Rexroth’s San Francisco


San Francisco Magazine

Hong Kong and Japan
America the Ugly
Tourist Tips for Japan




Hong Kong and Japan


San Francisco Magazine Editor’s Note:
Mr. Rexroth was in the midst of doing a series of travel pieces and impressions of foreign lands when his contract with the San Francisco Examiner was terminated. The following is an excerpted compilation of the remaining articles in which local Hearst officials expressed “No further interest.” In the future, the author has stated he intends to explore “the social scene — that’s with a small s — in and around San Francisco or the nation . . . possibly anywhere in the world.” We are grateful to the Examiner.



Hong Kong is like Grant Avenue gone crazy. That is true in more senses than one. San Francisco’s Chinatown is not only the country’s leading urban tourist attraction, it is also a financial and wholesale center for Chinese business all over America and the headquarters of numerous import and export businesses and private banks. It is also San Francisco’s principal light industry district and it has the City’s, in fact the nation’s, proportionately densest concentration of population. Expand all this to somewhere between four and five million people and put them in a landscape of steep hills and blue waters more like San Francisco than any other city in the world, and you can visualize Hong Kong. Oh yes, I forgot things have changed in the past fifteen years. Stand the whole business on end in thirty-story buildings, all very much alike. Hong Kong has one of the highest birth rates in the world and a constant inflow of immigrants — from all over — Australia, the U.S.A., India, even Latin American, as well as the refugees from China. There are only three hundred odd square miles of the whole concession, so the best place to go has been up, and up they’ve gone.

Hong Kong is a free port and every variety of merchandise from cameras to cars is cheaper there. Everybody knows about Hong Kong tailors . . . ours is Sam Mahant, a handsome, engaging gentleman who has the great virtue of doing a one-price business — no haggling. You should be able to get an excellent suit by mail for about forty to fifty dollars including U.S. duty. Some Hong Kong tailors are utterly styleless and their fabrics are cheap. Not Mahant. His place is called Saks, in Chung King Arcade, Nathan Street, Kowloon, Hong Kong. (This is a piece of utterly unsolicited promotion. He didn’t know I do a column. I hope he’s pleased.)

I think the best thing to do with Alcatraz would be to make it a free port, like Shannon and Amsterdam airports and Hong Kong for all visitors to America or foreign passports and tourist visas. On boy! The money it would make! The crowds it would bring to San Francisco! Has anyone ever suggested this?

Whatever is happening in Red China and however it turns out, the old China is gone forever. No restoration could even put Humpty Dumpty together again, any more than the Bourbons and Metternich could undo the work of the French Revolution and Napoleon. Something like what China or parts of it might have become under other auspices can be found in Hong Kong and Taipei. I wonder though. Chinese civilization is pretty overwhelming. It has absorbed many revolutions and invasions. Perhaps when the uproar quiets down, the Great Cultural Revolution will be found to have effected no more changes than the Mongol and Manchu Dynasties, or the economic revolutions of the Sung.

There are great differences between Hong Kong and Taipei. Hong Kong is a gamble and gambling is the besetting vice. The click of ivory counters in the night-time dominant sound along the main streets of Chinese Hong Kong. Prostitution is, as they say, rife. Not just for Caucasians — it is a way of life, a part of the culture. Racing, cock fights, dope, dog fights, dog and cat fights, boys, French circuses — if you are after sin you can find it, or ask your friendly bellboy. However, vice plays less and less of a role in the economy and the social life of Hong Kong, unlike Macao. Over against this, the reflection really of a deeply cleft class society, a revolution of the new technological society is slowly making its way.

Taipei on the other hand is the end product of a revolution — one we have almost forgotten — what used to be called the Chinese Revolution: the old main line of social change from the progressive courtiers of the turn of the century through Sun Yat Sen to the Kuo Min Tang under Chiang Kai Shek, a revolution in exile.

