Introduction: Charlie Chin spins his stories in wide arcs that grow knottier and funnier with each paragraph. Sit back, smile, and enjoy another possibly true slice of Asian American life.
Henry is not there. Actually, Henry is never there. He died back in 1981. He started the diner in San Mateo back in sixties and it quickly became a place to hang out. With its menu of sandwiches, Chinese noodles, Island plate lunch, plus fresh bait for fishing, it drew the ABC and Nisei sport fishermen in the area.
Back then, you could still catch fish in the San Francisco Bay that didn’t taste of gasoline. Urban development and over harvesting by Haole brought that to an end. But Henry’s Diner still draws a crowd of American born Asian and Pacific Islanders, some them in their third generation.
The diner was now run by Henry’s granddaughter, Marci, a streetwise Feminist. Her Chinese and Portuguese ancestors had given her high cheek bones and dark eyes. That, plus the fact, as the geezers at table eight would say, she was chubby in all the right places. She didn’t mind joking around but if you crossed her, she’d step on you like a cockroach.
The old duffers were there for breakfast Monday through Friday. They told groaner jokes, and swapped stories, some of which might have been true. And as part of their ritual, they flirted with Marci. Not that the “Boys” were still sexually active. All of them were past 65 and no longer serious combatants in the boxing ring of life, just color commentators. Sex at their age would be like playing pool with a rope. Marci put up with their jibes, she knew their barking had no teeth.
As the guys sat down on Monday morning, she came by the table and asked in a casual manner,
“What will it be?” Victor “Lomi Lomi” Labador rubbed the back of his neck and intoned,
“Spam and scramble two, white toast and home fries.” The man to his left, Surf Dog Leong, looked at Victor with amazement and pointed out,
“You know that stuff you eat will you kill someday.” Victor was mystified. He looked up from a newspaper and commented,
“You mean the scrambled eggs?”
“You know what I mean, those pig scraps in a can you “Manongs” eat three times a day.”
“Hey back in the islands my father ate it all his life and he lived to be….” Victor stopped in mid-sentence as a third man sat down to join them. Both men broke into grins. Surf Dog cupped his hands around his mouth and announced,
“All rise for the Casanova of Senior Center, Chuck Chan,” The man pretended to be annoyed and took a menu out of table rack. He glanced at the list, nodded at Marci, and ordered,
“The Monday Special, Fried Chicken and Waffles.” Marci didn’t bother to write it, they ordered the same thing almost every day. As she turned to the kitchen, she asked,
“Coffee?” The new arrival moaned,
“Marci, you got such a sexy walk.” She shot back at him.
“Don’t get excited. Did you make sure you’re wearing your Depends today?” Chuck tried again,
“If you can cook like you walk, I’d even eat the burnt rice.” Marci smiled,
“Yeah, you would, if you still had teeth.” The boys howled and Victor rose to Chuck’s defense,
“Hey, most of those are still his.”
Chuck turned his attention to the tableware inside a folded paper napkin. Surf Dog asked,
So how was it?” Chuck took the sport section of the paper out of Victor’s hands.“Look at that. The Raiders are in the hole again.” Then he replied dryly,“How was what?”
“How was it with Tanya?”
Chuck made a mildly shocked face,
“A gentleman never discusses his relationship with a lady in public.” Victor laughed and punched Chuck in the shoulder.
“Come on you dog, when everybody was leaving the center, I saw her get into your car.” Chuck pretended to be annoyed, clasped his hands together and patiently explained,
“Wake up! Tanya has grand kids, glaucoma, and she’s too old to drive at night. Her middle aged daughter only lets her mother go to the senior center dance if she has somebody to drive her home.” Victor took a philosophical position.
“I guess she must be losing her sight, if she went home with you.”
Marci brought the order of Fried Chicken and Waffles and inspected their coffee cups quickly for refills.
The last member of the quartet strode through the door and sat down on the end of the table. It was Ichiro Suzuki, who most people simply called “Ichy” for short.
“What? I’m the last one in today? Where’s Marci?” They could see Marci at the other end of the restaurant. Ichy held up his right hand thumb as a signal, and she knew what he wanted. She barked out an order to the kitchen, “Sai Min, it’s sitting down.”
Ichy had missed the Tanya episode. He usually went to his Bonsai club meeting on Sunday nights. Ichy turned to Chuck and asked,
“Hey, last Friday we were talking about the Ponzi scheme, and you mentioned the “Gold Map” gag. What was that about? Victor poked at his plate with a fork and inquired,
“Have I heard this one?” Chuck took a sip of coffee and stared at the ceiling tiles before starting.
“It happened to my uncle Ned, back in the Seventies. He used to hang around Chinatown, San Francisco waiting for day work and he struck up a friendship with an old “Wah Kue” who used to stand around in the doorways on Grant Ave. The old guy was named Willie Chong and he was on the skids. As they got to talking, Uncle Ned found out that the grey haired Willie was too old to work and had no family in the area. Over the next couple of months, while waiting for “pick up” work, my uncle Ned used to buy Willie a cup of coffee or a bowl of noodles every now and then.
