San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



August 1963

The Chinese Theater
The Persecution of Buddhists in Vietnam
Three Cultural Losses
More on the Chinese Theater
Camping in the Sierras
Conservation Issues
What to Do with the Old Hall of Justice
A Wild Horse Refuge




The Chinese Theater

The Foo Hsing Troupe extended its run at the Great Star Theater on Jackson St. for an extra week — until this coming Tuesday. They have played to absolutely jam-packed houses every night, and well they might. I have gone as often as I could, and I have no doubts but that this is the best Chinese theater we have seen in America in just about 30 years, since Mei Lan Fang was here.

Today, Sunday, they will play all of Lady Precious Stream in two parts, matinee and evening, a total of about seven hours. Monday evening, Lady White Snake, one of the most popular of all oriental plays, known also in slightly different forms in India, Southeast Asia and Japan. Tuesday they close with Ten Beauties in Chariots, a female military play, full of banners, battles, love and acrobatics — the very thought of it is dizzying.

It is a little unfortunate that the Foo Hsing Troupe is always featured as a children’s company. They are in fact more finished actors than almost anyone in the Chinese theater who has appeared here since the war.

Children’s theater in China does not mean what is does here. There is nothing whatever childish, prodigious or amateurish, much less cute, about these people — quite the opposite. They are contemporary representatives of a most ancient tradition in China — and let’s remember too that the Children of the Revels and others were amongst the leading Elizabethan companies.

If you are interested in the theater and miss this, you will always regret it; this may well be the last time that the Peking style of the classic theater of China will be seen at its purest and best in the Western world.

However, I’m not at all sure you can get in. The other night we sat in the last row in the balcony squeezed into some courteously vacated “house seats.” One of the editors of the Chinese World was SRO even though he had just written a rave editorial on the front page. If you can’t get anything else, try for cancellations.

You don’t have to understand the dialogue: most of the Cantonese in the audience don’t either. There is an English synopsis in the program, and your Chinese neighbors know the plays by heart and will be glad to explain. Anyway, the dialogue doesn’t matter much, because this is really and truly pure theater, its major impact is independent of the spoken word — like a silent Chaplin comedy.

Although there is a large library even in English on the history of the Japanese theater, nobody seems to know much about the origins of the Chinese theater, or its connections with the very similar theater of India and Greece. We do know that plays of Euripides were performed in Greek Bactria, what is now Pakistan, shortly before the beginning of the Christian era.

The Chinese theater is not only formal, highly stylized, concentrated on theatrical essentials, like the theater of Greece, India, the Commedia dell’ Arte, Molière. It is like them in fact and in detail. Many a Chinese comedy might as well be by the Greek Menander or the Roman Plautus; many a romance by Beaumont and Fletcher, many a “bitter comedy” like Golden Lotus which I saw the other night, and which is the source of the novel well known in English, might be by Machiavelli or Ben Jonson.

When we see Greek tragedy or Renaissance comedy performed in the traditional style, it is always more or less cooked, archeological, the end product of scholarly research. Tradition for us was really broken off long ago. We are revivals. In the Chinese theater we see the living reality, stretching back into the most remote times, like a kind of Sequoia of the arts which has endured and grown while Western cultures came and went.

Years ago when we had three Chinese theaters and the show only cost 35 cents, I was usually the only Caucasian in the audience. Today you see every race, white, Japanese, Negro.

Chinese theater is popular locally, and it could be a most valuable tourist attraction if properly handled. We have the makings of a company in town, working at other jobs, and leading players can always be imported from the Orient. This costs money. Chinese theater is nothing if not lavish. However, the phenomenal houses for the Foo Hsing Troupe show that people will come.

Maybe interested parties should start thinking about reviving a permanent show house in Chinatown. The Chinese community has always been most generous in contributions and I certainly can think of far less profitable things now being done with that hotel tax money.

