At least once a week, I frequent Clement Street in the Richmond District of San Francisco’s second Chinatown. Preferably on Wednesday with multiple early morning stops. Starting at Good Luck Dim Sum for pork sui mai and shrimp ha gow dumplings, which I then eat on the 9th Street lawn of the Senator Milton Marks Branch Library before exchanging read books for new loans.
Then, I backtrack to New May Wah Supermarket on the corner of 8th for bok choy and gai lan before starting back home westward on Clement. Weighted down with books and groceries, I take my time. Walking in the sun on the north side of the street when the sky is overcast; walking on the shady south side when it’s clear and sunny. I enjoy the exercise and the time to check out the community’s comings and goings.
Last fall, The New York Times described Clement Street as a window into neighborhoods of the future. The feature declared that the restaurants and shops had been spared the financial ruin seen across other big cities over the past 19 months of COVID shutdowns. “Unlike downtown SF, which is now largely desolate, this commercial strip never relied on business from tourists of office workers. ‘We’re in a sweet spot,” said Morgan Mapes, the president of the Merchants Association. “We cater to our neighbors and our residents.”
Despite my weekly inspections and checkpoints, I was surprised last Wednesday to see that the Paramount Superstars Chinese restaurant was shuttered again after recently re-opening. From a distance, I saw an official notice posted on the door. “CLOSED” in boldface, all caps, bright red lettering. With the signature of Patrick Fosdahl, acting director of SF Environmental Health. An adjacent, complementary sign in smaller, printed type drew me closer.
“The Tang Palace next to it has been closed for many years. There are many rats hidden inside, which bit the water pipe and rained water. The Health Bureau found it. Temporary rest for maintenance to prevent rat intrusion.”
As a grammarian by nature and habit, I was both intrigued and bemused by the figurative translation of the notice and the indicated violation resulting in closure. A curious mixture of factual information and poetic interpretation of the perpetrators invasion.
Indeed, the Tong (not Tang) Palace next door had closed long ago. Remnants of litter and old flyers, entrapped by security gates with scissor joints rusted shut, were proof of many years of abandonment. Unappetizing photos of the house special clay pot meals were faded and peeling from the store windows.
What concern for civility did the Paramount owners consider when choosing to not publicly blame Tong owners for their inconsideration? What prevented them from badmouthing, not just naming, their neighbor and the source of their bad luck – a second closing so closely on the heels of re-opening? A shutdown that could very well jeopardize their survival despite the two PPP grants of $150,000 they had received last year.
The reason for business disruption was clearly a cause for concern and difficult to describe. And, despite the copywriter’s valiant attempt, the translation was both obtuse and too transparent. Rat infestation is one of the topmost reasons for lost of reputation and loss of customers, who are typically fickle even under ideal circumstances. According to exterminators, rodents gnaw pretty much any material they find – from glass, plastic and rubber to aluminum and, apparently in this case, copper water pipes. Most importantly though, rats can cause serious diseases when transmitted to humans.
A marketing copywriter in the past, I felt compelled to draft a more customer-focused notice. An explanation that includes duration of closure and actions to be taken, and tone that generates good-will as well. Something like:
“We are temporarily closed while concentrating our efforts on eliminating the reason for this violation. Structural repairs are in progress with a thorough cleaning to follow. The health of our customers and employees is very important to us. We will re-open as soon as possible.”
Yes, the copy covers all the bases. And yet, there’s something stiff about it. I have to ask myself, will local customers understand the choice of words and the syntax? What type of message typically retains their loyalty?
Who knows the best approach? Do I, even though I myself was born in the Zodiac Year of the Rat that is recognized for its intelligence and love of social gatherings?
Is there something special about these rats who party and lodge at the Palace and the Paramount? Rats who can make the water “rain” in a California drought year simply by the strength of their mastication. Making rain more effectively than Zeus throwing his lightning bolts.
Maybe I’m just delighting in all of this nonsensical verbiage. Might I need a temporary rest from further intrusion of disruptive word games.