The different is immediately apparent. Taipei looks like a Chinese version of East Berlin or Warsaw without all the new high-rise housing and without all those cops. It looks a little drab, earnest and hard working. It also looks relatively uncorrupted and unimproved by tourism. Only thirty percent of the entire island population are Chinese — largely concentrated in Taipei and other big cities. Taiwanese culture is not all that different from Chinese, however. If the present situation endures, the Chinese minority are certain to be absorbed eventually and the country become a Taiwanese republic rather than “Nationalist China.” At present there is a persistent underground nationalist movement, but more important, they are slowly moving into parity with the exiled mainlanders.

More money was spent in Hong Kong last year by Japanese tourists than by Americans. A “Hong Kong Vacation” is rapidly becoming Australia’s surrogate for Las Vegas — it usually includes a side-trip to the casinos of Macao. Japanese capital is moving rapidly into the empty space in the financing of the Australian minerals boom, and the two economies, like the two natural environments, complement each other in many ways. This is only one example of the business and recreational interdevelopment of the western shore of the Pacific. Midway in the network of money and commodities and people — like the “lumbar brain” of the dinosaur — stands Hong Kong. The controlling intelligences and sources of power may be elsewhere, but the transmission center, ever increasingly, is Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong wage scale is one of the highest in the Orient and there is, considering the refugee influx, surprisingly low unemployment. Financially its local banks underwrite mostly mercantile organizations and secondary and tertiary industries, although some are involved in the heavy and extractive industrial development of the Pacific shore. But it is all on the up and up, part of the neocapitalist, rising wages, constantly improved technology “growth capitalism” that is replacing the super profits of 19th-century imperialism, which, except for the extremely lucky, was largely a losing game.

Hong Kong people are always talking about what will happen if the Red Chinese get nasty, or if they refuse to renew the lease in twenty years. Nothing is likely to happen. By then Hong Kong will be a high-rise Tokyo and the open lands will be almost gone — and the concession will be as essential to East-West relations as Switzerland always is to the belligerents in Europe’s wars.



All New Yorkers should visit Tokyo. It is the world’s worst-organized city, jammed with noise, neon, automobiles and a constantly flowing mob of people who do not seem to be inhabitants but ectoparasites on the machines and buildings. It is not a city for human beings, but for petty profit. The only suggestions of enlightened urbanism are a few parks that were feudal preserves. More’s the pity, because the almost total destruction of war gave Tokyo a chance to rebuild itself as the world’s most beautiful city. MacArthur may have done his best to introduce enlightened social ideas into the ruling class of Japan — but city planning was not one of them. Tokyo is an immense collective mortal sin, literally, eleven million people — ten thousand new ones each month — creating and tolerating a lethal environment.

It is this fact which explains the triumph of a Popular Front coalition in the mayoralty election. The victor offered a program of reform in the conditions of life. We are going to see more and more of this all over the world. As life in the great cities becomes intolerable, new political groupings will form to deal directly with the evil of the cities and steadily, one by one around the world, they will win. And then the old ideologies will dissolve in the responsibilities of the coalition. Calcutta, Bombay, Tokyo, Rome — someday it will be New York, London and San Francisco.

[One or two missing lines] . . . that the winning platform — designed to meet the needs of shopping housewives, harassed motorists and trampled commuters — not only has nothing to do with Marxism, it is specifically anti-Marxist. Engels wrote a book — On the Housing Question — in which he heaped scorn on all such “vulgar reformism.” So today, Moscow competes with Tokyo and New York in unlivability. “The revolutions of the past hundred years have been concerned with economics and politics. The latter third of the twentieth century will see the rise of a world revolution to change the quality and restore the meaning of life,” said Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. Any political coalition, whether of Tories or Trotskyites, that realizes that that is the wave of the future and keeps working is going go win over all those politicians still lost in 1848 or 1918 or even 1950.

