Peking Poultry. Chinatown, Los Angeles.
'Who, and what are you.' Scrooge demanded.
'I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.'
'Long Past.' inquired Scrooge: observant of its dwarfish stature.
'No. Your past.'
— A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Stave 2: The First of the Three Spirits.
I knew something was afoot. Even at the tender age of four, I could smell a scheme simmering. My mom was fussing over me and my little brother more than usual. She couldn’t stop preening and 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 drug store muskiness. Something was up alright.
We then rushed out of our rented duplex in LA’s Chinatown and strolled 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 was sort of like a Shaolin Temple, only with paid utilities.
We continued to walk past Chinatown’s sole playground where my friend “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 Momma’s hand as she led us nearer to our destination.
Chinatown’s streets were so big and alive at that age. People covered the sidewalks en masse. I saw ancient and gnarled Chinese ladies hunched over with their impossibly large bundles as they trundled their way through the crowd.
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.
And across the street from the playground, my favorite Chinese restaurant, May Flower, had a line snaking out the door. My father brought Warren and me to May Flower every Sunday for lunch. May Flower is where I discovered the wonderful world of won-ton noodle soup. It’s also where I first learned to savor the texturally complex combination of beef brisket and beef tendon. Won-ton 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 marching, 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 utilized like a library and read cover to cover all the Captain America, Iron Man and X-Men comic books on the racks. That liquor store is also the first place I ever saw someone sleeping on a sidewalk, back when these people were referred to as winos instead of the homeless.
A few yards later we were zipping by Castelar School where the play yard was empty. It was Saturday. Finally I found myself in front of yet another building that favored the faux Chinese temple look. My mom squatted down to our level and made some final touch ups to our hair before walking us into the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association.
The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association had a long aisle going down the middle of two sections of seats. The building was used for many things including lots of weddings and the long aisle was perfect for such occasions. This was the first time I had ever been here and it didn’t look like a wedding was about to take place. Rather, the fake temple looked Christmassy. There was a dime store festiveness to the place with its cheap ornaments and hand made decorations. But the room was near empty of people.
As we started walking down the aisle I remember looking over at my little brother checking to see if he had any clue on his face of 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.
The fat man was wearing a red velvet outfit with white fur trim. He had a white, shiny beard and very thick glasses – the kind a mechanical engineer would wear while fiddling 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’ve been hearing so much about.
“Look, it’s Santa Claus,” my mother said, confirming my thoughts. She said this in Chinese. In Chinese, Santa Claus is translated as “the Old Man of Christmas.” This old man then gestured for us to get on his lap. Suspecting a trap, I made Warren go first. Warren was helped on to Santa’s lap by my mom. He looked petrified but did not cry. Santa asked Warren questions but Warren didn’t seem to understand him. Santa then gave Warren a stocking full of toys and candy. My eyes popped out of their sockets like Wile E. Coyote when I saw the stocking up close. It looked like kid heaven in a see-thru sock. Inside were all kinds of tiny, colorful, plastic stuff and a bunch of colorful, sparkling, hard candies. At that moment I would’ve done a back flip to get on Santa’s lap. Instead my mom had to hoist 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 although he smelled like alcohol mixed with fried food. The next thing I noticed, while up close and personal with the old guy, was that his beard wasn’t attached to his chin. It was disconcerting, 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, and this was when I finally made eye contact with St. Nick.
I noticed there was something amiss about this particular jolly old elf. Although I was very young, I’d already seen enough incarnations of Santa Claus on various media to discern whether or not a Santa was authentic or not. There was something foreign though, at the same time, familiar about this one.
While my mom looked on and as Santa kept babbling, and Warren was busy stuffing his gullet with candy cane, I peered deeper. Then, like one of those abhorrently addictive 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.
Son of a bitch! I couldn’t believe it. My tiny brain was buzzing. My eyes stung with betrayal and anger. Who allowed this? Whoever heard of a Chinese Santa Claus? Did the mayor know this was going on? I was pissed and I wanted to tell this impostor that he was bad for tricking people. I wanted to defend my mom and my little brother from this evil Kringle wannabe and from 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 really badly to bust him, to publicly flog him, but instead I said thank you when he handed me my stocking.
I looked back at him as we exited the community center. 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 jig-saw puzzle. Then I tore open the stocking and ate my candy.
Next my mom brought us to a place we go every time there is a special occasion such as Christmas. This place was like Disneyland to us. We’ve never been to Disneyland at that point but it was as fun as any amusement park in our minds. Candy firmly in hands and mouths, we 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 cluck-cluck-clucking and pecking at the air and at each other. The basic routine would be to tell one of the men at the counter draped in butcher whites that you want a chicken, you want it cooked a certain way and you want it whole or in pieces. With that settled, the show would officially start. And Warren and I always got front row center.
First, the butcher would reach his gloved hand into a cage and try to grab a bird. This was not so easy due to the understandable fact that all the chickens crowded to the rear of the cage whenever the executioner showed up. 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, would unsheathe his blade and slit the chicken’s throat causing it to wildly convulse, and, just as swiftly, he would toss the spasmodic fowl into a metal trashcan where other chickens that met the same fate lie bleeding to death.
A few minutes later, another butcher would come along and dump all the chickens into a big cylindrical machine that looked like a washing machine. After a few spins the chickens came out featherless.
Next they were placed into another contraption that would spin them some more and clean them.
My brother and I really liked the next step in the process because it was extra gory. A couple of butchers would rapidly pull out the cleaned, featherless chickens and jab them one after the other by the throat on to hooks hanging from an overhead conveyor. The hanging chickens then rode the conveyor through an intensely hot steamer. Once out of this sauna of death, the chickens would be ready to be cut up or packed whole for the customer to enjoy along with the very tasty, oily ginger sauce that came with the order. Henry Ford would be proud.
This chicken was the best I'd ever had. Plump, juicy, flavorful, and 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. For my brother and I, the two demented tots, it was like going to a house of horrors at a carnival.
Alas, this story is but a tale of Christmas past. Peking Poultry, most certainly because of today’s health code and political correctness, 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 their sign heralds.
But this tale is not meant to lament the glory days of Peking Poultry but rather to celebrate its contribution to the unofficial Christmas bird of LA’s Chinatown – the steamed chicken. You may never see Bob Cratchit with Tiny Tim on his shoulder dancing about a table with a Chinese steamed chicken on it. 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!