The gilded serpent giving the restaurant its name encircled
a scarlet pillar near the front doorway. Its eyes stared
coldly above the noisy crowd. Nearly a hundred Caucasian and
Asian diners sat at tables and booths on the two levels of the
Golden Dragon 2 hours and 38 minutes after Saturday the 3rd of
September 1977 had passed into Sunday the 4th. Although drinks
were not served from the bar after 2:00 a.m., per California law,
San Francisco's Chinatown custom of hsiao yeh, taking a "little
snack" before bedtime, would prevail until the Golden Dragon
closed at 3:00. Many people continued to nurse a warm beer or
last glass of wine.
Early September's Labor Day weekend was ending the tourist season in double paradox. San Francisco's summer fogs obscured much of the beauty visitors came to see, while autumn brought with it the clear, sunny days that revealed The City's wonders. Summer tourists found Chinatown crowded with each other; not until October's Ten-Ten, the Republic of China's "4th of July" on the 10th day of the 10th month, would it overflow with thousands of Chinese in a holiday mood.
A waiter hastily penciled a track of Chinese characters on his note pad and scurried away toward the kitchen. Short orders at the end of the shift almost made the tired kitchen crew smile. Noodles laced with morsels of savory duck were a snap to prepare, and the clock hands already pointed at twenty-two minutes to closing time. Three in the morning--what a hell of an hour to finish a job! What was there to do afterward but creep quietly into bed? Even a man's wife lay fast asleep.
The waiter nodded deferentially as he passed a table on the lower level, occupied by a notorious youth gang attached to a major Tong. Sometimes he regretted the Chinese custom of hsiao yeh, "a little snack before bedtime." Too many of these young punks gravitated to the Golden Dragon for the traditional after-hours supper when the bars closed. They came in often, and tonight members of a second, and equally infamous, gang dined lavishly on clams on the upper level.
The waiter felt a twinge of disgust, but carefully disguised his feelings with a smile. One did not upset tiger-boys in Chinatown. He could tolerate these hoodlums in small doses, but not so many at one time. He had no taste for working in a gangsters' hangout, but life in America was not easy, especially for an immigrant from Hong Kong. He needed the money.
He glanced upstairs toward the second gang's members and over his shoulder toward the Tong boys in the corner downstairs. One thing was sure. These hoodlums practically picked up their money off the street. For them, San Francisco stood at the summit of Gum San, "Golden Mountain." What chance did a working man have?
At the same time, the waiter wondered if the crowd of teen-agers sitting across the upper-level aisle from the second gang knew how close they were to the criminal element. They looked like clean kids, and just minutes ago he had overheard one of them at the telephone in the bar calling his mother to say in soft Cantonese that he would be home soon. What a good Chinese boy!
That lad was no fei jai, no "flying youth" of the gangster type, flitting from one evil to another.
The waiter felt gratitude that decent people also patronized the restaurant--like the youngsters whose order he had just taken at the table beside the dragon pillar. The boy looked Chinese, as did one of the girls, but he wasn't sure about the other two girls. Maybe Japanese. He suspected they were American-born. His English wasn't good enough to recognize a foreign accent like his own, but the young people seemed very comfortable in the language, chattering and laughing as though English were their native tongue.
The blonde at the table over there had to be American. Women grew so big in this country, as tall as men! And doubtless those three fellows laughing with a winsome young lady were Americans, too. At least she was small and delicate, even if she were an Occidental. The dark-haired girl sitting alone with her boyfriend looked Mexican, definitely a Latina. The elegant woman who sat with the Hispanic couple he knew to be Asian, although not Chinese. One of his fellow waiters who was acquainted with her had said that she worked for an international airline.
His thoughts drifted to that fellow waiter, a harder worker than anybody on the staff. The man hadn't had a day off in two weeks, but he didn't seem to mind. He had a family to support. How hard he had worked to bring them over from Hong Kong last year. Every penny served some good end, and he was known to want his kids to develop musically. Maybe, like their father, they would play the violin.
The waiter on his way to fetch duck noodles harrumphed. He'd take Chinese opera anytime--good stories, good singing, and music a man could understand. Bach, Beethoven and Brahms would always be foreign to him. He had enough foreigners to deal with every day in San Francisco. At least here in Chinatown he felt close to home. He never had to speak English except at work. His wife couldn't speak a word of it, of course, but she had no need to. She shopped only in Chinese markets, read Chinese newspapers, watched Chinese television, and went to a Chinese doctor and bought Chinese medicine from the big herbal shop around the corner. All their friends came from Hong Kong or the village where they were both born outside Canton in the lovely countryside of Kwangtung Province.
In the kitchen, the waiter called out his order gruffly in Cantonese. Pallid and soaked with sweat, the cook in the steaming galley quickly spooned out the noodles and placed them in bowls on the waiter's tray. The waiter wheeled and started back into the main dining room. He glanced at the clock on the wall.
The time was 2:39 A.M.
On the upper level, at the table where the second gang was seated, one of the boys, not a gang member but a sociable friend, faced another set of glass doors, which led to the bakery. The bakery was dark now, deserted of the daytime crowds that flocked in to pick up tiny dim sum pastries to take home and snack on with a cup of steaming oolong tea. He had a clear view of the street on the other side of the outer glass bakery doors.
A heady aroma wafted upward from the table before him. His mouth fairly watered. Drawing a deep whiff, the young man cast his eyes heavenward. What was more satisfying than the Golden Dragon's delicious clams? Ready to dig in, he caught in the same glance a disconcerting sight: a figure with a rifle ran past the bakery window, followed by another. His chopsticks clattered to the plate as blood drained from his face.
"Watch it!" he whispered hoarsely to his gangster companions. "Man with a gun!"
The gang leader, sitting next to him, looked in the direction of the bakery. A third figure in an army jacket stood on the street at the door. Then he too vanished down the street. The leader threw a piercing look at a fellow gang kid who sat with his back to the bakery.
Catching that meaningful glance, the other kid hunkered down, his body instinctively coiled to spring away from danger. There always existed a chance that the riflemen were on the run from a crime committed farther up the eastern slope of Nob Hill, but the gangsters apprehensively riveted their gaze to the entry below. It was better to assume nothing at a moment like this.
At the table across the aisle, one of the teen-agers had just returned to faintly derisive looks from a couple of the girls after making a call to his mother to tell her he would be home soon. His buddy, sensitive to what the girls were thinking, spoke out in his defense.
"It's right for you to call and let your mother know where you are," he said gently. "You owe that respect to her for taking such good care of the family since your father died."
"Confucius has spoken," giggled one of the girls. "What does Confucius say about the little boy who gets tipsy on two drinks?"
She nodded toward one of their party who was already high on liquor he'd had before they arrived at the Golden Dragon. Befuddled, he rolled his head to the side as he tried to focus on his pretty antagonist's face.
"This little boy is a man, lady," he mumbled. "Don't worry about me. I can handle booze. Order me another drink."
"Too late!" she exclaimed with a smirk. "The bar's closed, big man."
"It's a good thing," interjected another of the girls good-naturedly. "You're already too high to carry on a decent conversation. Change places with me. If you can't talk to my girlfriend, let me!"
The tipsy boy sighed heavily and shifted his position.
Seconds later, at exactly 2:40 A.M., one of the young women anticipating the arrival of duck noodles at her table beside the dragon pillar on the lower level caught sight of a strange-looking man shouldering his way through the glass double doors at the front of the restaurant. His face was covered except for his dark eyes. Two others crowded past him toward the mezzanine. He stared fiercely around the room.
Stunned, the woman suddenly realized he braced a rifle at his right hip. It was pointed directly at her!|