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Chinese checkers: Lion dancers, perpetrating ninjas, gods and goddesses, and amateur sleuths abound at the San Francisco Chinese New Year’s Treasure Hunt.

by Summer Burkes

“Dilettante” column originally published at the turn of the century on 03.02.99 in the SF Bay Guardian. Re-intro February 2019 here.

Detective work, like treasure hunting, involves a re-discovery of the world around us…. This involves approaching every fact scenario, every event, every location with a wide and analytical eye. The skilled detective … divests [her/himself] of assumptions, recognizing that a twist in phrasing, the odd omission, a slight alteration of perspective may provide the crucial link. So [s/he] must learn the language of order, but be attuned also to the rhythms of chaos lurking just below its surface.
— Jayson Wechter

About 15 years ago, Jayson Wechter, a local private investigator, combined his passions for San Francisco history, Dashiell Hammett novels, and order-chaos theorems to create the San Francisco Chinese New Year’s Treasure Hunt.

A “four-hour exploration of San Francisco’s hidden treasures,” this benefit for the Hamilton Family Center serves as a yearly perspective-jog for eager locals — not to mention a stiff aerobic workout and a chance for those whose heads are filled with random and usually useless trivia facts to shine in the spotlight.

not sure why I saved this scrap from that night. it was a fairly delicious candy? … maybe because Jayson Wechter was wearing a big ol’ fuzzy rabbit costume

At this year’s treasure hunt, as the setting sun turns the Bay Bridge into platinum, hundreds of amateur sleuths gather at the Ferry Building to register. Maps, yellow pages, cell phones, and reference guides are allowed; split teams, public trans, and hitching rides are not.

As each team (four to nine people) is given a sealed envelope with 15 encrypted questions (beginner, regular, and masters’ divisions), groups take pictures, recheck flashlight batteries, share PowerBars, and sneak long draws from silver flasks.

Wechter welcomes the throng and signals “go” from inside his white, fuzzy rabbit costume, and teams huddle to solve the riddles in hushed whispers. Notes are made, possible locations are pinpointed, and the detectives fan out into the night.

The annual San Francisco Chinese New Year’s Parade, the only parade in the city held after dark, proves itself a dazzling dose of cross-cultural sensory overload: as a reported half million NoCal revelers line the streets, marching bands march, lion dancers dance, little ninjas perpetrate, giant dragons duck and whirl, and oversized gods and goddesses strut as strings of firecrackers thunder around their feet.

Interestingly, and intentionally or no, death looms like a jovial but necessary specter — the entire parade route smells like a gun range, and the could-be-a-drive-by noise (indeed, if someone popped off a round, there’d be little notice) disorients the hunt participants and makes the crowd merrily skittish.

The challenge of negotiating the treasure hunt during the parade is the event’s most exasperating, exhausting, and exhilarating snarl: half the clues fall on one side of the parade route, half the other, and practically the only way to cross is via underground BART tunnels.

chinatown, san francisco. not taken on new year’s because the entire photo would be all smoke and tiny explosions

Team participants retrace steps, jokingly curse their lack of advance planning, develop shinsplints on steep hills, discover enticingly creepy alleys, and fortify their journey with fermented liquids. Several groups hover around the vicinity of each clue, discreetly searching for the tiny pink letters that prove it’s been solved; some victorious sleuths whoop and holler and inadvertently point other teams to the site.

Near the end of the four-hour time limit , some eager hunters break into a run in order to solve all the clues, and other, slacker teams just give up and head to the potluck dinner after-party (there is, after all, no cash prize, only cake and champagne). As the parade disbands on the streets of North Beach, organized chaos gives way to sprawling chaos and then order again.

Down at the Ferry Building, the remaining amateur Sherlock Holmeses and Nancy Drews nibble food and contemplate the gift they got and gave each other for the night: an inspiring exercise in perception, local history, agility, and as Wechter puts it, “the indelible moment of the ‘ah-ha.'”


This is the 39th piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; this post’s intro is hereTK, and Dilettante’s first installment is here.

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