North Beach and Chinatown lift forks for Noodlefest 2010

Pub date April 28, 2010
SectionFood & Drink

I do love me some noodles. As do we all — just ask the cooks carving them from a solid, gyro like block of pasta at the Seattle Chinese restaurant I once blissfully attended, or the happy fettuccine eaters at the sidewalk cafes on Columbus Avenue. The world would be a better place if we could all put down our weapons and pick up our forks and spoons.

Which is roughly what is happening at this weekend’s Noodlefest 2010 (Sun/2). Sure, the days of armed warfare between North Beach and Chinatown may be safely behind us (were they ever in existence), but the two adjacent neighborhoods rarely come together to plan community happenings. Harken to the candlelit dinner scene in The Lady and the Tramp — it takes a pasta strand to break the ice, and bring you snout to snout.

But why eat a strand when you can sample six different pasta meals? Entry to Noodlefest gets you a taste of three steaming mountains of Chinatown noodles, and three from North Beach, in addition to live noodle making demonstrations and entertainment of all stripes.

So grab a fork. And to reinforce what this peaceful coexistence of culinary traditions signifies in the history of our city, two long time residents of the neighborhoods, Reverend Norman Fong of the Chinatown Community Development Center, and Dan Macchiarini of the North Beach Merchants’ Association, sent us their memoirs of growing up in the city’s historically Chinese and Italian ‘hoods. If the following tales of downtown SF life in the ‘50s and ‘60s don’t make you feel all noodley inside, then I don’t know what will.

Noodlefest 2010
Sun/2 3-7pm, $15
Grant, between Pacific & Vallejo, SF

The yin and yang of Chinese-Italian relationships
By Reverend Norman Fong, Chinatown Community Development Center

During the 1950s and 1960s,  it wasn’t all fine and dandy growing up in Chinatown and North Beach, although I wouldn’t trade my life experience for anything. In my younger elementary school years, I was a Chinatown kid; all my classmates were Chinese-Americans.

Then I had to cross Washington Square to head to Francisco Jr. High, where I learned about other races.  I remember having a crush on one very cute girl who lived in North Beach but I was too shy to ever ask her out and there weren’t too many cross-cultural relations back then. I also remember some very negative moments when groups of Italian boys would harass me.

One time I was chased by these boys who screamed “let’s get the Chinaman” and they tied me to the fence near St. Peter & Paul and they threw water balloons at me. I went home and I told my mom “I hate italians” and explained what happened.

My mom said life was about balance. “Did you know our landlord is Italian? He only charges us $90 rent and never raised the rent?” I didn’t fully understand at the time just how much that meant, but I do now. Years later, when I was about 18 years old, we were evicted from our home — by a Chinese landlord who bought the building.

Life is about balance, the Yin and Yang of life. Dan Macchiarini and Kathleen Dooley of the North Beach Merchants Association are friends because we shared the same block at the Chinatown Community Development Center office at 1525 Grant. I bought my Valentine’s Day flowers from Kathleen for my wife a number of years.

This Noodlefest is not just about noodles, spaghetti versus chow mein… It’s about relationships… and building cultural bridges… and “balance.”

Fireworks and noodles
By Dan Macchiarini, North Beach Merchants’ Association

Back in the day of the day, back when I was around 9 years old in the early 1960’s, I was among a bunch of kids my age from North Beach and Chinatown who would regularly play pick up games of football in Washington Square. Park Saturdays, Sundays, and whenever we could during the summer. We would have played baseball but the adults using the park wouldn’t let us and we could only play softball down at the Joe DiMaggio playground.

This was also a time when there were no real playgrounds at all in Chinatown, so a lot of the Chinese kids would come across Broadway to play in North Beach at Washington Square Park with us Italian kids. Some kids from Chinese ancestry lived in North Beach already. We got along fairly well too, considering the nonsensical historic animosity between a lot of our parents from our two distantly different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

We also hung out and played tennis dodge ball in the alley streets in both communities. These alleys during the day were very safe and were the kind of the place where car drivers looked out for and expected us kids to be.   Chinatown and North Beach both share a network of smallish streets and alleys. We made these “kids turf” when we weren’t in the park.

However, the most fun time for us was around mid February every year. It was always rainy and cold but this is the time of Chinese New Year. None of us Italian kids, even on the fourth of July, had access to fire works like the Chinese kids did. This made for a great trading relationship between us, everything from baseball cards to candy and sometimes even money changed hands for us to get the fireworks and use them. We had great contests blowing up tin cans, setting off stings of fire crackers to see how much noise and smoke we could make, until we got nailed by our parents who would attempt to restrict our alley pyrotechnics antics, commerce and careers on both sides of the ethnic divide.

The Chinese kids seemed to be at greater liberty to get and use these fireworks than we Italian kids were. It didn’t seem fair to me. I asked my father why this was. He said it was part of their culture and explained the “lunar new year.” He and my mother regularly took us to the Chinese New Year parade during the late 1950s and early 1960s. There were massive fireworks and firecrackers there, mostly still in the rain but spectacular at night during the parade of dragons and lions.

Before the parade, my parents would take my sister and I to dinner in their favorite Chinese restaurant and they would order all kinds of exotic dishes.  The restaurant, still there, was up Washington Street just off Grant Ave., three block off of Broadway and, literally, under the building. You walk down concrete steps to the doorway. Very “old school” Chinatown. My father knew all the waiters and the owner would greet us with broad smile.  Somehow, they knew each other back in their day, the 1930s, when everyone was struggling just to survive. So we got the VIP treatment there.

The food was incredibly good, although as a nine year old, I was somewhat picky — which my father had a VERY low tolerance for. I loved the Chinese noodles, all the chow mien dishes, and was okay with the rice dishes, but I had a lot of trouble with egg fu yung types; they tasted runny and raw to me. My mother insisted that my sister and I “try everything” they ordered, and my father would cuff me in the head to get my attention and tell me to “eat all your food.” I evolved a plan through; it involved a conspiracy with my sister because she loved egg fu yung. When my parents were distracted and not looking, we would change plates under the table. This all worked out fairly well until one time when we dropped one of the plates we were exchanging under the table. The food hit the floor and my father hit the ceiling. I was good at ducking, though. Luckily, the waiters and the owner were in fits laughter over this so my father’s temper cooled off fast but my mother made us kids sit through the rest of the meal without ANY more food as well as having to help the waiters picked up the mess.

I complained to my father, asking him why I couldn’t just eat the chow mien, like the pasta we made and ate at home. He told me that he brought me out to a Chinese restaurant so “you can learn” the taste of the way other people make food — and beside, the Chinese invented pasta too.

He said it was part of history, that about 800 years ago Marco Polo, an Italian merchant, went to China from Europe to Asia along the silk road to trade — and brought the idea of pasta to Italy and Europe (along with gunpowder).

He went on about this history, lecturing about how food was part of culture and we, as kids, should experience all kinds of food to learn about all kinds of cultures.  This lasted about ten minutes, but it still didn’t get me to like egg fu yung — although a thought pushed itself into my nine year old mind that those Chinese kids I played and “traded” with in the alleys of North Beach and Chinatown for fireworks were my “Silk Road,” and going between North Beach and Chinatown was truly great adventure.