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[whitespace] Peacock
Photograph by Eric Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

A Skulk of Fox

By Eric A. Carlson

"Peacocks being gone isn't that bad a thing."

--Leonard McKay

AS I WALKED WITH Leonard McKay through the old Chinese cemetery in San Jose's Oak Hill Memorial Park, the conversation turned to foxes and peacocks. Leonard related that red foxes have been gobbling up peacocks in the park. A few peacocks remain, strutting their stuff, but the eggs and young are easy prey for bushy-tailed predators. Leonard suggested that the pulchritudinous peafowl had it coming--what with all that caterwauling and crashing onto rooftops.

Another skulk of fox operates out of San Jose City Hall--foxes determined to clamp down on the Bay 101 card room in the name of "family values." This crusade may go unappreciated by the men and women working at the club, whose families will be traumatized by a shutdown. Or by the musicians who have been eking out a living. Or by the couples, most of them senior citizens, whose ballroom dancing venue will be taken away. Or by those--gasp!--sinners who engage in recreational gambling. It's all a smokescreen anyway--to distract from the Fallon statue imbroglio, and other boudoir indiscretions.

Leonard brought me up to speed on the tong wars, which took place in U.S. Chinatowns from the 1850s to the mid-1920s--and a spicy history it is. Chinese immigrants formed secret societies--tongs--to protect themselves from crime and discrimination. There were benevolent law-abiding tongs, and tongs inclined to illegal activities--fighting tongs, as Leonard calls them. The unsavory tongs dealt in prostitution, opium and eminent domain acquisition of small local businesses. There was no accord between the different sects--and tong wars were common. (I believe tongs are a going concern.)

In 1900, a benevolent tong organization purchased a tract of land at Oak Hill Cemetery. It is still there--a small plot of unwatered grass with two strange edifices: a memorial inscribed with Chinese characters, and what appears to be a furnace the size of a small Sunnyvale bedroom. It is quite mysterious. Leonard described how the cemetery was used as a temporary site. Funeral parades with municipal bands and professional mourners escorted the dead to the cemetery. After a year in the ground, bodies would be disinterred and any remaining flesh removed with water. The bones would then be shipped to China for burial. This was the path to Chinese heaven. You wouldn't want your bones left in San Jose--but some are.

On a return visit to Oak Hill, toting Patricia Loomis' definitive tome, A Walk Through the Past, I photographed the markers and mausoleums of San Jose's notable citizens. Many of the crypts sport a stained glass window on the back wall, including that of the "Mayor of South First Street," T.S. Montgomery. The best time for peering into crypts is at sunrise or sunset, with the sun shining in from the back. George Merino, known as the West Coast "King of the Gypsies," has an exceptional crypt that includes a decorated Christmas tree and television set inside. The TV was off when I peered in.

In the Pioneer Section, I said hello to Anna "Grandma" Bascom. Her house once stood at the corner of San Fernando and Second Street, and was called Flapjack Hall in the winter of 1849, when she boarded California legislators. Not far from Grandma is the marker of San Jose's great historian, Clyde Arbuckle. The ground is filled with stories and glory.

The Oak Hill Mausoleum overlooks Santa Clara Valley (not Silicon Valley, thank you very much). On this particular August afternoon the haze was thick in the direction of frisky Frisco, and Leonard offered an explanation for the August/September phenomena. After rice fields are harvested in the Central Valley, the fields are burned to kill pests. The smoke from theses fires filters into the Santa Clara Valley and voilà--haze.

Final Note: I would bet good money that those lobbying so piously for the demise of the Bay 101 card room have never been there. They would find a clean, bright and fun environment. City Hall should be creating venues of recreation, not destroying them. Long live the Dolphin Cafe and Black Pearl.

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From the August 23-29, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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