My mother was up to something. Even at the tender age of 4, I could smell a scheme simmering. She was fussing over me and my little brother more than usual. She couldn't stop primping us. When before a wet comb would've done the job, today she borrowed some of my father's Brylcreem and slathered on a few dabs. Instantly I reeked of my dad. My little brother Warren emanated the same drugstore muskiness. Something was up.
We then rushed from our rented duplex on Cleveland Street in Los Angeles' Chinatown and strode past the fantastically kitschy apartment building next door, with the red and gold Chinese temple façade. It was my favorite building in the neighborhood; I imagined it as a Shaolin Temple with paid utilities.
We continued past Chinatown's only playground, where my pal “Buzz Cut” Stanley asked me through a chain-link fence why I was all dressed up. I shrugged an “I don't know” and kept holding Mama's hand as she led us nearer to our destination.
Chinatown's streets were big and bustling through the perspective of preschool eyes. I may as well been in Times Square. People covered the sidewalks en masse. I saw ancient, gnarled Chinese ladies hunched over with their impossibly large bundles as they trundled their way through the crowds, pausing in front of vendor tables to add to their haul.
Chinatown appeared more festive than usual. The already ornate street lamps topped with Chinese lantern encasements were further embellished for the holidays with golden tinsel and tin foil stars. Across the street from the playground, my favorite Chinese restaurant, May Flower, had a line slithering out the door. My father brought Warren and me to May Flower every Sunday for lunch. It’s where I discovered the wonderful world of wonton noodle soup, and where I first learned to appreciate the complex yet contrasting textures that gristly beef brisket and slippery tendon revealed. Wonton noodle soup with beef brisket and tendon remains my favorite comfort food to this very day, and nobody made it better than May Flower.
We continued on, past the drugstore where cellophane bags of army men hung on metal hooks awaiting orders from Central Command.
We passed the liquor store that I treated like my personal library, where I read cover to cover all the Captain America, Iron Man and X-Men comic books on the racks, occasionally springing the 15 cents to buy a copy. That liquor store is also the first place I ever saw someone sleeping on a sidewalk, back when these folks were referred to as winos instead of the homeless.
A few yards later we zipped by Castelar School, where the play yard was empty. It was Saturday. At last I found myself in front of yet another building that favored the faux Chinese temple look. My mom squatted down to our level and did some final touch-ups to our hair before walking us into the Chinese United Methodist Church.
The church greeted us with two sections of pews and a long aisle bisecting them. It was used for all the usual events including lots of weddings, but it didn't look as if one was about to happen, so I still didn’t know why we were there. Rather, the place looked Christmas-y. There was a 99 Cents Store festiveness to it, all with its cheap ornaments and handmade decorations. However, the room was nearly devoid of people.
As we entered the aisle, I remember looking over at my little brother, checking to see if he had any clue as to why we were here. His only preoccupation seemed to be not tripping as his short legs tried to keep pace. When we approached the end of the aisle I noticed a kid about my age being lifted off of an old, fat man's lap.
This fat man wore a red velvet outfit trimmed by white fur. He had a white, shiny beard and very thick glasses, the kind a mechanical engineer would wear while working with his slide rule. I watched the kid wave goodbye and saw in his hand a red stocking full of toys and candy. Right then I knew this man was the Santa Claus I'd been hearing so much about but never had seen in person.
“Look, it's Santa Claus. The old man of Christmas,” my mother said, confirming my thoughts. She said this in Chinese, using the Mandarin phrase that translates to Santa Claus. Then the old man gestured for us to get on his lap. Suspecting a trap, I made my brother go first. Mama helped him onto Santa's lap. He looked scared but didn’t cry. Santa asked Warren questions but he didn't seem to understand. So Santa chuckled and gave little brother a stocking. It was kid heaven in a mesh sock. My eyes popped out of their sockets like Wile E. Coyote. Inside were all kinds of tiny, colorful, plastic bits of junk and loads of shimmering hard candies. At that moment I would've done a back flip to get on Santa's lap. Instead my mom hoisted me up to him.