So much has been written about travel in Japan that it seems at first sight rather pointless to add to the immense wordage. But there are a few points that are usually slighted and that are good to know. Most important, Japan has by far the largest internal tourism per capita of any nation. Outside the international hotels and the organized tour trips, they don’t need you or particularly want you. Perhaps twenty-five percent of all tourists would really like to see “the real Japan.” They’d like to stay in Japanese-style inns (ryokan), learn to eat Japanese foods, even raw fish and grilled eel, take those hot, hot communal baths, go to Noh plays and Kabuki and Shimpa dramas. They might not like those things but they’d like to try them, free from guides and amongst the Japanese themselves. Every Japanese agency seems to them to be in a conspiracy to keep them from doing so. Partly this is due to the fact that the Japanese bureaucracy, like the German, think entirely in stereotypes. To them a typical American is an elderly man in a loud shirt, with a loud voice, very rich, hung about with cameras, and when away from his elderly rasping-voiced wife, on the prowl for them red-hot geishas he has heard about. Such people are certainly conspicuous all over the world, but rather hard to find in America away from Grant Avenue or Niagara Falls. The Japanese tourist agencies are created to care for them and keep them in their place — in deluxe ghettos.

Scholars, people who know something of Japanese culture, are confined in another ghetto. Writers and artists are handled by organizations like the P.E.N. Club, an appalling gang of squares. Japan invented the organization man. There is no provision for the free-lance traveler of modest income who knows considerable about Japan and wishes to be absorbed into the normal life of the country.

Japan is far less Americanized than France, but it is a thoroughly modern country whose modernity is not based on Western culture — it has only taken techniques from the West. If you gather your notions of modern Japan from either the popular of highbrow Japanese movies you’ll be wrong, too. Mostly they present . . . [one or two missing lines] . . . most Western-seeming aspects. Outside certain sections of Tokyo which are genuinely Americanized, this is only seeming.

How do you whip it? First, realize that Japan is a very different civilization, less like our own than the Islamic countries even. Second, it is extremely difficult to communicate with the people as long as you fail to recognize the barriers of a thoroughgoing alien culture with an entirely different system of values. Third, plunge in. You can go anywhere in Japan and live in as Japanese style as you wish if you carry a good phrase book and use lots of sign language, smile and bow, keep your temper and persist. Alien values or no, people are people. One thing — Japanese inns are continuously full, usually with two or three people to a six-mat sleeping room, so don’t be surprised if they are hard to get into. Japan on Five Dollars a Day is the least reliable of the $5.00 books, at least as a hotel and restaurant guide. It’s mostly bars and girls. Plan to spend, living Japanese style, about $10 a day, board and room, and you’ll get along fine if you persist. Last, bone up — study. Memorize the common phrases. Try to learn a few characters, especially of food, and carry your phrase book (with the two syllabaries) always. Read a good short Japanese history. Go to some movies of modern life. Get a good European-style guide book — the Guide Bleu type, with sound information about art, history, economics, etc. And persist.

[October 1967]



America the Ugly

It is a profoundly shocking experience to return to America after a year abroad living amongst the “natives” and deliberately avoiding other Americans. Some months ago Gunnar Myrdal pointed out in a speech and subsequently in an article that America had become a closed society like Russia, and that Americans no longer knew what the rest of the world thought of them, much less why.

I think the American situation is worse, because the Iron Curtain countries are full of people who listen to the Western radio and in border regions, like East Berlin, East Germany and parts of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, they can even get Western television. Also, most Europeans speak more than one language and read newspapers and magazines from other countries. It is hardly believable that the leading foreign newspapers do not come to the editorial offices of any major American newspaper, except the New York Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (There is one notable exception — the monthly magazine Atlas, a compendium of foreign commentary on the US, published by Malcolm Muir, former editor of Newsweek.)

The only daily newspaper in America which resembles a European one and commonly reprints from the European press is the extremely successful York (Pennsylvania) Gazette and Daily, edited by my old friend Jimmy Higgins. Due to the fact that it accurately reflects European opinion and reprints translations from Figaro, Die Welt or the Warsawa Tribuna, it is hard to find in library newspaper rooms. I guess they think it is Communist.

