Saturday, June 6, 2009

Cardplayers of Portsmouth Square

Untitled, Portsmouth Square, Chinatown, SF, August 2007.

In the heart of San Francisco's Chinatown, on top of the roof of an underground garage, is a humble little park with a long history called Portsmouth Square. On fair weather days, the park is filled with hundreds of Chinese, mostly men and elderly women, who come to the square to play cards and checkers, or to just kibitz, gossip and smoke. The clever ones bring something from home to sit on: a folding chair, a sturdy cardboard box, a plastic drum. Many of them work in nearby shops and restaurants and they come to take naps under the shade or sit on benches to read the local Chinese paper. The sheer number of people here brings life and vitality to what is really nothing more than an unremarkable stretch of concrete with a random historical marker here or a statue there; in the case of Portsmouth Square, the people make the park.

I've been coming to Portsmouth Square for more than two years now to photograph its denizens and cardplayers. It's been intimidating, to say the least, to be in the midst of hundreds of people in closed quarters. Whenever I visit the square, I wish I knew how to speak Cantonese so I can get to know people and stop pretending to be a tourist with a camera. Sometimes I worry that my camera will bring a cardplayer bad luck; or, worse, that some burly man with a bad hand would think so. But I love this place and I'll keep coming back to it. The pictures here are part of a work-in-progress, at best, which will continue until I feel that I've captured the essence of this wonderful square.

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