The Subterraneans

Offbeat San Francisco

Condé Nast Traveler China

Photographer:  Christophe Wu


I was searching for the ultimate San Francisco experience, and I found it, in a room with morphing shoji screen wall panels framed by faux bamboo (it sounds tacky, and it was, but just the right amount for what would ensue).  I’m noshing on too-little, two-bite crab cakes with a sweet papaya salad and sake steamed mussels in a red curry-kafir lime leaf broth, when the lights from the shoji screen walls dim.  A chubby drag queen who resembles one of my Filipino uncles, only with cropped bleach blonde hair and fluttering eyelashes, engages the buzzing (and already buzzed) crowd.

At a table across from me, a foursome of women all wearing colored wigs—one blue, one green, one pink, and one yellow – primp in their hand mirrors and snap cell phone pictures of each other with puckered lips.  All the way on the other side of the room, a large table of men (seemingly heterosexual, but who am I to say?) are celebrating a bachelor party with the house’s many signature frou-frou cocktails.  A long table of 30-something professionals decked out in their Friday best—which consist of crisp button-down shirts and jackets for the guys and subtly sparkly tops and high, high heels for the girls—are behind me mingling, their appetizers virtually untouched.  To my left is an Indian man who came alone and quietly observes the raucous scene, and next to him are a hot hipster couple unconventionally celebrating their engagement.  In my right periphery is a Eurotrash man with his date, a transvestite.

The lines are really blurry here at the dinner-and-drag restaurant, AsiaSF, made only more so by the urging of the male bartenders and tranny hostesses to drink up.  I’m decidedly sober, a good thing because it was a night to remember.  Every night in San Francisco is, though I’m sure some have a hard time remembering much after the third pisco punch (a classic Peruvian brandy cocktail invented in the city by bartender Duncan Nicol, pre-Prohibition).  Whether it’s bloody marys at outdoor picnic tables at biker bar Zeitgeist, a well-concealed bottle of Anchor Steam beer at Dolores Park, or The Jack Kerouac at the eponynous writer’s old North Beach haunt, Vesuvio, they do like to drink in the City, as it’s referred to by denizens of California’s Bay Area.

San Francisco’s history of being a haven for free-lovers and free-thinkers has cultivated a collective lifestyle filled with eccentricity, open-mindedness, and just plain irreverent fun.  Drag queens aside (more on them later), the city by the bay is home to an eclectic pool of subcultures, fueled by post-World War II American politics and in some cases, experimentation with substances to achieve altered states of mind.  One of the early and most influential movements of the time happened when the Beat poets of the 1950s flooded the San Francisco scene from all over the country.  North Beach, San Francisco’s “Little Italy,” was the epicenter of the Beat Generation and their literary movement known as the San Francisco Renaissance.

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