Dilettante 39: SF Chinese New Year’s Treasure Hunt

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The Chinese New Year’s Treasure Hunt is yet another official-unofficial Cacophony Society production. It could also be classified as a prototypical UrbEx project — a movement Cacophony helped pioneer with events like these.

From the site:

“The Chinese New Year Treasure Hunt is a unique urban adventure game played on the colorful streets of Chinatown, North Beach, Telegraph Hill and the Financial District, set against the backdrop of the annual Chinese New Year Parade. It’s a scavenger hunt for information, in which teams collaboratively solve clues leading to off-the-beaten-track locations connected with local history, art and culture.

Each clue (or puzzle) leads to a location within walking distance in a one-square mile area, where players must find and use a piece of information to answer a question. The information could be wording on an historical plaque, a detail in a mural or public artwork, a unique architectural feature or a distinctive business sign, something you might never notice if you weren’t looking for it. The treasure hunt is a great exercise in visual awareness that hones your observation skills and makes you more aware of your environment. Participants often discover memorable sights they’d passed by hundreds of times and overlooked.”

SF Chinese New Year’s Treasure Hunt originator and organizer Jayson Wechter. SF Chronicle photo by Christina Koci Hernandez

Before Jayson Wechter initiated the Chinese New Year’s Treasure Hunt around 1984, he was the man wearing a frog costume in 1977 during an original Suicide Club prank where they took an out-of-town trip to Calaveras County to enter its famous frog-jumping contest.

The event is detailed on John Law’s website, in a post called the Fatty Arbuckle Caper which outlines some of the other original, San Francisco-centric, pre-LARPing LARP and “whimsical criminality” the Suicide Club used to get into before they transformed into the Cacophony Society.

As it says in that post, a different Suicide Club charter member, Don Herron, took a similar path Jayson Wechter did as a result of their Cacophony Society education — Herron founded the San Francisco Dashiell Hammett walking tour, the longest-running literary walking tour in the nation, which still continues to this day.

Internet Archive’s downloadable collection of Rough Drafts and other Cacophony Society press and newspaper clippings from 1977-1990 include a “July 1-7, 1977 Berkeley Barb review of the Suicide Club written by Jayson Wechter, who went on to later fame as the originator of the Chinese New Year Treasure Hunt and the San Francisco Treasure Hunts. With bonus: reverse side contains coverage of a 1977 gay pride parade.”

Tangentially, the Berkeley Barb was apparently a great zine / newspaper in the hippie era to 1980. And Rough Draft was the primary publication organ (i.e., ‘zine) of the Cacophony Society in the Bay Area through the ’80s and some of the ’90s.

Here’s Rough Draft founder and publisher Louise Jarmilowicz on her pioneering pre-online event-coordination-communication system that she, Wechter, Herron, Law et al employed to spread Cacophony in the days just before the Internet. (Yes this includes the first Burning Man event – another Cacophony production facilitated entirely through telephone and Xerox.) Worth watching even for the short explainer on the process GenX used to send ‘zines and mail art:

Scroll down or click through to read “Chinese checkers,” originally published in the SF Bay Guardian on March 2, 1999.

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

summer burkes dilettante logo sf bay guardian 1997-2001_resized

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, 03.02.99

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 entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).

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