tugging my sleeve.

Twenty minutes later, we're back in Noe Valley.

Planning Your Jet Lag Free Trip to the Chinatown Night Market

The Chinatown Night Market runs until Nov. 9. It's held every Saturday night from 6 to 11 p.m., in Portsmouth Square at the corner of Kearny and Washington streets. Lion dancers generally open the market at 6; shortly afterward, the karaoke machine is turned on. If you visit the night market, you can get up to two hours of free parking at either the Portsmouth Square or the St. Mary's Garage. Parking validations are available at participating merchants, and a minimum purchase is required.

Dim sum is about all that's available to eat at the night market. So, if you're looking for a bigger meal, try the Oriental Pearl Restaurant, which is at 760 Clay Street, a short walk away. The restaurant gets very busy on Saturday nights, so call ahead to make reservations: 415-433-1817.

Janis Cooke Newman's memoir, The Russian Word for Snow," is available in paperback from St. Martin's Press.