Thursday, February 02, 2023


A few years ago, before several businesses changed in that area, I began hanging out near the corner at Sacramento street after lunch with my pipe for a while. It's quiet there, almost only local people passing by. It's not as colourful as some other areas which appeal to the tourists. Plus in rainy weather one could find a dry spot where one could day dream undisturbed. Despite changes, it's still a fine place for all of that.

Things are different. A restaurant across the street has been rebuilt and redirected -- the new owners have made good in that regard, it is highly regarding by the kwailo crowd -- and that back entrance awning no longer exists. Mr. Wong and his wife seem to have retired, their store is seldom open anymore, and a nearby herbalist, long established, has quit, his shop front has been shuttered for almost a year. Plus there's a new social centre to keep the local kids off the street, very worthwhile in colder weather.

A cup of Hong Kong Milk Tea at many places has nearly doubled in price.
One of the minor regional-origin associations has disappeared.
Some familiar businesses have relocated or shut down.
The pandemic hit the neighborhood hard.
Things are thinner.
When I was still in a relationship I did not go there as often, but that ended ages ago and precisely like during my first years back in the country I've relied on the neighborhood to be a sanctuary and hide-out. Accent? No problem. Religion? We don't ask. Political affiliation and favourite football team? Um, huh? Odd interests and in-depth fascination with subjects that few other people are even aware of? Yeah, whatever, it's cool dude. And in any case most Caucasians are kind of peculiar and unbalanced, but as long as you don't attract attention with startling eccentricities folks are fine with it, and will mind their own business.

Plus I don't have tattoos, so it's not like I'm begging for attention.

Some of my pipes have memories associated with the neighborhood.
For nearly three years the city was re-doing Spofford Alley for the benefit of the tourists. All of it was dug up, there was a plank walkway down one side that emergency medical personell found difficult to navigate carrying someone who had suffered a heartattack on a stretcher (especially during the rain that night), and because of nooks, crannies, and deep trenches, the rats thrived. Then someone finally wised up and realized that creating an environment ripe for a bubonic plague outbreak might, just might, be bad for tourism. The businesses along the alley barely survived that bit of urban Potemkin-villaging.
One of the two pipes often enjoyed after a tea time snack at a local bakery, which reminds me of a story I once wrote about a little girl and a cafe run by spiders in the cave system under Telegraph hill. Happy pastries!
An elderly gentleman had a seizure near the corner of Grant Avenue and Clay Street one day. At that time I really wished I had more medical vocabulary in Cantonese -- the emt's were kind of at a loss -- and my being able to discuss food in great detail would have been quite useless, so I could not be of any assistance.

I doubt it was something he ate.

One pipe reminds me of a fellow whose lovely Comoy Blue Ribands I restored, who passed away a while back. On a rainy afternoon near the Baptist church six years ago the owner of a local shop saw me smoking it, and moments later he had a pipe in his mouth, inside his business. That place no longer exists.
For the past several years I've smoked mostly aged Virginias, flakes, and Virginia & Perique mixtures. Products with an old-fashioned smell, that now also remind me of the place. When I first came back to the States enjoyed blends with Latakia and Turkish, which still remind me of Berkeley, and before that North Brabant. Plus living in North Beach, near the Caffe Trieste.

Summer mornings, just after dawn. The aroma of roasting coffee beans from the Trieste and the Roma. The terpeneol-rich reek of Dunhill London Mixture or Gawith's Squadron Leader.

There's one tobacco that has been described as having a tin note like an unwashed flatulent peasant hanging in a mediaeval dungeon. I have never smoked that there, not because the smell might bring out people with pitchforks and torches, but because since the hipsters have discovered the exquisite snobbery of fine briar and rare tobacco it's hard to find.
That description was wrong anyway. It's quite delightful.
The reviewer simply had bad memories.


For the obsessive and totally neurotic, here's a comprehensive but necessarily incomplete list of all the tobaccos smoked in Chinatown, from the Berkeley & North Beach period (English / Balkan) to the post-relationship era (Viginias and Virginia Perique).

English/Balkan: Ashton Artisan's Mixture, Consumate Gentleman. Astley's No. 99 Royal Tudor. Balkan Sobranie Original Mixture, 759. Cornell & Diehl Red Odessa, Odessa, Yale. Dunhill Alfred's Own, Baby's Bottom, Durbar, EMP, London Mixture, MM965, Standard Mixture, Standard Medium, Nightcap. Druquer & Sons Arcadia, Blend 805, Devil's Own, Levant, Prince's Mixture, Royal Ransom, Trafalgar. GLP: everything up to 2010. John Cotton's Latakia, No. 1 & 2 Medium, Smyrna. MacBaren's HH Vintage Syrian. McClelland Blue Mountain, Bombay Court, Bombay Extra, British Woods, Vintage Orient 996,Legends, Three Oaks and Three Oaks Syrian, Wilderness. McConnel Oriental. Rattray's Accountant's Mixture, Black Mallory, 7 Medium, Jock's Mixture, Red Raparee, Three Noggins. Samuel Gawith Commonwealth, Balkan Flake, Perfection, Squadron Leader. State Express London Mixture. Sullivan & Powell Gentleman's Mixture Original.

Virginia, Flake, Virginia/Perique: Astley's No. 109 Medium Flake, No. 2 Virginia. Balkan Sobranie No. 10. Cornell & Diehl Anthology, Carolina Red, House Reserve 2021, Sunday Picnic, Opening Night, Manhattan Afternoon, Red Carpet, Sun Bear 2022, Yorktown. Dunhill Elizabethen, Medium Flake, Three Year matured. GLP: everything sice 2010 EXCEPT Virginia Cream. MacBaren's HH Matured Virginia, HH Rustica, Mixture Scottish Blend, Roll Cake, Virginia No. 1. McClelland: every damn' Virginia they made, including the Blakeney's Best series. McConnell Folded Flake, Glen Piper, Red Virginia, Scottish Flake. Orlik Golden Sliced, Scottish Type. PS Luxury Bullseye, Luxury Navy, Luxury Twist. Rattray's Brown Clunee, Hal O'The Wynd, Marlin Flake, Old Gowrie. Samuel Gawith 1792 Flake, Best Brown, Bracken Flake, Brown No. 4, Cabbie's Mixture, Full Virginia Flake, Golden Glow, Lakeland Dark, Saint James Flake.

Plus tonnes of Germains under various names.
As well as my own concoctions.


NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.


F.L. said...

FYI, finally had that Portuguese baked chicken. Good stuff and very filling. For once in a long while I asked for a to go container. It's a $14.50 lunch special at Shooting Star Cafe on Webster in Oakland. The lunch includes hk milk tea.

The back of the hill said...

Glad you liked it. I'll have to check out Shooting Star Cafe, they look BART accessible, and the online menu includes 'Spam with', as well as snow cabbage and pork noodles soups. Looks like my kind of place.

Anonymous said...

One thing about Shooting Star Cafe, the chachanteng automatically adds 15% to the bill regardless if you pay cash or credit. Also, if you do use a CC, and the bill is under $20, you will be charged a couple bucks extra as a penalty.

The back of the hill said...

That's good to know.

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