Pagoda Alley: Haunted Legends from San Francisco
San Francisco is a beautiful and energetic city. It hustles and bustles with trams, trains, shops, stops, song, and dance. So much goes on from day to day one could be forgiven for not considering that such a bright town could house much in the way of ghost stories.
Eager for a chance to explore, this RDU native ventured to San Francisco’s famous Chinatown on a guided ghost tour to hear stories of malevolent spirits and bitter historical accounts.
The beginning of our journey brought us to this building, a school for traditional Chinese culture and language for young students. One particular boy met his demise here in the 1960’s and supposedly his spirit roams the halls; reports of laughter on quiet nights lead nearby residents to believe his death, ruled accidental, was not so accidental after all.
Here we see the one of the ornate windows more clearly. Note the white object in the window. Is it a mere reflection, or some other trick of the light? Plastic bag caught in the wind? Or is it the spirit of the boy, lost and laughing on his way around a never-ending path to a home that is no longer his?
Moving on, we reached a site that had once housed a brothel over a hundred years ago. A close look at the bricks reveals interesting tidbits of history; when the earthquake of 1906 flattened and scorched the bay area, Chinatown residents stabilized what was left with the remains of the buildings around them. It’s hard to tell in these photos, but many of the bricks in these older buildings are charred from the substantial blaze that accompanied the quake.
In the basement level of this building, the spirit of a young prostitute is said to roam from hall to hall rattling doorknobs in an attempt to find one that is unlocked, so that one day she may escape her dire non-existence. Caught during an escape, she died in fear and anger. After some time had passed, the owners of the building and some of the workers attempted to pacify her by leaving certain doors unlocked so that she could pass through without incident.
According to Chinese culture, spirits move in straight lines, can be frightened off by their own reflections, and in some of the more malevolent cases, can be bribed.
The two red lights in the following picture are a traditional attempt to deter spirits in Pagoda Alley. Shopkeepers set up an altar with a token gift of food or something that could sooth the temperament of a spirit in the hopes that their business won’t be affected by their disruptive conduct. These altars are often set in windows at the ends of streets and alleys, where spirits have clear paths to travel.
The following picture below may look unassuming, but take a close look at the window on the far left. Right above the glass shutters, underneath the arch, sits a small circular mirror. These are used to frighten spirits and prevent them from entering specific rooms and buildings. Next door stands the YMCA, an important establishment for Chinatown residents when it was first established and itself the subject of spiritual encounters.
The mirrors serve to protect residents from the angry ghost of a young woman who got caught in an argument between two of her lovers. The story claims that the two men confronted each other in the YMCA. One man pulled out a gun to threaten the other, but the other man callously pulled the girl in front of him as a shot rang out. Stricken by panic, fear, and anger, the men stuffed her into a closet and left her to die slowly and alone.
It’s barely visible in the below photo, but the road is slightly curved in the distance. This is another tactic to divert or dissuade spirits– they can only move in straight paths according to Chinese folklore.
Not all spirits are resentful, sad or angry. Some benign ghosts carry on after death following the same routines they had in life. Near the turn of the last century, this building housed telephone switchboards.
The job of connecting callers was often held by young women, and one worker in particular died here in a freak accident. Years later the switchboards were disassembled and moved, but workers still could swear they heard the familiar clicks of the switches coming from the storage space on the top floor. Bank employees today continue to hear the clicks in the storage space, but have decided to let her be. Apparently old habits die hard.
Chinatown is full of stories like those above, mixing spiritual tradition and history. The similarities between these stories and those we find closer to home are numerous. There are intense emotions, elaborate backstories, ties to famous (or infamous) times and places, and leave the listener feeling a sense of unease. These spirits left before their time, had unfinished business, or serve as cautionary tales– we tell these stories to remind each other not to end up the same way, to live our lives without malice or vengeance in our hearts.
In the end, we don’t get a second chance at life.
….Or do we?