One day, after they had munched down a couple of Dai Bao at the May May coffee shop, the old geezer says to my uncle,
“You been good to me Ned. I owe you.” Uncle Ned just shrugged and politely said,
“You’ll get me back someday Uncle, you know, when you’re back on your feet.” The old timer pulled something out of his jacket pocket and passed across the table to Ned. He whispered in a low tone as if he didn’t want anybody else to hear,
“This is important. You take it. I’m not going to be around much longer.”
“Don’t be silly. You’ll out live the rest of us.”
‘No, I’m serious. I want to pay you back for the kindness you shown me. Please take this.” He pushed the paper into Ned’s hand and Ned unfolded it to see what it was. It seemed to be some kind of crudely drawn map. On it were directions written in Chinese. Uncle Ned went to Chinese school as a kid but this was more than his elementary school lessons could handle. He asked Willy Chong what it was and the old guy spun this story.
“Ned, my people been here since the Gold Rush of ’49. And this map has been passed down through the family. About 1855 a distant Uncle of mine was panning for gold up in the Sierra hills. When he had enough, he planned to go back to China. He was passing through Auburn and heading to San Francisco when a big White miner stopped him. The Lo Faan grabbed my uncle by the shirt and told him to turn over any gold dust he had or he would bash his skull in. Well, my uncle said no, there was a tussle, and in the middle of it, the White miner lost his footing and fell down. He hit his head on a sharp rock, gave out a groan, and then died right there.
My uncle didn’t know what to do. As he stood there, he could hear some other American people coming up the road just ahead and he knew if they thought he had killed the White guy, they would string him up right there and then. So as quickly as he could, he dragged the body to the side of the road, pushed it under a bush, lifted up a medium size boulder and hid his gold dust poke under it, and stepped back onto the road.
The White miners coming around the bend of the road were laughing and paid no attention to my Uncle. He was so scared that somebody would find the body, he just kept going. He got as far as San Francisco and rather than risk going back for his poke, he decided to go back to China. He always thought he’d return to California someday and get his gold dust, but he never did. Back in China he made this map and gave it to my grandfather who was going to America. Grandpa got as far as Sacramento but never had a chance to look for the gold. The family passed down the map and we sort of kept it over the years for a rainy day.
Well Ned, I’m the last one still alive. And I’m not going to be around here much longer, so I want you to have it.” My Uncle Ned asked the obvious question.
“How much gold was in the poke?” The old timer confessed,
“I’m not sure but my grandfather thought it must be about $200.” Now with a quick mental calculation, my Uncle Ned guessed that much gold in 1855 was worth at least $9,000 dollars in today’s money, maybe more. He thought about it for a moment and then he proposed,
“Listen Willy, I can’t take this without giving you something for it.” The old man waved his hand as if to say it wasn’t necessary but Uncle Ned was getting excited. He grabbed old Willy Chong by the arm and took him down the street to my Uncle Ned’s bank. He took out $200 dollars in cash and stuffed into the old geezer’s hand.
“Take this, it’s the least I can do.” Willy kept trying to give it back but my uncle refused. As soon as the old man toddled off down to Kearny Street, Uncle Ned ran over to his family association and found the Association Secretary, Harold Lee, who could read Chinese. Ned pulled out the worn piece of paper and held it up for inspection. He asked,“What do you make of this Harold?” Harold put on his glasses, looked at both sides of the paper and commented,
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one of these.” Ned was becoming alarmed,
“You’ve seen this before?” The Harold Lee took off his glasses, frowned, and explained,
“Oh Yeah, after World War Two, when we were kids, we used to sell these to tourists who came to Chinatown. You gave them some Cock and Bull story about lost Chinese gold dust, and they always wanted to buy the map.” Hope was dying fast in Uncle Ned’s mind.
“Can you read what the directions say?”
“Well it’s not written very clearly. If you really want to know what it says, go see old Willie Chong. I think he still has a few. But you better hurry. He’s not going to be around much longer.” “Gee, I know, I’ve met him. He’s really old huh?”
“Naw, it not that,” Harold folded his glasses and put them back in his top pocket.
“Willie goes and visits his daughter in San Diego every winter. I don’t know where he gets the money. He hasn’t had a job in years.”
When Chuck finished the story, everybody smiled and sat back in their seats.
Just then, Marci came to table eight and broke the mood with a more pressing matter.
“Separate checks or is somebody going to be the big spender today?”
cover image: Dakine Grindz restaurant owner, Native Filipino Leilani Bugtong grew up in Hawaii and serves up a fusion of both traditional Filipino dishes and Hawaiian plates at her restaurant in Sunset, Salt Lake City. Photo from Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 11, 2021.
Author’s Bio: Charlie Chin is an author, singer/songwriter, and master storyteller. He served as the Community Education Director at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City and as Artist-in-Residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. He is the author of several children’s books, including China’s Bravest Girl (1992) and Clever Bird (1996).