Santa smelled like a grown-up man, reeking of something offensive, but I couldn't place it. He wasn't drunk, but he smelled like alcohol mixed with fried food. The next thing I noticed was that his beard wasn't attached to his chin. It was unsettling, but I kept my eyes on the prize: the stocking. Santa bounced me on his knee and asked me if I'd been a good boy; this was when I finally made eye contact with St. Nick.
There was something amiss about this particular jolly old elf. Although I was very young, I'd already seen enough representations of Santa on various media to discern whether any particular Santa was authentic or not. There was something foreign but familiar about this one. I peered deeper. Then, like one of those Magic Eye 3-D posters, the more I stared at Santa, the clearer he was. And then it came to me. It turns out that Santa, my very first Santa, was Chinese.
What the fa la la! I couldn't believe it. My tiny brain burned. My eyes stung with bewilderment. Who was this guy? Whoever heard of a Chinese Santa Claus? Did the mayor know this was going on? I was angry and wanted to tell this impostor that he was bad for tricking people. I wanted to defend my mom and my little brother from this Kringle wannabe and whatever diabolical intentions he had. I knew all my toys were made in China, but Santa couldn't possibly be affiliated with that. I wanted badly to bust him, to publicly shame him, but instead I said “Thank you” when he handed me my stocking.
I looked back at him as we exited the church. We made eye contact again. This time I gave him a look that let him know that I knew. I had him figured like a two-piece jigsaw puzzle. Then I tore open the stocking and ate my candy.
It was time to pick up Christmas dinner. For our next stop, my mom brought us to a place we go every time there was a special occasion like today. We hadn't been to the Happiest Place on Earth at that point, but in our minds, this was as good as Disneyland. Candy firmly in mouths, Warren and I skipped through the parking lot of Peking Poultry, the coolest place in Chinatown.
Near the entrance of Peking Poultry were scores of cages filled with fluffy chickens clucking and pecking at the air and at each other. The basic procedure was to tell the guy at the counter, draped in butcher whites, that you want a chicken, how you want it cooked, and finally if you like it whole or chopped. With that settled, the show was on, and Warren and I always got front row center.
At the onset, the butcher reached with his bare hand into a cage and tried to grab a bird while they all crowded to the rear of their confinement. In short time he would nab one. My parents never made the butcher go back in for a fatter bird because of all the battle scars on his forearm and because he looked like a Chinese pirate.
Next the butcher, with the facile grace of a swordsman, unsheathed his blade from his hip holster and slit the chicken's throat, causing it to convulse and spurt blood. Just as swiftly, he tossed the spasmodic fowl into a metal bin with other chickens that met the same fate.
A few minutes later, another worker came along to dump all the chickens into a cylindrical machine that resembled a clothes washer. After a few spins the chickens came out featherless. Then they were placed into a contraption that spun them some more and cleaned them.
My brother and I really liked the final process because it was extra grisly. A couple of butchers rapidly pulled out the chickens and one after the other jabbed them by the throat onto hooks hanging from an overhead conveyor. The dangling carcasses then rode the conveyor into an intensely hot steamer. Once out of this sauna of death, the steamed chickens were ready to be cut up or packed whole for the customer to take home along with a tasty, oily ginger scallion sauce. Henry Ford would be proud.
This chicken was the best I'd ever had. Plump, juicy, flavorful — apart from raising your own chicken, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better bird. My parents loved this chicken. For my father, a native of Hainan, China, it was the closest thing to Hainan chicken he could find at the time.
Alas, this story is but a tale of Christmas past. Peking Poultry, most certainly because of today's health code, no longer keeps the cages out in the open, or slaughters chickens in public view, or even cooks the chickens at all. It is now simply a poultry shop where people can buy freshly slaughtered chicken — “Back to Basics,” as the sign proclaims.
But we do not lament the glory days of Peking Poultry; rather, we celebrate its contribution to the unofficial Christmas bird of L.A.'s Chinatown, the steamed chicken. You may never see Bob Cratchit with Tiny Tim on his shoulder dancing around a holly-festooned table with a Chinese steamed chicken at the center. But then again, I never thought I'd be sitting on the lap of a Chinese Santa Claus. And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one!