Clue: Those Who Seek Through a Parade in the Rain The 13th annual Chinese New Year Treasure Hunt is full of intrigue and a dose of silliness.

By Carol Pogash Special to The Times

February 17, 2003

SAN FRANCISCO -- While the Chinese New Year's parade snaked through San Francisco on Saturday night, 1,500 adventurers with high IQs and low body fat raced down clogged streets and narrow alleys armed with clues

Participating in the 13th annual Chinese New Year Treasure Hunt, which is not connected to the parade, troves of treasure hunters tried to solve historical, literary, film and political clues asnight fell and a rainstorm soaked them down to their sneakers.

Created by fedora-bedecked Jayson Wechter, a cigar-smoking private eye, the treasure hunt is a marathon for the mind.

Players pay $30 each to participate in the hunt, a fund-raiser for a homeless shelter. Given a packet of clues and a map, they race across the city's hills, searching for answers written on plaques, buildings and playground walls that they transcribe onto a game form. The team with the most correct answers that reaches the finish line first wins.

Wechter's clues encourage participants to examine street gratings, fire hydrants, manhole covers and wall murals.

The hunt lasts from late Saturday afternoon until 9 p.m. Wechter gives an award for the best team name, which this year, the Chinese Year of the Ram, went to a group calling itself "Insufficient Ram." Teams can be composed of as many as nine people, but they have to remain together.

That the treasure hunt takes place during Chinese New Year is not by chance. On this night, with its exploding firecrackers, marching bands and teeming crowds, the city is most alive, Wechter said.

For competitors, it helps to have brushed up on Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Vertigo," on San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti or on the Irish writer James Joyce. It's good to know that Nat King Cole sang about Mona Lisa and that Paul O'Neill was the former secretary of the Treasury.

It also helps if you pay attention to the parade route: One seriously competitive team lost 40 minutes waiting for the parade to pass by.

A simple clue for beginners read: "Near the southern end of the street that bears his creator's name, go to the end of the dead-end alley where Sam Spade's partner met his end." Participants go to the alley named for Dashiell Hammett. Nearby was the answer they were searching for, a life-size, black and white photo of Humphrey Bogart, slouched against a real street light.

Experienced treasure hunters come prepared. Before it started Saturday night, Jenny Gautier, a Stanford University aeronautic and astronautic engineer, was adjusting her global positioning system device. Miners headlamps were common. Cell phones were de rigueur.

Ariel Prestosa and friends brandished walkie-talkies with headsets so they could discuss clues without worrying about snooping competitors. The group took the hunt seriously enough that they rejected water bottles in favor of more modern camel packs from which they could sip water from a tube without slowing down. Their outerwear was waterproof, and for warmth they wore micro-fleece underneath.

Some prepare all year for this night, poring over San Francisco history books. Others, such as Lisa Regul, 34, take time off from work to scour Chinatown, North Beach and the financial district scribbling copious notes about lion head statues, cracks in the sidewalk, and poems engraved on plaques -- all of which Regul, for example, adds to her computerized database.

Earlier this year, Nora Klebow, whose team is full of architects, attended the Castro Theatre's Film Noir series, which showed San Francisco-based films, such as the "Maltese Falcon." At the theater, packed with treasure-hunting aficionados, she said, "everybody had their Palm Pilots out, taking notes."

After receiving their information packets, the more experienced teams spent as much as an hour analyzing clues and mapping out which spots were near one another. A group calling itself "Winners of the Masters Division," reserved a room at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, right next to the starting point. During the year, they'd hiked around Chinatown and North Beach, photographing points of interest. Admitted team member Kay Hardy, " We're a little obsessive."

One team analyzed clues while picnicking, sitting by a curb between two parked cars, drinking wine and eating French bread, cheddar cheese and turkey. Clearly not very competitive, they let whining members of other teams swipe a few morsels.

Another group wore bright orange T-shirts emblazoned: "Parade Monitor," the easier to skirt authorities and cut across parade lines.

As the storm approached, dumping rain on hunters, blurring their inked notes and their clues, competitors raced down alleys filled with fire escapes and the red glow of lanterns, past Chinese herbal shops and restaurants bulging with diners.

The more advanced players dealt with clues such as: "If it's time for the horses to be at the gate, you know which street we mean." That would be Post Street. "Walk east between two clocks, and soon after passing the winged felines, you'll discover the key to success. What is it?" One clock is displayed in a store window and another atop a building. At a nearby doorway could be found two winged cougars. The inscription on an elaborately detailed awning provided the answer to the clue: "Systematic savings is the key to success."

Participants were free to consult police, hotel concierges and passersby. Tech writer Peter Moore and his team had just figured out part of one clue when a homeless person pushing a shopping cart inquired: "What clue are you looking for?"

A dog, Moore said. The homeless man pointed to an old mezzanine level window ad for the RCA Victor dog. They tipped him $5 and moved on.

While a party-like mood prevailed, a few groups were so competitive that when asked how they were doing, one team player asked, only half in jest, "Who's paying you to slow us down?"

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