Dragon Gate: San Francisco’s Portal into China(town)

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Photo credit: David Martínez

As the oldest Chinatown in the United States, established in 1848, the twenty-four square blocks that compose San Francisco’s Chinatown is a symbol of the resiliency of the immigrant experience in the middle of what was once Ohlone Indian land, but which is now under layers of Spanish, Mexican, and American colonization.

Chinatown is, on the one hand, a product of American race laws, such as the 1879 Chinese Exclusion Act, which severely limited Chinese immigration, and local ordinances that barred non-whites from accessing white American neighborhoods and business sectors. On the other hand, Chinatown is a major political and cultural enclave. As such, it has become a nation within a nation, complete with a vibrant economy, cultural institutions, and a form of local governance, namely the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and the Chinatown Community Development Center.

When my wife and I stayed at the Orchard Garden Hotel, at the corner of Bush & Grant, we were just a few steps away from the Dragon Gate. Designed by Clayton Lee, the gate has stood as a portal—really three portals—into Chinatown since 1970. To pass through this gate is to literally walk into another world, one defined by roughly 15,000 residents speaking the major dialects of China (Mandarin and Cantonese). Fortunately, for the tourist, one doesn’t need to be fluent in the language in order to enjoy this magnificent place filled with shops, restaurants, and parks. And oh the food and the people watching! A feast for the senses. Please click on the photo above to access my Chinatown photo album on flickr.

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“You make me feel alive, alive, alive!”: Sailing the High Seas Off Pier 39

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photo credit: David Martínez

Went on the Adventure Cat sailing tour of San Francisco Bay recently, in which I got to feel like a glamorous pirate in some latter-day Duran Duran video. In other words, it was a lot of fun! My wife and I took the tour on a late Wednesday morning. The 11am tour, to be more precise. Perhaps because we did this in the middle of the week, there were only sixteen of us on a catamaran that otherwise has a ninety-eight person capacity. Consequently, there was plenty of room of move around. At the same time, because of the brisk winds and the choppy waters, one moves around at their own risk. While falling overboard is unlikely, there are two large nets into which passengers can fall, should they ever lose their balance while taking all of the magnificent sights. Speaking of which, be sure to bring a camera!

In the case of our experience, we assembled to board at a clearly marked gate on Pier 39. However, pay attention to which tour is setting sail. The Adventure Cat your shares a gate with The Neptune Society. So, unless you’re there to scatter a loved one’s ashes on the open sea, watch for the personnel wearing the Adventure Cat gear. Once you set sail, the route is simple yet scenic one, out and around Alcatraz Island, toward the Golden Gate Bridge, where you turn around after going under the bridge for a view of the other side of the Bay, then slowly back again. Along the way, you may see porpoises, sea birds, airplanes, and an array of other boats. In addition, you will never take as many photos of the Golden Gate Bridge as you will on this tour. There’s even beverages and snacks available for purchase. Please click on the photo above to get to my photo album of the day on flickr.

Ceci n’est pas René Magritte Exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

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When Michel Foucault published his short treatise on Magritte’s iconic painting of a gentleman’s pipe, titled Ceci n’est pas une pipe, in 1968, it was the year after the artist’s death and two years since the publication of Foucault’s Les mots et les choses – une archéologie des sciences humaines (published in English as The Order of Things). Equally important is the fact that Foucault’s work coincided with the climactic period of Magritte’s legendary images, which the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has curated in an exhibit titled René Magritte: The Fifth Season.

During the 1940s through 1960s Magritte displayed a fully developed vision of the world as a panoply of phenomena in which images are as much seen as projected, mediated by an eye for the fantastic, such that even the most ordinary of objects, an apple or stone, may suddenly reveal a world that are beyond rational explanations. Instigated by classical Cartesian doubt, whereby sense perception is immediately put under question, what Magritte invokes—similar to Diego Velázquez—is a worldview characterized by solipsism, illusion, belief, trompe l’oeil, and the poetic imagination.

Just as a pipe may not be a pipe but the illusion of a pipe, in spite of what our eyes and words may tell us, so too may a great boulder be as light as a feather or a landscape painting be a metaphorical widow through which we may see the literal world it supposedly represents in a new way.

In the final analysis, I thoroughly enjoyed The Fifth Season.  More than an homage to an historically significant artist, the exhibit was a transformative experience in which I not only felt that I saw Magritte’s work for the first time but also that I saw the ordinary world around me with fresh eyes, like a blind man with his vision restored.  Oh, how beautiful everything is!