[August 4, 1963]



The Persecution of Buddhists in Vietnam

I have a bad conscience. For many weeks now there have crossed my desk various open letters and public declarations organized mostly by American clergymen of every faith, protesting the shocking persecution of Buddhists in Vietnam and demanding that the American government emphatically dissociate itself from the policies of Ngo Dinh Diem. I am ashamed of myself that it should take a prod from the Pope to get me around to writing something about this matter.

The Vietnamese government exists entirely by grace of the U.S. State Department. Purportedly the policy of the Southeast Asia desk is to let the locals run their local affairs as long as they stand up to the Communist menace. In all the countries of former French Indo-China they are conspicuously able to do neither.

For fifteen years we have poured money into the pockets of an assortment of remarkably silly rascals and stood by while they victimized their own people. By the way, as anyone who has ever had to do with them can testify, these are probably the world’s most gentle and lovable people.

Pope Paul VI of necessity spoke in cautious, temperate language, but his reprimand was clear enough. Let us hope he will inspire large numbers of the Catholic, Jewish and Protestant clergy of America to reprimand their own government, temperately perhaps, but somewhat less cautiously.

Don’t forget — Ngo and his pin-up Carrie Nation sister are doing all this in the name of our religion, our traditions, our philosophy of life. They call themselves personalists and invoke the names of the leading religious thinkers of our world to justify their barbarities.

It makes my blood run cold to think that this is my own philosophy of life, these are the teachings of the men who have shaped my own life attitudes, and Ngo claims to be the philosopher ruler who has first put them into action.

Gabriel Marcel, Martin Buber, Emmanuel Mounier, Jacques Maritain — is this what happens when their ideas are embodied in action in the affairs of men? Of course not. So it behooves us to speak up — we are personally responsible. That is what Personalism means really, the unlimited willingness to assume responsibility.

After considerable prodding, President Kennedy has spoken with commendable vigor on the issue of human rights in America. If he would speak up with comparable vigor on the issue of human rights in Vietnam I am sure the persecution of Buddhists would vanish like the dewdrop on the lotus petal.

Although we may not speak with the authority of the throne of Peter, let those of us who share a belief in our at-one-ment with all men make it clear to Washington that Saigon is not so far away or insignificant that we do not feel directly responsible. I think that if we prod, the President will speak — after all, he has no alternative.

[August 7, 1963]



Three Cultural Losses

Last week was marked by the deaths of three people whom I knew fairly well, one of them a good but seldom seen friend. Each in his way was a force in the cultural life of America, each with his passing left a gap that it will be hard to fill.

Theodore Roethke was one of the small handful of poets of my generation whose work is likely to be read in 50 years. Dying very suddenly, in early middle age, he is the first of that small group to go. He was a singularly lovable man and all of us who knew him counted him as a special friend. As a poet his work was deliberately limited to a few simple themes sustained by a deeply humane and gentle concern.

His most profound poem was written on the death of a beautiful girl student who died suddenly from a fall from a horse — as he died suddenly of a heart attack while swimming. In the face of death it is almost humorous — wryly ironic and kindly — a final, quiet, tragic smile at unjust fate. As a poet of course his position was unique and cannot be filled at all.

Oliver Lafarge was the author of many books, a tireless defender of the American Indian, and a man of steadiness and good sense in a field overrun with flitty sentimentalists. Unlike the rich bohemiennes of Taos, the Indian was not a Dark God to him.

They, who have always been so willing to fight to the last diamond dog collar to defend the right of the Pueblo to every cholera vibrio in their drinking water, considered him a square. He saw the Indian as another human being, as ordinary usually as any ordinary white man, and with the right to an ordinarily decent life. There are other sensible defenders of the Indian, but there are not enough to go around, and no one will ever fill exactly the role vacated by Oliver Lafarge.

Was J.D. Zellerbach  the last of the Medicean patrons and administrators that have characterized San Francisco’s cultural life from its beginning? Now that he is gone we all realize, even those of us who disagreed with him decidedly at times, how hard he is going to be to replace. If you have lots of money in the bank, it is easy to write checks. J.D. was tirelessly generous of himself. He gave freely of his time and labor and he was not afraid to assume responsibility.