American journalism, even the most liberal and enlightened, is failing the American public — its job is precisely to give them the gift to see themselves as others see them. Instead, our local pseudo-liberal sheet features as a foreign service a syndicated column which concerns itself with grave matters like the poor quality of condoms in the Kabul bazaar or the popularity of halvah in Iceland. As for the other paper — they don’t believe in foreigners.

Let me say flatly that America has become the most hated and feared nation in history. Hitler had friends. They may have been nasty friends, but the State Department only has hired lackeys and adventurers kept in office by the CIA. The Nazis and Fascists had principles — bad principles, but principles they were.

America is looked upon as a land of mindless totalitarians. “The military-industrial complex” that Eisenhower long ago warned us against does not need brains; it has computers. When the plums, or lemons, all come up “genocide,” the red button is automatically pushed. They certainly don’t need principles. Those are for the rubes, who can be taken care of by the publicity organizations that successfully run Rin Tin Tin for governor even though he shows signs of hydrophobia.

This hatred and fear is not some kind of Communist delusion. As a matter of fact, the European Communists and especially the Russians understand America. They’re the same kind of people. It’s the European Social Democrats, the Center and Moderate Right, the whole body of opinion that represents the conservation of Western Civilization, that is terrified of the two monsters than hem Europe in. If you want a reasoned, dispassionate and bone-chilling exposé of the folly of the Vietnam War, talk to a German aristocrat from an old army family, with sympathies with the Roman Catholic Left, such a man as was von Stauffenberg, who was executed for trying to assassinate Hitler.

I never met a person anywhere in the world who was in favor of American policy in Vietnam (except those in paid positions dependent on the Americans) and this includes bankers in India, stockbrokers in England and editors of conservative newspapers in Sweden. The degree to which America is distrusted is shown by the fact that almost everyone I have questioned, including mature people in highly responsible positions, believe that Lyndon Johnson is an accessory before or after the fact, or at least had guilty knowledge of the assassination of Kennedy. I think this is unlikely myself, but it is a measure of the almost paranoid distrust of America.

It’s not just politics and geopolitics — the endless succession of mass murders, riots, senseless killings and bad movie actors in public office has convinced Europeans that America is a nation of madmen. There must be something in the air or water that has driven us all crazy. Another thing is the relentless flood of debauchery that we export — nudie magazines, two-murders-for-every-commercial television.

The former president of India, Dr. Radakrishnan, once said to me, “It is incredible, the sorts of things the State Department chooses to show me when I visit America, or the entertainments and sightseeing they provided for Pandit Nehru.” Minoo Masani, the leading conservative member of the Indian Parliament, when I repeated this to him said, “Yes, I know. They will never understand that what we object to is not that they are capitalists, it’s that they are immoral. We are not afraid of Wall Street; we are afraid of Hollywood.”

Two of the top-ranking American Cardinals passionately supporting, even advocating, genocide at the Second Vatican Council filled the hearts of the Princes of the Church with amazed horror.

When Americans travel abroad they practically never make any contact with genuine foreign public opinion. Ninety-nine percent of them live entirely in the world of organized tourism with its violently aggressive sycophancy. The other one percent are mostly scholars, writers and other cultural workers who are sponsored through one of its many covers by the CIA and who never meet anybody who has not been processed by the foreign cultural organizations of the CIA, the Congress for Cultural Freedom and such like. Foreign correspondents of American newspapers by and large are perfect embodiments of the cynical adage of that cynical Hearst foreign correspondent of years ago, Karl von Wiegland, “Public opinion is what other American newspapermen talk about in the Ritz Bar.” A few speak the language of the country and know the score and write their stories with their tongues firmly planted in both cheeks.

