Monday, January 19, 2009

San Francisco Revisited

San Francisco is a very special place to me. It was the first city I visited in U.S. (and the world outside Taiwan); the city where I got married; the city where I joined the demonstration when U.S. normalized its relationship with China in Jan 1, 1979. There are so much memory, friendship, and family bonds in the area that we can never get tired of visiting.

San Francisco’s historical connection with Asians and in particular Chinese is well-known. Early Chinese immigration was primarily driven by the needs of labor workers during 1849 Gold Rush and the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. After the Rush was over and railroad was completed however, likely triggered by the Panic of 1873, Chinese immigrants had endured numerous local, state and federal discriminatory laws and acts, specifically targeted at them, including 1862 California’s Anti-Coolie Tax, 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and 1892 Geary Act. It wasn’t until 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed and Chinese immigrants can begin and enjoy the same legal rights such as brining their family as other immigrants. I would not be surprised if the repeal had a lot to do with the declaration of war against Japan after Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the alliance with China during WWII.

The modern history of San Francisco however has more to do with being the epicenter of significant anti-cultural movements. The 1967 Summer of Love has certainly made San Francisco the world capitol and symbol of cultural rebellion. Whenever you visit San Francisco, you should certainly listen to, before you go, the extremely popular song of 1967 If You're Going to San Francisco, sung by Scott McKenzie and written by John Philips. For your convenience, below is the lyrics and a music video of it.

If you're going to San Francisco
Be Sure to wear some flowers in your hair
If you're going to San Francisco
You're gonna meet some gentle people there

For those who come to San Francisco
Summertime will be a love-in there
In the streets of San Francisco
Gentle people with flowers in their hair

All across the nation such a strange vibration
People in Motion
There's a whole generation with a new explanation
People in motion people in motion

For those who come to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
If you come to San Francisco
Summertime will be a love-in there

If you come to San Francisco
Summertime will be a love-in there

Outside the city, one place we often stopped by whenever we had a chance is Berkeley, right across the San Francisco Bay on the east. After all, this is the place where I spent my first 4 3/4 years in America, met my wife, and had our first baby.

One of our rituals when visiting Berkeley is to have a few hotdogs at a joint called Top Dog. In my opinion, it serves the best hot dogs of the world. With both the buns and juicy frankfurters grilled and then topped with kraut and mustard, you will enjoy a tasty snack or meal anytime 24x7. You actually do need it when you studied day and night at Berkeley!

We also visited my thesis adviser, Charles Desoer, who lives north of the campus. He is now 82 years old and has unfortunately been on wheelchair for the last 11 years since he suffered a stroke. I owed much of my career to him, being a foreign student who had very poor English and did not know how to do research. He taught and guided me both with his rigor, passion, and dedication with weekly meetings and reviews throughout my graduate school years.

I still remember some of little things he did that made him one of the greatest teachers, beyond giving lucid lectures. In my first year, I enrolled in his graduate class. During the first exam in the quarter, he announced his grading policy of the exams: If you answered the question completely and correctly, you get the full credit. If you leave the answer blank because you don’t know the answer or are not sure about the answer, you get no credit for that problem. But if you give a wrong answer or wrong reasoning of it, you get a full negative credit. Some in the class roared in disbeliefs and complained. I have to say however it did set me straight for the rest of my career. Another memory of mine is that those exam problems often were stated as “A Berkeley student asserts … A Stanford student claims … Who is right and why?” Of course, you can bet your life that Berkeley student is always right. The hard part though is to figure out the why to avoid being given the negative credits!

South side of the Berkeley campus is certainly a lot more colorful. Outside Sather Gate, Sproul Plaza has been the favorite and historical place for student demonstrations, protests and sometimes sit-ins. It is the most significant landmark of Free Speech Movement against the ban by University of student political activities on campus in 60’s. The movement stimulated the student activisms and marked the beginning of anti-Vietnam war movements. It also “helped” sending Ronald Regan into California Governor’s office in 1966 with one of Regan’s campaign theme being "to clean up the mess at Berkeley." By the time, I got to Berkeley in 1974, the national guards and tear gas was long gone although graffiti on the walls were still visible and there were still many eccentric folks and acts on the plaza daily.

South of Sproul Plaza is the end of the popular Telegraph Avenue where one finds shops, stores, restaurants and street vendors. Some of them may have connections to 60’s but one can’t really tell any more. Famous Cody’s bookstore was now gone that had fought against censorship and provided a safe harbor for student activists. I still remember my first encounter with panhandler in US took place just a block away on Telegraph Ave not long after I arrived at Berkeley. As I walked down the street late one evening, someone stopped me and asked “if I have spare change”. I instinctively said no but actually did not understand what he was asking since I could not comprehend that anyone would have “spare” change.

A block east lies the People’s Park, another significant landmark that symbolizes the conflict and struggle between the authority and some community people. It is still a sanctuary for homeless but no longer looks like a place you want to wonder around especially at dark. It has gradually lost its mythical power although it surely will continue to have its place in history as majority of Berkeley students still support keeping it as a park. This is the place where riot and clashes of thousands of people with law enforcement took place in May 1969 when conflicts escalated out of control between locals who wanted and built a park, and the university who owned and wanted to develop the land. Subsequent civil unrests and the two weeks occupation and curfew of city of Berkeley by National Guards sent by Governor Ronald Regan had certainly made it well-known across the country and world. Decades later, you can still find some who would not hesitate to travel distance to defend the park if there is any news about re-development.

Further east, at the end of the Bancroft Way is the International House or I-House where I stayed for the first year of my graduate school and met my wife who was also a graduate student. With its setup, I-House offers year-round convenience of a dorm with a cafeteria for foreign students and opportunities to meet room with students from U.S. and all over the world. It also organizes many events and trips during and off school sessions. I remember the first time when I ate in its cafeteria after moving in, I was excited to see “beer” was available at the self-service soft drink machine. Quickly I found out there is a big difference between root beer and beer! I also remember I was sick of the packed lunch sandwiches I took daily.

80 miles north of Berkeley is Sacramento, the capitol of California. There you will find the wonderful and unique California State Railroad Museum that displays history and collections of significant locomotives. We did not visit it this time but I can still remember its displays of Chinese Railroad workers who built the California to Utah section of the first intercontinental railroad, a task that was considered extremely difficult and risky especially with the rocky mountain portion. Instead my good friend of 47 years took us and shared with us the joy of bird watching. We saw some uniquely Californian Yellow-billed Magpie off the Sacramento river, and at the Cosumnes River Reserve countless birds of varying kinds including a Great Blue Heron, a few Blackneck Stilt and many Sandhill Cranes . The latter works like a clock, returning to the Reserve at dusk in groups with its majestic flights.

There are of course a long list of great tourist attractions in SF itself, including the Golden Gate bridge, Golden Gate Park, Cable car, and so on about which you will have no problem finding literatures and information. Before I go, here is the beautiful signature song of Tony Bennett - I left my heart in San Francisco - that is only fitting to be played now. You can listen to it by clicking the Play button below. Enjoy and talk to you soon!

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