Interesting San Francisco News

Thursday, October 16, 2008 (SF Chronicle)
S.F. seeks cultural authenticity for Tea Garden
Marisa Lagos, Chronicle Staff Writer

(10-15) 17:54 PDT -- It's the oldest public Japanese tea garden in the
United States and one of the best-known attractions in San Francisco's
most famous park. But alongside the geisha dolls and books about Zen
gardens in its gift shop are decidedly un-Japanese snow globes, magnets
and T-shirts that could be found at any city tourist trap.
And that doesn't sit well with many of the city's Japanese American
Two years after a public fight over the future of Golden Gate Park's
Japanese Tea Garden, the city's Recreation and Park Department is seeking
proposals from companies interested in leasing and managing the garden's
tea house and gift shop. Unlike the practice in years past, however,
applicants will be judged on their ability to bring an authentic,
culturally sensitive experience to the more than 400,000 people who visit
every year. The Recreation and Park Commission will vote today on whether
to move forward with a request for bids that outlines those requirements.
"I'd like to see more accuracy. People serving the tea should be dressed
appropriately ... and the selection of goods in the gift shop should be
more culturally relevant," said Douglas Dawkins, the great-great-grandson
of landscape designer Makoto Hagiwara, who created the garden for the
California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894.
Besides objections about what some Japanese Americans consider tourist
schlock, Dawkins and other would like to see more high-quality,
traditional types of green tea offered, plus servers who are dressed
appropriately and trained in traditional Japanese tea service. City
officials and Japanese American leaders agree that the garden cannot offer
a formal, traditional tea ceremony to every visitor, but they want the tea
house to evoke that experience.
Two years ago, when the department went looking for a new concessionaire,
the issue erupted in controversy.
The Lo family, which has leased the concession from the city for 15 years,
is Chinese American, and Japantown leaders lined up behind a bid from a
Japanese American cafe owner. Some of them argued that the concession
should be held by a Japanese American. The Recreation and Park Commission
rejected both bids, leaving the Los with a month-to-month lease and the
tea garden in the same state as before the vote.
This time around, members of the department took their time, visiting
other tea gardens, talking to experts and sitting down with Japantown
leaders before crafting the request for bids. Everyone now seems to agree
that it doesn't matter who wins the concession as long as they know what
they're doing.
"The community is most interested in seeing an authentic experience at the
tea garden," said Bob Hamaguchi, executive director of the Japantown Task
Force, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Japanese heritage
in San Francisco. "It doesn't matter if it's a Japanese operator. The No.
1 concern is the proper display of Japanese culture and traditions."
The winning bidder will, of course, have to make money for the city. In
recent years, the tea house has earned the city about $200,000 a year
through rent payments and a percentage of revenues made at the tea house,
gift shop and nearby bus parking lot. The city also collected about $1.6
million last year in entrance fees.
The new operator will have to pay at least $180,00o a year in rent, plus
an undetermined percentage of concession revenues. The owner also will
have to pay into a fund that will be used for maintenance of the garden.
Margot Shaub, the park department's director of partnerships, said the new
request for bids "throws a wide net" - the agency is asking for ideas on
what products the new managers should offer and how they plan to bring
traditional activities or programs to the garden. The department is
requiring applicants to be specific about their plans.
"We want to know, 'What's the business opportunity?' How they will drive
more revenue so the concessionaire can make a living, and so can we," she
One of the challenges for the current operator has been balancing what's
traditional with what sells, said Vince Lo, whose family also holds the
concession at Coit Tower.
"We now dedicate a whole section of the gift shop to selling books about
Japanese gardens and origami, even though they don't really make money,"
he said.
Lo said his family will look at the new request for bids and is likely to
apply to stay at the tea garden.
If the commission votes today to allow the request for bids, applications
will be due by Jan. 8, and a decision will be made by March. The five-year
lease probably will begin on April 1. Tea Garden facts
History: Thegarden, built for the Japanese Village exhibit in the 1894
California Midwinter International Exposition, was designed by Makoto
Hagiwara, whose family ran it from 1907 until the internment of Japanese
Americans in World War II.
Gates: The garden's gates were built by Japanese craftsmen without the use
of nails. They were constructed from Hinoki cypress.
Lantern: The garden's Lantern of Peace was a gift from the Japanese
government in 1953 as a gesture of reconciliation after the war.
Plants: The garden is home to such traditional plants as flowering cherry
trees, azaleas, Oriental magnolias, camellias, Japanese maples, dwarf
pines, cedars and cypresses.
Location: In Golden Gate Park next to the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum
and across from the new California Academy of Sciences. Source: San
Francisco Recreation and Park Department

E-mail Marisa Lagos at ----------------------------------------------------------------------
Copyright 2008 SF Chronicle
by leelin | 2008-10-17 22:58