Of course you can say that if you spend a year outside the country you become corrupted with anti-American sentiment. That doesn’t happen to be true of me. Emotional anti-Americanism is largely confined to middle-class and professional people, especially French, who envy Americans for the so-called American Way of Life — for which I have nothing but contempt, whether it’s practiced in Tokyo, Düsseldorf or San Francisco. I spend my time abroad amongst very common people who always seem to like me and my family very much. So this year I returned with my mind pretty much of a clean slate as far as any opinion about the state of American culture in 1967.

I feel that I have returned to the dangerous ward of the lunatic asylum, a place where homo homine lupus is the first and greatest commandment, and the second is like unto it: “Everybody does it, why shouldn’t I?” Otto Rank once said that this was the diagnostic sign of the psychopathic personality. Arsonists, kleptomaniacs, exhibitionists, snarfs, psychopathic liars — all devoutly believe that everybody does what they do; they just get caught.

Perhaps when the Great Credibility Gapper in the White House has sufficiently depreciated the money he will substitute these two commandments for Annuit Coeptis Novus Ordo Saeclorum, that ancient and honorable slogan of the 18th-century Freemasons, that perfect symbol of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment when a great nation was founded on the principles of a humane, humanistic and humanitarian philosophy and run for over a generation by revolutionary intellectuals, the equals of the most civilized men in Western European civilization.

What raises gooseflesh on my body and makes my hair stand on end is the incredible acceleration of decay — escalation, to use the term of the people most responsible for it. The United States is falling apart at about the degree in ten years that took the Roman Empire a century. When some future Gibbon in Nigeria writes The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, it will be a short book.

Just think, 20 years ago the United States was all powerful and absolutely unchallenged, and its dead president, rightly or wrongly, was the most respected man in the world. Every bit of that power and opportunity has been thrown away. Every positive has been turned into a negative. Where once all was plus, the signs have been changed to a terrible minus.

[November 1967]



Tourist Tip for Japan

A number of people have asked me for specific recommendations in Japan after reading the column I did of general advice. I did not plan to return to this subject, but just recently a syndicated lady columnist in one of the local papers was asked by a correspondent in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to recommend reasonably priced hotels in Tokyo and Kyoto; also “since we should like to stay for several months, is there any such thing as a pension or is a hotel the only possibility?”; and asked if the language problem was insoluble.

The columnist’s secretary obviously took the letter and called up the Japan National Tourist Organization, who told her that pension-type accommodations were not usually available in Japan and referred her to the classified ads in the English-language newspapers and to the Tourist Information centers. They also mentioned the People’s Lodgings, run by the Bureau of National Parks, where the room charge alone is about $3.00 a day.

I decided maybe I’d better pick up where my first column left off. There are many youth hostels in Japan, but both they and the People’s Lodgings are booked for months in advance by group tours of Japanese and are practically impossible to get into at any season. There are, however, thousands of pension-type native Japanese inns called ryokan which range in price from three dollars a day with two meals to fifty dollars a day or more; the latter are places where millionaires take their concubines.

A good place in Tokyo is the Masuya Ryokan in the Ikenohata Section adjacent to Ueno Park. There are two important shrines in Ueno Park as well as the three art museums and a concert hall. This small district, a kind of peninsula between the two sections of the park, was not bombed and is consequently one of the few parts of Tokyo with “typical Japanese” architecture. Prices should run about ten dollars a day with two marvelous meals, private bath (Japanese style) and private flush (but Japanese style) toilet. There are subway stations nearby. The phone number is 821-3897. If you telephone them from the airport they will tell the cab driver how to bring you. There are any number of ryokan in this district, some cheaper, some more expensive.

It is a neighborhood seldom penetrated by Occidentals (except for the museums and the zoo), with large department stores, night clubs unknown to G.I.s and all sorts of purely Japanese attractions. Little English is spoken but that doesn’t really matter. If you can’t get in the Masuya, ask them to recommend a neighbor. Don’t go to the Tourist Office; let Japan Air Lines take care of you. Always do this. They are in the business of selling transportation and are willing, if pushed, to steer you to reasonable hotels. If before you leave you go to JAL and tell them exactly what you wish to spend, they will set up a tour for you at a minimum of five dollars a day — but you will have to put up with indoor dry toilets, which are better than you might imagine.

