Friday, October 31, 2008

Stanford Pumpkin Art

Every year, Stanford art professor Matt Kahn gives his design students a pumpkin carving assignment. He goes to a Half Moon Bay pumpkin patch to help his students select their pumpkins, then the students go back to the classroom to carve their assignments. The pumpkins must be lanterns and they must be scary. They are always due on October 31st and they are always on display in the evening on the professor's front yard. For a video of Professor Kahn's class, click here.

Everyone in the Stanford community knows what you mean when you ask: "Have you seen The Pumpkins this year?" or "Meet you at The Pumpkins at 9 o'clock?" After a long night of trick-or-treating, my kids and I used to love to go to see The Pumpkins. This year, I went alone. My daughter is away at school, my son is way too cool to be seen with his mother, and my husband was on trick-or-treat duty at home. I did not take a page from Robin at Bird Tweets and take a tripod, so please excuse the blurriness.

This one caused quite the buzz because this pumpkin was carved from the inside:

Here's the same pumpkin with his companions:

I loved this smallish pumpkin because it looked like it was made of tiles. Everyone got up close to find out if it really was a pumpkin:

The polka-dot pumpkin in the back was a green gourd. I don't know what the small pumpkin did to land in jail.

It's hard to actually see the pumpkin, but this owl was quite striking:

Here are some more ghoulish-looking ones:

I think I'm supposed to know who this is:

What a grand way to celebrate Halloween!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

San Francisco Chinatown - Part III

Our City Guide , Mae, told us that residents of Chinatown viewed the main streets to be for the tourists. The alleys, on the other hand, are where the real business occurred. They were safe places to keep away from the foreign eye, especially while the Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect from 1882 to 1943.

Wentworth Alley used to be called “Salt Fish Alley”. Since the waterfront was only two blocks away at that time, this was a convenient place to salt the fish before they were exported to China. Sadly, this is also where slave girls were auctioned off. The girls were often picked up after they disembarked from ships coming in from China and their intended San Francisco connections failed to meet them.

Some alleys housed Chinese Opera theaters, as advertised in the window above. Ma Tsu Temple, 30 Beckett Street, is a beautiful and inspiring place to make an offering and to say prayers.

Other alleys offer acupuncture treatments or herbs like ginseng root. Mae recalls her mother making medicinal soups for her family. She said those soups provided a lot of motivation to get better after only one dose because you never wanted a second dose, and you definitely never wanted to look at the bottom of the pot.

When we entered this alley we heard "America the Beautiful". This musician was playing two-stringed violin, named erhu, which was outlawed during the Cultural Revolution. He is very proud that he was in the movie "In Pursuit of Happyness":

We watched fortune cookies being made at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley. I’m partial to the sesame cookies they sell there.


Behind these barred windows and doors we heard the chatter of mah jongg tiles. Some of these games go on all night long. A tunnel system underneath many alleys allows for easy escape.

Speaking of gambling, Mae gave some very practical advice for crossing Portsmouth Square. If you see a card game in progress, please keep walking because if you stop to watch, you may be suspected of cheating for one of the players.

Thank you, Mae, for a very informative tour. I’m sorry we had to leave the tour early because we had lunch reservations at CafĂ© de la Presse, just across the street from the Chinatown gate.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

San Francisco Chinatown - Part II

Wedged between two brick walls is the original Chinatown Telephone Exchange. Our City Guide, Mae Schoenig, explained that its pagoda roof structure is designed to allow evil spirits to be guided back up to the heavens.

Vintage postcard from

The telephone operators had to speak five Chinese dialects plus English in order to work at the Exchange. They also had to memorize all the residents’ phone numbers and their family nickname. Mae told us that she often did not know the names of many of her relatives. She only knew them by their relationship in the family. For example, the grandmother on her father’s side would be named True Grandma and the grandmother on the mother’s side would be Foreign Grandma. The youngest boy may be named Last Brother.

Mae explained that Chinese girls don’t inherit anything as long as there are surviving males in the lineage. When Mae’s grandfather passed away, Mae's mother dutifully passed the inheritance down to the oldest grandson, even though she was the only surviving child. When Mae was growing up, her mother reminded her that she was a guest and was raised in order to become part of the next family. Growing up in a traditional Chinese household can be a harsh reality for girls.

Monday, October 27, 2008

San Francisco Chinatown - Part I

DSC03060 San Francisco Chinatown Goddess of Democracy

I had a glorious weekend in San Francisco with my fantastic book club friends. Even though it is only forty miles away from Palo Alto, we felt like we really got away from it all. The autumn weather was perfection and the weekend flowed effortlessly from one event to the next. Several of us chose to take the San Francisco Chinatown tour offered by the all-volunteer organization San Francisco City Guides sponsored by the San Francisco Public Library.

Our City Guide, Mae Schoenig, met us in the heart of Chinatown at the historic Portsmouth Square. She not only shared many nuggets of history of Chinatown with us, she also shared how she and her family fit into this history.

DSC02955 - Mae Schoenig
We learned that Portsmouth Square is where the discovery of gold was announced in May of 1848. It is also the site of the terminus of the first cable-propelled street car in the world, and it is the home of the first public school in California.

Robert Louis Stevenson lived in San Francisco when he wrote “Kidnapped” and "Treasure Island" . This marker was erected in his honor:

DSC03070 Portsmouth Square Robert Louis Stevenson Remembered
The poem reads:
To Remember Robert Louis Stevenson
To be honest, to be kind – to earn a little, to spend a little less - to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence - to renounce when that shall be necessary, and not be embittered - to keep a few friends but these without capitulation - above all on the same grim condition to keep friends with himself - here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy
A bronze statue of the Goddess of Democracy stands at Portsmouth Square. It is a replica of the impromptu foam and paper mache statue that Chinese students created during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

DSC03062 San Francisco Chinatown Goddess of Democracy & Transamerica Pyramid

DSC03061 San Francisco Chinatown Goddess of Democracy

The resemblance to our Statue of Liberty is of course the highest form of flattery. I hope that if a similar struggle for democracy were to occur somewhere abroad today its activists would still choose the Statue of Liberty as inspiration.
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