From San Francisco with love

My Dear Rotarians and friends, in particular my Action Presidents,

It was close to a quarter of a century when Rosita and I first visited San Francisco. We spent a few days of our honeymoon in the city, visiting her brother who lived and worked there. We also met his then wife for the first time. I recall that we actually flew there from Los Angeles for about US$25 per person per trip. As we were landing, a bearded man walked up to the cockpit. The hostesses were scared, but they could be regarded as rather composed compared with the young lady sitting next to us. She was close to hysterical and was panting for air. She said afterwards that she thought she was going to die and so on. As it turned out, it was just another drunkard looking for the men’s room. He was apprehended in no time. So much for a honeymoon drama, of which there were more.

In San Francisco for the first time, we did the obvious things tourists did: we rode the cable car, ate at the Fisherman’s Wharf; walked the Chinatown; shopped at Downtown; looked at the Golden Gate Bridge and walked down Lombard. We even rode the BART. A few years later, Rosita’s parents moved to the Bay Area, and we visited San Francisco regularly. Since then, her father has retired again and moved to Los Angeles, but other reasons kept coming up and we found ourselves in San Francisco every now and then.

All these years, I have always traveled with Rosita to San Francisco. This time, though, and for the first time, I found myself signing up for a city tour late Saturday morning. I was the only Asian in the group and surrounded by two dozens Spanish speaking tourists and a German couple. The tour guide talked most of the time when the mini-bus was moving; it was her work and she was professional; but she faced keen competition and had to keep reminding her passengers that they were spending far too much time translating what she said into Spanish and were talking too loud. It was a pleasant trip. I slept some of the time, but I managed to register that there was a great fire after a severe earthquake in 1906 measuring 8.5 on the Richter scale. Broken gas pipes and knocked-over kettles had caused the fire, which in turn had resulted in a lot more damage and destruction than the earthquake itself. The fire went out of control because most water mains had burst. It took the City a while to put out the fire. In the end, the City firemen created a firebreak by blowing up rows of houses on a street, after first removing the inflammable materials in the houses. The firebreak did prevent the fire spreading further. I wonder whether Paul Harris and his friends helped out in the city reconstruction.

I learnt other features of the City too. For example, I learnt that the hippies congregated at Haight Street in the sixties while the gay community, Castro. The City takes pride in being the first to pass legislation outlawing discrimination on grounds of sexual inclination. There are flowers everywhere; flowers of all colours and descriptions; and they all seem to be in full blossom. My mind drifted to the sixties when flower power and the Soul ruled the day. Maybe it was May when everything grows, including all wicked little thoughts of maidens, proper or im; or maybe it was simply the fine and fabulous weather in which all things, organic or inorganic, look livelier and more beautiful, even when one is traveling alone.

Yes, I traveled alone this time. Rosita was not ready for travels yet. I arrived here late Wednesday night and had two full days of work. I played host to a number of prospects interested in investing in Hong Kong aboard a 67-foot yacht moored at Pier 40 and I became a part-time sailor. The weather was perfect. Captain Peter said that it had never been that good. It was cold, moist, foggy and windy the last time they did it; as a result of which they stayed below deck most of the time. In the end, I claimed full responsibility for the weather. They all approved.

Early Saturday morning, I tried to look for Rotary clubs in the City. A past president of my Rotary Club has now settled in San Francisco and has joined the Rotary Club of San Francisco. Edward told me a couple of times that this is the No. 2 Club in the world and had been grand fathered for most rules. He and Alice went on a trip the day I arrived, thus stripping me of a perfect guide and transport. I looked up the RI website for the Rotary Club of San Francisco, and to my surprise, found that there are 30 clubs with a similar name: four in Argentina, three in Dominica Republic, four in Mexico, two in Peru, one in Venezuela; and in the United States, two in Texas and nine in California. The nine clubs in the area meets on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, but I am leaving Monday night. So I was unable to attend any Rotary club meeting.

Meanwhile, things were bustling in San Francisco. The Dalai Lama was in downtown San Jose the day I arrived. He had lunch at the Fairmont Hotel with refugee workers, volunteer nurses, human rights activists, cancer counselors, homeless advocates, hospice helpers, Catholic nuns and others. It was a benefit lunch to honour 50 unsung heroes of compassion and to start the Dalai Lama’s five-day visit in the Bay Area. That we were both in the area in the same period is a pure coincidence, and I don’t think I would have the fortune of running into or meeting him any way. I wonder whether he would meet any Rotarians when he is in the area. The Dalai Lama spoke of himself as “a tiny follower of Buddha” practicing compassion, and went on to say, “But when I see these people, my talk of compassion is just lip service. They are my gurus.” Does that sound familiar?

Another notable who was widely rumoured to visit California, but never did, was President Bush. The media had speculated that he would release his energy plan in California. In the end, he did it “1,425 miles from the state border” and warned that California’s blackouts are a “preview” for the rest of the nation if it fails to increase energy supplies. The President’s plan set out in a 163-page document did not however go down well with environmentalists and their Democratic allies. Already researchers have chronicled the political fortunes of a number of United States presidents whose mettle had been tested by the energy problem, beginning with Franklin Roosevelt who signed a law creating the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933; Dwight Eisenhower’s vision of creating nuclear power for peaceful uses in his famous “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations; Lyndon Johnson’s boom time for commercial nuclear power, but also a great blackout in 1965 on the East Coast, signaling a major energy problem looming; Richard Nixon’s handling of the energy crisis in 1973; Jimmy Carter’s inability to focus on the energy problem; Ronald Regan’s rhetoric; George H W Bush’s decision to make environmental protection a top priority, but ended up having to wage war on Iraq; and Bill Clinton’s winter of 2000-01. It may be early days yet, but Bush would unlikely have an easy time in California with his energy plan. For the first time in years, many Californians believe that the state is heading in the wrong direction and 95% of the population are saying that energy is a problem today, and more seriously, that the worst is yet to come.