In Kyoto we stayed in a wonderful little place in the Weavers’ District just off the big market street Omiya Dori and three blocks from the great Zen Buddhist temple complex, Daitokuji, which has some of the most beautiful gardens in the world. It is called Rakucho Bekkan, and the address is Kita-ku, Chitiku, Takanawa 7; telephone 44-0860; the innkeeper’s family name is Urade. This is a very small place, only five rooms altogether; three of them form a little cottage annex across the tiny garden; dry toilet, Japanese bath; $8.00 a day with two meals. A family of lovely people. Have JAL set this up for you since they don’t speak much English, although the daughter, Miss Sanae, understands most anything you say. For people who want the real Japan this is a good place to start. The food is excellent.

Above Kyoto, at the end of a trolley line, is the new Kurama Onsen, a hot springs Japanese inn with possibly the best food I have ever eaten anywhere — and that includes La Perouse in Paris; flush toilet, private bath, Japanese-style public bath of hot mineral water (men and women separated), massage service, and Japanese-style human bake oven, the kamaburo. There are hikes up the mountains to shrines and temples. In the late spring the country is especially beautiful — and it’s only a short trip by tram or taxi back into town. The price is ten dollars a day with two meals.

In Nara, which, however beautiful, is a tourist trap if there ever was one, there is a wonderful extremely cheap ryokan which is the old guest house of the most beautiful and remote of the temples of the main temple complex — Shinyakushuji. It’s all authentic Japanese. I believe the food usually served is only vegetarian but that’s not so bad because it includes varieties of soy bean cake and similar proteins, and the price is so cheap that you can eat meat dishes out. The cost is less than three dollars a day with two meals. There is an easy walk through the deer park from the railroad station, but don’t try to carry your own bags uphill.

Places like the Shinyakushuji guest house are all over Japan and if you’re willing to sleep on the floor and use Japanese dry toilets, and Japanese-style baths, you can travel as cheaply in Japan as you can in Spain or Greece. But you will get no help from the official agencies.

Another trip I highly recommend, popular with Japanese and quite unknown to Occidentals, is around the island of Shikoku, stopping each night in one of the eighty-odd temples founded by Kobo-daishi, who brought Shingon Buddhism to Japan from China over a thousand years ago. This, of course, is a walking or bicycle trip. I have no idea of how to solve the problem of a guide to such tours except to go over there, do it myself, come back and write a book. It is possible, at least in vacation time, to hire a Japanese student. The only trouble with that is that the average Japanese student knows absolutely nothing about the old, traditional ways of life, or if he does, is convinced that foreigners only want to stay in Hilton hotels.

I’d like to mention the Duke Hotel in Taiwan, patronized mostly by Orientals, about as cheap as you can get (and put up with) and with connections to similar places all over the island, including a somewhat better hotel at the Taiwanese pleasure city, Pleiku.

I cannot stress too strongly how worthwhile a trip to Japan — living amongst the people, away from the Occidental tourist racket — can be if you are prepared to adjust to the life and keep your temper. When at a loss in Japan, do as the Japanese do, smile and bow. Their ideas of hygiene and cuisine are different from ours, but just as hygienic and the food is certainly better than you would encounter living cheaply amongst the natives in the United States. (The Japanese never blow their noses in public, and if they have bad colds, they wear surgical masks, at home and on the street.) You will have had the most precious, unforgettable experience of your life and will have spent your time surrounded with beauty and peace and enthusiastic hospitality. All you have to do is behave and don’t act like a tourist.

[December 1967]


Rexroth’s San Francisco collects all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns and articles from the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967), the San Francisco Bay Guardian (1967-1972), and San Francisco Magazine (1967-1975). Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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