Please click on the above image to see more photos of the exhibit

Indian Market, 1989

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I’ve been to Indian Market only once in my entire life. Way back in 1989, I went with my friend, Barbara Ortiz. At the time, I was a Visiting Scholar at the University of New Mexico, studying Indigenous land relations.  I commuted to campus from my studio apartment on Girard, taking the bus each day.  Since it was summer, there weren’t that many people around.  However, since this was well before the era of online courses, anyone attending summer school had to show up in person.  Consequently, that’s how I met Barbara.  She was from Laguna Pueblo and worked for the American Indian Student Services office at UNM.  Lucille Stillwell was the AISSS director, while Barbara served as program coordinator, which was a fancy way of saying secretary.

Anyway, Barbara had a car—a big old giant Oldsmobile—and I didn’t, so she was the one to invite me out for the day around mid-August. I actually didn’t know what Indian Market was at the time, but it sounded fun, so I said, “Sure!” Barbara, as it turned out, really didn’t like driving around Santa Fe, so she asked me to drive us. No problem. Not having a car all summer was kind of a drag. So, I seized the opportunity to get behind the wheel. The open road between Albuquerque and Santa Fe felt good! Upon arriving at our destination, I vaguely remember a dirt lot where we parked that was a bit of a hike from the Plaza. I also remember thinking “This Plaza is kinda small and CROWDED!” when we got to where all the booths were set up.

Not knowing what to do or where to begin, Barbara and I started meandering around, two brown dots in a river of white faces. All the other Indians were in their booths, some dressed up in their tribal regalia, while others looked like Billy Jack, with a few looking like regular people from the Rez. Although I’d been to events at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, AZ before, this was different. From my point of view, as a Pima Indian, the Santa Fe Indian Market was a combination swap meet-and-zoo. I guess as a unique experience, Indian Market was fun and interesting, though I get a bit uncomfortable being around that many white people. Unfortunately, I didn’t buy anything because I couldn’t afford it, neither could Barbara. So, at the end of the day we walked back to the car empty handed and drove back to Albuquerque.

Along the way, we gossiped about people we knew back on campus and what we were going to have to do when Monday rolled around. I remember telling Barbara about meeting Greg Cajete at his office on the edge of campus, where the American Indian Studies program was located. I also told her about the Luci Tapahonso poetry reading that was held outdoors on the UNM campus, and how she started talking to me like she’d known me a longtime, asking me how my writing was going? We’d never met before. I also saw Tony Hillerman that summer. When we stopped for coffee, Barbara told me about her life at Laguna and how she started working at UNM. I found out, after being friends with her all summer, that she’d been married before. As the day turned to twilight, we hit the road again, talking away, as Santa Fe became a memory, far behind in the distance.

My Heard Museum Experience: A Crossroads of the American Southwest

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Ever since I can remember, the Heard Museum has been a prominent part of the City of Phoenix.  Founded in 1929, the ranch-style complex has sat just north of McDowell Blvd on Central Ave.  Because of its Hopi Kachina collection, Navajo jewelry, and an array of pottery samples, not to mention its changing contemporary art exhibits, the Heard galleries have long been at the crossroads of American Indian art and society in the Southwest.

While the museum has undergone a variety of changes over the years, what hasn’t changed is its place in the Phoenician and local American Indian communities, both of which regard the Heard as a citadel dedicated to Indigenous cultures.  Most importantly, as an Indigenous person, I especially appreciate the museum’s concern for not limiting the portrayal of Indigenous peoples to the distant historic past.  In addition to the ethnographic collections of traditional arts are the galleries honoring the generations of children who endured the hardships of the boarding school system, many of whom went on to create works that are still influencing modern American Indian art.

Equally Important is the recognition that Indigenous nations exist throughout the Western Hemisphere, including various mestizo populations, such the ones in Mexico.  Indeed, the ongoing exhibit “Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera” is a stunning example of the complexities of the Indigenous experience, which exceed notions of tribe, language, and blood quantum.  Indigenous peoples, in contradistinction to popular stereotypes, have recurrently adopted alien influences, creating innovative responses to the rapidly changing world around them.  To see some of what I saw recently, please click on the photo, which will take you to the photo album I posted on Flickr.  Thank you!