On a more pleasant note, the City had its 90th annual Bay to Breakers Race today. I have made some notes of the event to share with you because I suspect that the item would probably not catch the main news in Hong Kong. This is a 12 k footrace, but people here like to call it a 7.46-mile race, starting at 8a.m. from San Francisco Bay at Spear and Howard streets, crossing the Golden Gate Park and finishing on the Great Highway flanking the Pacific Ocean. Channel 5 put it that there were 75,000 runners participating in the race. The City had warned of severe traffic congestion and of disruption to taxi services. Regular transportation service to SFO Airport was discontinued for two hours and passengers were asked to leave early and arrive the airport early if their flights fell within that period.

I watched the entire programme in bed. It was great fun. The entire City was very serious about the race. Unfortunately, the morning fog lingered on a bit, making microwave transmission difficult and resulting in less than perfect broadcast at times. The race has actually become international and is now dominated by elite runners. For the past decade, the winners, men and women, were inevitably Kenyans, causing some commentators to say that it has become a Kenyan Bay and Breakers Race. This year, the Race attracted 18 international racers, from Kenya, Morocco, Mexico and Russia. Once again, the Kenyans did very well. In the Men’s division, James Koskei, a 32 year old first time runner who came in last Friday, came first with 34’19”, beating his fellow countryman and defending champion Reuben Cheruiyot by a few seconds. The second runner-up was a young Mexican by the name of Khattabi who did it for the first time as well. In the Women’s division, the organizers had men flag bearers flanking the lead runners, for easy identification. All top three runners were Kenyans. Jane Ngotho came in first, beating two-time winner Jane Omoro by a second or two, but failed to break past records.

I should say that it was a charity race as well. The prize moneys were shared between the athletes and their named charities. The more interesting thing was that many participants had yet to cross the start line after the organizers had declared the winners. Indeed the start line was like a carnival, with confetti and party favours literally covering the streets. They had to send in a number of gigantic street sweepers afterwards. I would not be doing the bulk of the runners or participants justice without mentioning their elaborate and imaginative costumes. Many were out there to impress with fashion statements. We had a moving Golden Gate Bridge, a cable car, singing nuns, insects, caterpillars, a pope, a Transamerica tower, and many nude runners. There was a fashion contest with prizes and awards, once again half going to charities. A bloke had a complete beefeater costume that had cost him $2,000.

From the excitement in the City, I move to the excitement Rosita and I have long waited for: my daughter’s graduation. Stephanie was one of the over 500 in the graduating class of 2001 from the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, the department that produced 12% of the University’s graduates this year, making it the largest. In Berkeley, graduation is called Commencement, defined as a joyous event acknowledging the academic and personal achievements of each graduate. The Dean of Biological Sciences who gave the Closing Message stressed that commencement meant the beginning, implying that it was just the beginning for each and every graduate. Thus whereas they learnt what caused cancer as undergraduates, they were to find cures for cancer from now, and so on. It was a simple but powerful message. Earlier, Nancy Hopkins gave an even more powerful and rousing Commencement Address to a congregation of some 4,000 graduates, parents, friends and well wishers in which she discussed two revolutions: one involving the continuing search for scientific advancement and the other, a struggle for civic rights and equal opportunities in general and between the two sexes in particular. Professor Hopkins is the Amgen Professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She pampered her audience most skillfully and left them in no doubt that they had taken the right and best training, in Molecular and Cell Biology. She had the benefit of working with James Watson in her very early days and has since co-authored with him on a textbook on the molecular biology of the gene. Watson of course had worked out with Craig the architecture of DNA in the sixties; and Professor Hopkins called him Jim.

The Commencement took place in the University’s Greek Theatre from 7:00p.m. on Sunday, West Coast time. Beforehand, Stephanie was worried how she looked in the graduation gown and mortarboard and whether she would trip over on stage. Well, she did not. Indeed she walked the stage proudly, happily and elegantly, as did all her classmates who received the Bachelors of Arts Degree that evening. The Greek Theatre is an amphitheatre and rather Greek. We arrived early to make sure we would have good seats. It was warm while there was sun, but it became rather cold later. The cold did not however dampen the enthusiasm of the budding scientists, nor the atmosphere or ambiance. Emotions ran high throughout. Towards the end, they tried the Mexican waves, threw up a giant beach ball and had paper airplanes flying in all directions. Off stage, the graduates hugged everything in sight and screamed at every opportunities. These graduates were told that they had just been awarded something they earned that no one could take away from them for the rest of the lives. Not only that, they were told that the award came from the best university in the United States and probably in the world and the universe. It does seem that some academics excel in hyperbole as well as rhetoric. What an evening! What a night! I was a very happy and proud father. It is great to be young. Many of these bright young things are statements in their own right, and anyone who ignores them does so at his perils.

Talk to you soon.

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