Who will replace him in the many roles he played in the city’s life? A friend with whom I discussed this question suggested Philip Boone or Jimmy Schwabacher, or both. Or both is correct, along with several other people who have yet to come forward. Who else has the time, the money, the prestige, the energy, the willingness to take the blame?

San Francisco is going to miss J.D. a long time, as it still misses Senator Phelan or the elder Herbert Fleishhacker. Whatever their faults, these rich men were cut big from the cloth and they helped to make life big and rich in San Francisco.

San Francisco, St. Louis, Cincinnati, outside of New York, Boston and Philadelphia, these are the American cities with the solidest cultural life. The first three are only modest, middle-size cities, yet they have far more to offer per capita than the great metropolises. I sometimes wonder. Maybe they have a certain characteristic culture pattern, deeper, broader, more democratized, and yet also more sophisticated — more in fact like capital cities of Europe and less provincial than New York or Chicago.

If this is true, it means that our most civilized community life is largely the creation of a small handful of families, mostly enlightened Jewish merchants from Bavaria and the Rhineland, many of whom were connected by marriage before they ever migrated to America.

Oh, of course they’ve been helped out by an occasional Gentile, even Irishmen like the McCormicks or the Phelans, or Germans like the forty-eighters of St. Louis and Cincinnati, or even a few blond Nordic Protestants. Alas, such dedication is no longer as fashionable as once it was. Youngsters in our stately homes are no longer taught that the wealth they inherit is primarily a heritage of duty to society.

All around the Bay Area, I see by the papers, are springing up homes that cost a quarter of a million, built by people I’ve never heard of and who seldom give so much as a dollar to Boys Town, much less dedicate themselves, their time and money and good names to their community.

Yes, indeed, candidates to fill the shoes of men like J.D. Zellerbach are not going to be easy to find.

[August 11, 1963]



More on the Chinese Theater

The pieces I have done on the Foo Hsing Theater Troupe from Taiwan seem to have generated an unusually large response — and a responsible response, from people who want to do things about it and, very possibly, may be able to. Since I believe that we have, at just this moment, a truly exceptional chance to add something of extraordinary value to the cultural life of San Francisco, I am going to devote another column to the subject.

First, this is the best company of Chinese actors to come to America since Mei Lan Fang was here in the early ’30s. They are in the main line of the greatest Chinese theater tradition.

Their youth actress, Katherine Wong, is a direct descendent, artistically speaking, of Mei himself, and everybody agrees that he was the greatest actor — or actress, he played women’s roles — of the twentieth century, everybody meaning every drama critic in the world from George Jean Nathan to Prince Mirsky or James Agate. Meanwhile the Cantonese theater in exile has run steadily down hill into a mess of movie techniques, gaudy sequins, bawdy jokes and wailing saxophones.

Right now they have finished their run, twice extended, in San Francisco and have canceled out in Honolulu and Tokyo. It would be perfectly possible for them to at least stay over the winter in San Francisco if they could get enough bookings up and down the coast to keep them eating.

I know things like this are done months in advance, but if the State colleges for instance got on the ball and made room for them now, they could play a show or two in a dozen places through that outlet alone. They are playing in Los Altos thanks to the imagination of a couple of energetic people.

If they can book into Los Altos, they can certainly play another six towns north of Tehachapi. So it goes — the demand exists, but somebody is going to have to move fast.

As for San Francisco, if the Chinese New Year’s parade can get a big hunk of hotel tax money, a permanent Chinese stock company should certainly deserve help. The parade takes place once a year and attracts a very limited number of tourists. Properly publicized in the papers, in the weekly guides, in the hotels, “Chinese Opera” of top quality would attract droves. People would even come here especially to see it.

Furthermore, though I doubt if the foundationeers have enough sense, alacrity, general culture, to realize that this is an ideal outlet for all their gold . . . if the Rockefellers or the Fords want to spend money to uplift the theater in America, here is sure their chance. I suggest that somebody ask them.

