Ghost Tours as a Way to Engage the Past

"Nob Hill Hotel at Night" 2008 photo by Marla Showfer

In honor of Halloween, I’d like to consider three ghost tours as examples of ways that San Francisco neighborhood history can be presented.

SF Chinatown Ghost Tours have been led since 1994 by Cynthia Yee, a community organizer and nationally-recognized dancer. Yee’s maternal great-grandfather, Fong Louie, immigrated from China in 1885. His Chinatown stories were passed d0wn to Yee’s mother, Mildred Fong, one of the pillars of the 光明佛道研究會 (Quong Ming Buddhist and Taoist Association) in Chinatown. Yee has told me that her idea for the tour came after going on tours in New Orleans. To develop her performance, she has drawn primarily on two sources: stories she learned from her mother; and coverage in local English-language newspapers (such as the San Francisco Chronicle) about Chinatown events such as the 1977 Golden Dragon Massacre. Yee tells me that she keeps track of  current news coverage rather than research older newspaper accounts or use archival repositories such as the Chinese Historical Society of America. At the same time, she has told me that Chinatown residents bring her news accounts, providing material to further develop her ghost tour presentation.

Similar to Cynthia Yee’s experience, Jim Fassbinder’s participation in a tour outside San Francisco prompted him to create the San Francisco Ghost Hunt, which he has led since 1998.  To develop his presentation, he did research at the San Francisco History Center, reviewed online content from the California Historical Society, enlisted college undergraduates to provide research assistance in academic libraries, and conducted oral history interviews. In his comments to me, he singled out the staff of the San Francisco History Center as being especially helpful in directing him to primary sources such as historic maps. Fassbinder chose Pacific Heights as the site of his tour partly for logistical reasons – the relative quiet, safety, and ease of walking – in addition to the stories he had learned about the neighborhood. Fassbinder has commented to me about his tour, “my main goal is this: I want everyone on a Ghost Hunt to have a real supernatural experience in a safe way.”

Playwright Kitty Burns has lead the Vampire Tour of San Francisco since 2001. Like Cynthia Yee, she was inspired to create the tour after participating in a tour in New Orleans.  To develop her presentation, Burns reviewed published histories – particularly Fire & Gold: the San Francisco Story by Charles Fracchia, founder and president emeritus of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. Burns also reviewed published articles and online content. She told me that her most valued resource, however, came in the form of oral history interviews she conducted with persons affiliated with commercial establishments and other institutions along her tour. Burns also indicated that the ongoing input she receives both from participants on her tours as well as persons affiliated with her tour stops continue to provide material for the further development of her presentation. Like Jim Fassbinder, Burns related to me that she selected the site of her tour – Nob Hill – partly out of logistical considerations such as safety. She added, “Nob Hill was a perfect area because all the stops on the tour are well known and very classy.  I thought that would add to the humor of a vampire tour.”

Part of what is striking to me about these three neighborhood-specific tours is that despite the differences in how the three guides conducted research for their presentations, all three of them turned to oral history interviews with neighborhood stakeholders as a significant source of content. What is also striking is that whereas many other contexts for engaging San Francisco history involve encounters with artifacts, or architectural features, or primary source materials such as historic documents and photographs, these tours intimate the possibility (with varying degrees of seriousness) of encounters with persons from the past  in the form of the ghosts or vampires of today.

1 Comment

Filed under California Historical Society, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Museum & Historical Society

One response to “Ghost Tours as a Way to Engage the Past

  1. jen

    Oh I would love to vistit SF chinatown and go on a ghost tour! I saw the gettysburg ghosts last summer and boy was that a fun time!

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