Swinging Doors

Last night I read about how a Chinese worker’s house had been uncovered by archeologists in Utah. More than 11,000 Chinese worked on the Transcontinental Railroad and many more in the mines throughout the west. When I got back from China in 1984, and ended up in San Diego, I became very curious about these Chinese when I saw so many Chinese things in the local antique and junk stores — and in the random rural museums. I even had the thought that maybe I was reincarnated from one of these Chinese immigrants and I thought of a story in which a person reassembled all the remaining possessions from a former (Chinese) life. All of these things would be — for that person — a doorway to the past. It’s still a good story, but I think it’s been written. The OTHER problem with it is that the protagonist had no where to go with that except collecting a bunch of old things. None of them would be a key to the answer or reveal anything about his/her past life. He or she would simply have a nice collection of Chinese antiques.

Which kind of happened.

The swap meet I used to go to with the good-X often had Chinese antiques. It’s where I got my “coffee” table which isn’t a coffee table at all. It’s a dining table for a family to sit around on low stools. I ate from such a table dozens of times. One day, wandering around Laguna Beach with a friend, I walked into a junk store to find the front pieces of a Chinese gown from the late 19th/early 20th century on which fabulous cranes had been embroidered. “I don’t know, $70?” said the guy.

The person I was with said, “That’s a little high.” (I didn’t think so, dirty though the pieces were)


And then, recently I got two early 20th century scholar cabinets at the local flea market.

That isn’t all, though. In San Diego there was (now re”juvenated” and turned into a tourist destination) a part of the downtown area that had been San Diego’s small China Town. I discovered it one day soon after I moved there and was wandering around the city, which, in 1984/85, had no Sea Port Village, Gaslamp Quarter, Horton Plaza, etc. etc. by which people know the city today. I’m glad they resurrected this part of the city, though. It deserved it.

My own neighborhood in San Diego — City Heights — was (is?) a low income neighborhood where many recent immigrants were first settled for a few years while they found jobs, their feet, their lives. At the time I moved there, the Main Street — University — was lined with Asian supermarkets, general stores, and pharmacies. For me that was very good. I could walk along and smell the strange musty smells of a Chinese/Vietnamese drug store. Smell is a powerful doorway to the past.

In Northern California, in the old mining town of Weaverville, is a “joss house,” or Chinese temple — in this case a Taoist temple. It’s amazing as is its history. There are temples all over California, but this one, in the middle of a forest?

So, my daily reality is filled with Chinese objects from the past — the distant past in a couple of cases — and my own past in others. I like that. I love their symbolism — personal to me, the memories of my own life they contain and the symbolism that’s intrinsic to the objects, not to mention their beauty. BUT, if I had a Chinese former life I think it was in Guangzhou from 1982 to 1983. If we live long enough we get to collect all kinds of amazing former lives.

Sitting here, typing this, I have photos in front of me: a black and white photo of my dad, my Aunt Martha and me in front of my Aunt Kelly’s little house in Lakewood, CO in 1964; a mostly blue and white photo of swirling clouds over a less famous view of the Eiger from the Jungfraujoch in Switzerland; a photo of me and one of the people from my past who’s still in my present. In the photo (though we don’t know it) we are at the beginning of a life-defining journey, entering a doorway to an amazing experience that is now the past. ❤

16 thoughts on “Swinging Doors

    • I bought those two pieces (and the collar that was once on them) back in 1992, I think. I’m not familiar with prices for these things at all, not even then. I think the best deal I ever got was my scholar cabinets. That was seriously like the macrocosm ( ha ha ) saying, “Here’s a little present for you, Martha (or Ma Sa).” Both of them for $75. I looked at similar cabinets on eBay going for $3000 and more. All of my Chinese treasures have been gifts, I think.

  1. Great! It was all so cheap then. I bought so much stuff, financed my living then till I finished my studying. And 20+ years ago I started dealing with antiques. Sure I sold most if this but still I keep some good ones. If I think today of what I had the chance to buy but didn’t…..

  2. Our most special things are doorways to the past, aren’t they. That gown is beautiful! Those doorways tug at our hearts and memories. I was struck by your comment about smell. Yes! The aftershave my grandfather used…if I smell it somewhere, I think of him and can almost hear him say my name. One of my doorways. I have only wanted a few “artifacts” from my childhood home – just the ones that open up the good memories. 🙂
    Lovely post.

    • Thank you. I have mostly good artifacts from my childhood home, too. And the artifacts of my brother that have been thrust upon me? I don’t want them. I have them, but I don’t want them. The memories they bring back are all terrible. I have only a few of my mom, too. It’s not like I didn’t love them, but those are doorways I don’t want to open. Funny isn’t it?

      • You’re welcome. I refused other items offered to me because they were not doorways to good memories at all. Yeah, it is funny, but at least we know what to open and what not to open. I got rid of a lot of stuff just sent to me.

        • I’ve recently realized that NO ONE will know or care if my brother’s stuff goes in the recycling or in my Smoky Joe. I think I’ve held on to some things because letting them go will force me to look at my feelings and I don’t want to. But if I DO? Won’t that be better? I’m sure it will be. 🙂

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