What we need is a committee of impressive people who will be listened to by the city administrators, the leaders of the Chinese community, the culture bosses of the big foundations, and so on down the line. This is a case where if the right people ask, clearly and sensibly, I have little doubt but that they’ll get what they ask for — but the time is short.

[August 14, 1963]



Camping in the Sierras

Thirty-six years ago, one warm September day in the onset of autumn in the High Sierra, Andrée Rexroth and I first climbed up Bloody Canyon and over Mono Pass and saw stretched before us the vast meadowlands at the head waters of the Tuolumne River. It is 26 years since she has been gone from the mountains we both loved so much, but I still go back to the same places — the Whitney Plateau, Tuolumne Meadows, Humphrey Basin, the Chagoopa Plateau, Lake Italy, Palisade Basin.

There are other spots almost as beautiful in the Sierra and I have seen all of them, but as time goes on the choice narrows, certain campsites have become a second home and I would feel lost if I was away from them for too long.

Some are hard to get to, too rough for horses or mules, and can be reached only with donkeys or on foot. In such places it is easy, not just to recapture the freshness of life of primitive man, but to fancy that you are a visitor from another planet in the days before mankind appeared on earth. Tuolumne Meadows is not at all remote, on the contrary a high-gear, well-paved road runs straight across it. There is a store, a coffee shop, a tourist camp, a Curry Company Lodge and a Sierra Club camp and lodge.

Time was when all these people running about would have given me fits. I used to feel they were desecrating the pristine wilderness which should be saved entire for knapsackers like myself and my friends. This is still the attitude of many people who fancy themselves conservationists. I guess I am turning mellow, because I positively enjoy seeing crowds from the prairies of the Middle West and the streets of New York loose in the wilderness for the first time in their lives.

We just came back from an idle trip. We had no objectives, no campsites to reach by a certain hour, nothing to climb. We wandered around the miles and miles of meadowland with a couple of pet donkeys to carry our stuff. Some days we traveled only four miles, other days we didn’t travel at all. We fished, swam in the icy water, or did nothing at all.

This isn’t, as you might think, mellowing with age. I have climbed all sorts of things by all sorts of routes and scrambled over miles of rock with a rucksack on my back to reach some out-of-the-way lake, and in other mountains chopped steps in glaciers for hours. But I am also a strong advocate of do nothing and always have been.

Years ago, before ever the road went into Kings River Canyon, Andrée and I learned from the convict camp of a trail unknown to packers and guides, much less to any dudes. We used to hike into old “Put” Boyden’s cabin and the cave that now bears his name, usually late in October, and drowse away the warm golden days alongside pools full of two-foot trout as drowsy as we were.

“You who were a girl of silk and gauze are now my mountain and waterfall companion” said the poet Po Chu I in his old age. I translated the poem in my young days and was deeply moved, but I never thought that in my own middle age I too would have a young dancer to wander with me by the falling crystal waters and amongst the peaks of snow and granite, least of all that, unlike Po’s girl, she would be my very daughter.

“Wild cyclamen blooms in the meadow. Trout veer in the transparent current. At night golden Scorpio curls above the glimmering ice field. The snow of a thousand winters melts in a sun of a summer day. A thousand birds sing in the sunrise. After twilight our campfire is a single light amongst the lonely mountains. The manifold voices of the cascade talk all night. Wrapped in their down bags the girls sleep in the starlight. Their breaths come and go in tiny pulsing clouds in the frosty night.”*

That’s the way Po Chu I would have described it, and that is the way it was. It is not everybody whose life can sometimes match the most perfect expressions of art.

[August 18, 1963]


*This paragraph and the preceding one are a paraphrase and partial quotation of Rexroth’s poem The Wheel Revolves.



