Now Playing

Chinatown Decoded: How Could This Possibly Be Legal?

Uhh, it's not. Ask a cop.


Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about the Chinese-American city that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the April 2015 Chinese Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.   

Fireworks: According to SFPD captain David Lazar, who runs Chinatown’s Central Station, illegal street sales of fireworks have declined in response to an explosion (his pun, not ours) in online sales. But the department is still doing its best to regulate sales on the street. “Last year a business sold to an undercover officer,” Lazar says, “and we were able to link back to a place where they stored fireworks.” Police found the explosives packed into a hidden room; their owners landed in jail.

Ivory: Outside of China, San Francisco‘s Chinatown is one of the busiest markets for ivory in the world. A California law enacted in 1977 bans the sale of ivory collected after that year, but accurately identifying scofflaws would require expensive carbon-dating equipment. And, as it happens, the entity charged with enforcing the ban is not the SFPD but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—which does not have an office in San Francisco.

Mah-jongg parlors: Mah-jongg is a form of recreation, so Lazar keeps an eye on the parlors mostly to protect them from being robbed. Because the parlors host players who gamble large sums of money (albeit not as large as in Vegas), they are always at risk for a heist: “Recently,” Lazar notes, “three masked men robbed a parlor that had left its door unlocked.”

Chinatown Decoded:
What Language Is Everyone Speaking?
Is That Volleyball?
Why Do Some Buildings Fly the Mainland’s Flag While Others Fly Taiwan’s?
Why Is Everyone Pushing Me?
Why Is That Art Gallery Under a Dry Cleaner's?
How Can You Tell If an Erhu Player Is Any Good?
Is the 30 Really the Worst Bus in Town?
How Could This Possibly Be Legal?
What's Going on Under That Lion Head?
What Are You Doing to My Body?
Is the Architecture East or West?
Are Those DVDs Bootlegs?
What Happens During a Chinatown Funeral?


Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

Have feedback? Email us at
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag