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Hidden California : The Temple to Guan Gong

On Stockton Street in San Francisco, in the heart of Chinatown, on the third floor of the Kong Chow Benevolent Association building, you will find the temple to Guan Gong. It’s a plain beige stucco office building with a few shops on the bottom floor, and with offices on the upper floors perfect for accountants and dentists to hang their shingles.

There’s a narrow black Otis elevator in the back, and tacked to the wall is a faded piece of paper with Chinese writing with a tiny scrawl in English at the top -- Temple, Third Floor.

You ride up three floors, step out into an entranceway filled with shopping bags and suitcases, then step through a beaded curtain and into an sun-filled atrium in which sits a massive statue of a stern and red-faced warrior with a long beard, who carries a long pole with a blade -- General Guan Yu, most often called Guan Gong, or Lord Guan. Surrounded by urns filled with burning incense, smaller statues of minor deities and stacks of fruit offerings and flower bouquets, Lord Guan’s wooden face glowers at you, tolerating your presence, as if asking you to speak quickly and explain why you’ve come.

He is the patron saint to many residents in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and you will spot a shrine to him in the back corner of many shops. He is the patron saint to warriors, to police officers, to criminals, to poets, to artists and to travelers - in other words, people who feel they must live apart from the rest of society, and therefore follow a separate code.

Since many residents of Chinatown still see themselves as travelers to our country, removed by fate or choice to live apart from the great Middle Kingdom, Guan Gong is the deity who watches over them.

I first learned about Guan Gong as a kid when I watched the play F.O.B. (which stands for Fresh Off the Boat), written by David Henry Hwang, in which Guan Gong comes to life in a seedy Chinatown restaurant. I was then introduced to the temple as a teenager, when I was doing documentary photography and I wanted an introduction to Chinatown.

My oldest childhood friend, Kelvin Han Yee is an actor who is well-known in San Francisco, but at the time his father, Kong Yee was even better known in Chinatown, and he was my guide to places I’d never have found otherwise.

Kong Yee was the Clerk of the Court for the City and County of San Francisco for many years, specifically, Night Court.

And in that court, the most pervasive crimes that were addressed night after night for years on end were -- parking tickets. And where is the parking worst in the city of San Francisco?

Chinatown.

The merchants and delivery trucks working those narrow steep streets gather dozens of parking tickets a month as a normal price of doing business, but if you remain a scofflaw for too long, your car or truck will be towed or its registration denied, and you end up in Night Court.

For years, Cantonese-speaking Clerk of the Court Kong Yee was the liaison between the judges and the scofflaws, and he’d help broker the deals between the two.

The City would get some of its money, and the merchants would get to keep running their businesses in a neighborhood vital to tourism. This meant that when Kong walked through Chinatown, he had juice.

People would come out in the street, shake his hand, press a gift on him, beg him to come in for some food, thank him for fixing a problem or beg him to address a new one.

When I was with Kong, I was a caucasian kid who wasn’t merely tolerated but I was welcomed, and he showed me back kitchens and garment factories and gambling parlors I wouldn’t have seen otherwise -- including the temple to Guan Gong.

Once you enter the temple there is no rush to help you.

An old Chinese granddad wanders up to you, the same kind of guy in the padded coat with a bag of groceries who you see riding the 30 Stockton bus, and it turns out he is the Taoist priest who runs the place. He knows why you’ve come, so there are no questions. He steers you to the wall where newspaper articles show the politicians who have come to pay their respects to Lord Guan in the past -- President Eisenhower, Governor Pete Wilson, and Mayor Willie Brown to name a few.

The priest explains that if you want to win re-election, the politicians know you must visit Guan Gong.

You then pay five bucks, burn incense in ten spots around the temple, get on your knees and bow.

Then, if you want, you can get your fortune told.

You shake a bamboo container full of a hundred thin bamboo sticks with numbers on them, and whichever stick emerges as you gently shake is Lord Guan’s declaration of your future.

I went there recently with two good friends from my youth and from Cal Berkeley -- fellow writers and seekers Kevin Kirkpatrick and Douglas Gorney, who I knew would feel the same kinship that I have with Lord Guan. 

The rituals were exciting, but when it came time to divine our futures, the fortunes we shook free indicated that Lord Guan had some stern and direct advice for us. The sticks warned one of us not to cut corners at work, he warned another that he must find and new place to live, and another was told there was no easy answer to his family health problems.

These were not fortune cookie platitudes, and it didn’t seem like paying more money would have gotten us nicer outcomes.

“Work hard and then come back in December and see what he says then,” the priest told us all. I tried to take a photo, but he said no -- I didn’t have Kong with me to smooth things out this time.

We left the temple feeling energized and a little scared, and headed back to Grant Avenue.

Before meeting my wife and daughter, we vowed to downplay the seriousness of what we’d been told.

If you want to read more about Lord Guan, go to:

wikipedia.org/wiki/Guan_Yu