Conservation Issues

There just came in the mail a folder from Trustees for Conservation, whose address is 251 Kearney St., in case you want to receive conservation material from them. They urge me to do something to help get the Wilderness Bill out of committee and onto the floor of the House. I am all for it. It’s hard to see how anyone could be against it.

It would not close down any mine, stop any logging operation, cancel any grazing permit, or abrogate any valid mining claim. What it would do would be to coordinate the administration of the wilderness areas now divided between the Departments of Agriculture and Interior, and draw guidelines for policy in a field of public interest where policy is not truly well defined and so is at the mercy of pressure, ignorance or minority interest.

I consider myself a strong conservationist yet I have been interested for years in extending the series of High Sierra camps of the type operated by the Curry Company in Yosemite. I’d like to see the number in that park doubled, and 10 new ones in Sequoia-Kings Canyon Park. This gives the strict interpretationers of the Sierra Club fits.

On the other hand, I’d like to forbid the grazing of pack stock in the national parks altogether — and begin with the Sierra Club High Trips. Instead, I think all freight transport for campers should be by air drop. This suggestion is met with profound silence from defenders of the wilderness who think a five-minute flight by an airplane is a violation of nature, but 200 horses and mules for one outfit are not.

So you see, it’s not just the old struggle between the sheepherders and Gifford Pinchot. We need to clarify policy amongst ourselves — us conservationists.

Another proposal of Trustees for Conservation is a system of national recreation areas near to population centers. San Francisco has the Marin Water District, the Regional Parks, a number of State Parks and its own Crystal Springs Water District. Many far larger cities than San Francisco have nothing at all.

But the plank in the Ts for C program I’m most for is a revival of the CCC, a Young Conservation Corps to provide work in national parks, national forests and other wilderness and recreation areas. The comparison of worldwide statistics shows conclusively that adolescent delinquency increases in direct proportion to lack of opportunity to do something useful. Let’s hope it is bigger, better and more businesslike than Roosevelt’s venture. We certainly need it.

People are becoming redundant. There are no jobs for the minorities demanding job equality. The population of a whole state — West Virginia — is in danger of becoming swept under the rug as obsolete. The demands of the automobile take precedence over the amenities of human life in the planning of our cities. The aged are housed like criminals. A Youth Conservation Corps would conserve youth as well as nature, and youth, like old age, stoop labor and locomotive firemen, is in great danger of becoming redundant — and that before it ever gets started.

[August 21, 1963]



What to Do with the Old Hall of Justice

We seem to be at sixes and sevens about what to do with the old Hall of Justice. One thing we agree on — the city is unlikely to sell it soon for the asking price and the accompanying conditions. The fact is that in the eyes of any entrepreneur with the money to undertake large-scale development of the site, the Portsmouth Square area is still highly speculative. Nobody knows which way real estate values are going to go in the coming years.

True, skyscrapers are slowly creeping north along Montgomery St. On the other hand, some of North Beach and certainly “outer” Kearny St. is deteriorating. The trouble with the blocks immediately adjacent to Portsmouth Square is that they are being held for “high rise” — in price, and meanwhile nothing is done now.

Except for the Buddhist Church and a couple of modern apartment houses, the Square is faced with slums. Even where there are good businesses on the ground level, nobody wants to expand because of the uncertainty of the future. One of the best restaurants in the city, for instance, could profitably take over their whole building — if they could see ahead.

What reason do we have for assuming that this part of town must get better and better? The somewhat similar Rush St. district in Chicago didn’t — and the rebuilding of the Tenderloin slums to the west of it may come too late. Who could have prophesied that 90th and West End Ave. would become one of the most unwholesome districts in New York?

Ideally, urban redevelopment should be sparked by civic projects. Private enterprise should be stimulated by the strategic injection of public money. The trick is to find a limited cost scheme that can swing a whole deteriorating neighborhood around and set it off in the opposite direction.

A creative rehabilitation of the old Hall of Justice is precisely such a scheme. If this building could be disemboweled and turned into institutions that would attract large numbers of people to social and cultural activities on the highest level, a new focus for development would come into being. It’s not a question of “get it on the tax rate.” In a short time the tax take from the rest of Portsmouth Square would more than return the investment — and the effects would be felt in the adjacent blocks.