Desert Botanical Garden

For most visitors, the Desert Botanical Garden is a part of the Papago Park area that conjoins Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tempe.  Moreover, it sits as an oasis, where one can escape the surrounding world of freeways, strip malls, and other features of urban sprawl.  For the Akimel O’odham, or Pima, the Desert Botanical Garden is a reminder of when the land was theirs.  Nearby is the Salt River, or Onk Akimel, which is where the First People—referred to as the Huhugam—constructed one of their many canals.  Eventually, the canal-based civilization that the ancient O’odham created would give way to the more modest villages that Spanish, Mexican, and American migrants encountered throughout more than a century of colonization, which culminated in southern Arizona becoming a part of the United States in 1853, when the Gadsden Purchase was made.  Since then, as the Akimel O’odham land holdings shrunk under the steady flow of settlers entering the Phoenix Valley, the surrounding towns grew into cities, leaving only small pockets of pristine desert behind.  The Desert Botanical Garden, although the product of modern park management, is nonetheless a pleasant diversion, in which one can catch a glimpse of what was once here long before the first subdivision was built.  Please click on the photo to see more images:

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Memorable Times in New Orleans

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From Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo to Jimi Hendrix’s guitar to an on-site filming of NCIS New Orleans, you never know what you’re going to encounter on the streets of the Big Easy.  When I visited recently with my wife Sharon we stayed in the Quarter, which we’ve done regularly for each of our trips.  In particular, we enjoy getting a room at the Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street, which, in addition to its convenient location, well-appointed rooms, and superb staff, also lays claim to a place in literary history, having been featured in works by Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, and Ernest Hemingway.  From there, it’s an easy stroll to Bourbon Street, Jackson Square, Canal Street, and the Mississippi River.  Before mentioning anything else, I want to acknowledge the jazz quartet that entertained us in the baggage claim area of the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.  They were a pleasant surprise, to say the least:

On our first night, my wife and I stopped for dinner at the Bourbon House restaurant, after which we took a walk down Bourbon Street.  Since it was a Monday night, most places were open, however, the street was comparatively uncrowded, making it easy to get around.  While the site-seeing and the music were a kick, getting hit up by panhandlers who were very honest, shall we say, about wanting money to get a fix wasn’t as enjoyable.  In fact, they scared my wife a bit.  Consequently, after dropping in Madame Laveau’s House of Voodoo for some unique souvenirs, we avoided Bourbon Street for the remainder of our stay.

Tuesday, on the other hand, was a completely different vibe.  After a satisfying breakfast at the Criollo, which is the Hotel Monteleone’s excellent restaurant, my wife and I were unexpectedly greeted by a children’s choir performing in the hotel lobby.  Talk about something wonderful!  Needless to say, we felt blessed:

We then headed out and browsed in the shops along Royal Street, where my wife found a gorgeous vintage necklace and I admired the autographed guitar that Jimi Hendrix played at the Isle of Wight, which was on sale for $42,000 at an antiques and collectibles shop.  Wow!

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From there we had an appointment with Royal Carriages, an historic tour that began at Jackson Square and moseyed throughout the Quarter.  Highlights of the tour included seeing the Café Maspero, where Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page met his second wife, the house where Tennessee Williams lived, and the last bank that Bonnie and Clyde robbed before their legendary death in a police ambush.  After our mule-drawn tour ended, we walked down Decatur to the Louisiana Music Factory, then caught some of the live acts on Frenchman Street, among whom was Andy Forest, who was performing for a sparse afternoon crowd at The Spotted Cat:

Our Tuesday evening also included a free concert at the St Louis Cathedral, where we had a nice time listening to Irma Thomas sing Christmas standards.  I say listen rather than see since there was a large pillar blocking our view.  Obviously, we should have gotten in line much earlier than we did.  There must have been close to a thousand people in line ahead of us!  Still, it was a very nice time, which we capped off with a Tempura Udon dinner at the Sekisui Japanese Restaurant on Decatur.

On Wednesday, after some delicious omelets at The Café Beignet, we headed down Canal Street to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, which is next to the Mississippi River.  On our way we ran into what we thought was the dreadful aftermath of an accident or even a murder, as there were emergency vehicles and police everywhere!  Fortunately, we found out to our joy and relief that a crew was filming a scene for an episode of NCIS New Orleans.  In fact, we had the pleasure of seeing Scott Bakula and CCH Pounder in action!  As for the aquarium, it’s a place that my wife always insists on visiting, which I don’t mind accommodating.  The exhibits are well-maintained and the creatures are delight to see, complete with a shark tank and a pool in which you can pet stingrays:

We never tire of this city with its Old World charms and the pleasant and always gracious people we meet.  We certainly never get bored with the people watching, the street performers, or the delicious food.  Indeed, New Orleans is a pleasure to explore virtually anytime of year, even in the middle of December, which is when my wife and I paid our last visit.  Speaking of which, please follow the link below to a photo album I created on flickr, in which you can see much more than my words can describe:

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Video and photo credit: David Martínez