As for the building itself — it is priceless. It would be impossible to duplicate it today for any price. A generation ago the fact that it is a close imitation of one of the noblest of the Medici palaces in Florence would have been in its disfavor. Today the silly provincialism of the glass and steel boys is no longer the reigning taste. We have suddenly realized — as our finest buildings fell before the wreckers all over the country — that there is nothing wrong with derivative architecture per se, and that some of it is the best we’ve managed to date.

What availeth it a city to tear down dozens of buildings by Richardson and Sullivan and gain a chicken coup like Lake Meadows? It doesn’t do Chicago any good now to say, “Whoops, sorry!” The buildings are gone, as our beautiful middle-class 1890 homes are gone from the Western Addition.

I don’t see how the present interiors of the jail and the Hall of Justice could be used. The problem is to find the most profitable new set of users and remodel to suit. What we need is a primary focus for the best kind of traffic, traffic which has a radiating effect on the neighborhood.

I think the best suggestion is a Cultural Center, or a Center for the Performing Arts. San Francisco desperately needs a 1200-1500 seat theater, which could be included in either scheme. Perhaps the S.F. Museum might be persuaded to move from its present unsatisfactory [illegible word]. Perhaps the jail could be sold off for a handsome skyscraper which might be related in some way to the [illegible word] of the Hall of Justice. But it would be an unqualified disaster to allow what is now strategic public land to be [illegible word] by a glass, steel and red, white and blue [illegible word] monstrosity.

[August 25, 1963]



A Wild Horse Refuge

I see by the papers they have established a wild horse refuge in the wilderness of south central Nevada. Almost half a million acres of the Tonopah Bombing and Gunnery Range have been set aside as the Nevada Wild Horse Range. This has been done by arrangement between the Air Force and the Bureau of Land Management, quietly and efficiently, unattended by the hoopla and pressure from “the interests” that usually accompanies any conservation measure — certainly one involving a region larger than Rhode Island.

Wild horses, of course, are not truly wild, but feral, the descendants of escaped or abandoned domestic animals; in other words, a kind of zoological weed. We don’t usually think of weeds as needing conservation — but the free horses of the intermountain country are something else again. A band of them racing across the rocks, sand and sagebrush under the pale desert sky is one of the finest sights in the West.

I will probably never see them again, but I am glad they are still there and, in at least one place, will be safe for future generations to see and admire. They meant a lot to me once. They meant all the fresh, newly discovered wonder and excitement of the Wild West.

In my early teens I hitchhiked out from Chicago one spring and got a job in Wenatchee, Wash., with a man who was one of the foremen on the big drives in the Horse Heaven Country. For a month we gathered horses over hundreds of square miles. The inferior stock went for chicken and dog food. The best we culled out as part payment for the drive.

When the snow went out of the Cascades, we drove them across the mountains to the Puget Sound country. Every day we saddled and rode a new horse. Next day we put a pack saddle on him. By the time we reached the Skagit River we considered them well broken. In a few weeks they were peacefully pulling milk wagons in Bellingham and Sedro-Wooley. It was one of the great experiences of my life, a time of continuous beauty and exaltation.

Until the Marilyn Monroe movie [The Misfits] came out I had taken it for granted that the wild horse was gone forever from the high deserts. It never occurred to me they could survive 30 years of unrestrained slaughter, but they did. Now there will be preserved, as it were, a bit of my own youth, one of its rarest treasures, to be part of the youthful exaltation of generations I will never see.

People will come back to visit the old planet on excursions from Mars and see the legendary wild quadrupeds the Cro-Magnons painted on the walls of caves. The fathers, breathing weakly the heavy earth air, will say, “These are symbols, children, of a condition known as Freedom. Our ancestors considered it one of life’s greatest values.”

[August 28, 1963]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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