About the Chicken Story (and Perils of Running a User-Generated Site)

I was standing on the side of the stage at the Make-Out Room last Friday at Riders with Drinks when our emcee Suzanne brought up four members of the audience to tell their own Muni story. As one of the audience members began to tell a story about an Asian (Chinese?) woman bringing a live chicken on the bus, I cringed. The story sounded uncomfortably familiar.

In the story, the bus driver tells the woman that live animals are not allowed on board. NonplussedUnaffected, she snaps the chicken’s neck and boards the bus.

Minutes later another writer in the audience approached us and echoed my discomfort: This story sounded remarkably like an urban legend she had heard before.  When it was time to give away a prize to the best storyteller, the audience chanted, “Chicken! Chicken!” I felt even more uncomfortable. In the chaos of running an event, we did not have a chance to intervene on stage, but the “chicken story” stayed in my mind all weekend.

A little internet search showed that various forms of the “chicken story” has been circulating the city for a few years. But if an audience member said that she witnessed the story first-hand, isn’t that the end of story?

Not for us.

There are two main reasons this story made us uncomfortable. First is the fact that many people believe this story to be an urban legend. Actually, Muni regulations allow non-service animals in a closed container on the bus during certain hours. But it is plausible that the bus driver could have misstated the rules (we’ve sure known this to happen). The story has been retold on the internet at least a dozen times (like here, here, and here). But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, right? I think it is impossible to “debunk” the chicken story, and that isn’t the purpose of Muni Diaries, anyway.

Veracity of the story aside, the racial stereotypes perpetuated in the story bothered us more. This story is usually told about the 30-Stockton or other lines that run through Chinatown, and the woman carrying the live chicken is usually said to be Chinese (never mind that this probably meant she looked Asian. Buying live chickens is a tradition in many Asian cultures, so she could have been Vietnamese or any other ethnicity).  The selling of live animals in Chinatown has been a contentious issue for a long time. Animal rights activists say that the animals are not being treated humanely, while Asian American advocates say that this is a cultural tradition. The controversy was still in the news as recently as this March, when California considered banning some live animal sales. Stories like this, whether they are true, further the idea that Chinese American immigrants mistreat animals and that they are offensive and heartless.

Whether to allow stories like this on stage or on our site is a decision we face more often than you might expect. While we cannot fact-check stories that riders contribute to the site, we realize that our credibility is at stake when we publish a story some consider to be an urban legend. And when a story has a negative racial element, we have to consider whether Muni Diaries could become a vehicle that perpetuates stereotypes (our biggest nightmare) or simply a forum that reflects urban living (our goal from Day 1).

The goal of Muni Diaries has always been to create a place where you can tell your story, read stories by fellow San Franciscans, and build a discussion. It’s important to remember that this is also a place where you can see San Francisco through the lens of people whose perception and opinions may be different than yours. As we have been clear in our terms of use, we absolutely do not tolerate hate, violence, and other abusive behavior. And we are well aware of how the use of race, gender, and other “factual descriptors” can perpetuate serious stereotypes. This has become a hot-button issue for us.  For example, in a story about three drunk, knife-carrying men having an altercation on Muni with a man toting a gun, was it important to know that the three men were Latino and their opponent black? Perhaps the storyteller meant to illustrate the sometimes-tense relationship between Latinos and blacks. But what about if the story described the men as being “Mexican” instead of Latino? And in the chicken story, why was it relevant that the woman was Chinese (and how can you tell?) or Asian? And if the characters in these stories were white, how likely are you to say so?

Race, gender, sexual orientation, and age are sometimes — but not always — relevant in a story, but they are descriptors that should be used very carefully, and perhaps sparingly. As moderators of a mostly user-generated site, we want to respect the voice of contributors while maintaining a healthy, respectful discussion. We hope it’s clear that stories submitted to Muni Diaries represent the views of the contributors, not the moderators, and that this makes you feel comfortable in contributing your own views, whether in stories of your own, or comments.

In San Francisco, we live in close quarters with people of different races, sexual orientation, age, and economic class. And for the most part, we get along. When I was faced with a story at our own event that made me feel uncomfortable, it only served to remind me that I am part of a forum that represents a wide range of views, including those that I disagree with. And in this forum, like everyone else, I am free to express it.


  • Well said, Eugenia. I’ve heard the exact same story countless times as well. And while I agree with your take on the Asian (or Asian-American) experience, I’d like to bring up another point. That tale, much like “Mission vs. Marina”, “Baby Valley” and othersuch “in-the-know” urban myths, is probably one of the first stories a new “native” adopts when moving to San Francisco. And it completely dismisses the qualities (and populations) that make each of our neighborhoods unique in their own rights. By boiling down neighborhoods to superficial generalities, we strip them of their inherent urbanity.

  • Kevin

    So, on the one hand, Chinatown has lots of stores selling live chickens that customers then slaughter themselves and that this is a cultural tradition among the Chinese. But, on the other hand, it is racist to tell a story about a Chinese woman who purchases such a chicken and slaughters it?

    Sure, the story is fictional (a lie?) and therefore not fitting within the theme of the blog, but racist? It seems that this entry itself refutes that notion.

    • Well, Kevin, I think there is a significant difference between slaughtering it on the bus and slaughtering it at home. Don’t you think one is more sensationalistic than the other? I have read versions of the story where the woman is quoted saying, “It no live” or something like that.

    • i’ve give this a shot: kevin, i think the inferred racism in the story is that, if not true, it’s conveniently painting a generalized picture of what is perhaps a norm for one sub-culture, but shocking to another. why do you think the story resonates so well with non-Asian audiences? to wit — because it’s a) “other,” and b) horrific. but it perpetuates a generalization that isn’t exactly pretty, and is certainly one-dimensional.

      • Kevin

        I think both Jeff and Eugenia make interesting points, but I’m not sure I’m convinced. Of course slaughtering a chicken on a bus is sensationalistic, but that is why it is an interesting story. Most of the stories on Muni Diaries are sensationalistic. I’m not sure why sensationalism makes it racist. It just makes it interesting. If the story was that the Chinese woman bought a chicken, took it home, and slaughtered it, the story would not be interesting. But sensationalism does not equate to racism.

        “It no live” is probably racist becaust it appears to be making fun of her accent. I agree completely. But it is not apparent from this entry that this is how the story was told at Riders with Drinks. Nor is it apparent that the author of this post is relying on that “It no live” statement for the opinion that the story is racist. So I agree that an alternative version of this story could be racist, the version told in this blog entry does not rely on the racist element Eugenia identifies. So this is, at best, a red herring.

        I agree that the story provides an *example* of what the entry states is a norm (cultural tradition) for the Chinese. I’m not sure that an *example* is a generalized picture. Are all examples generalizations? Futher, how can a story told at Riders with Drinks be anything but “one dimensional”? The teller is unlikely to know or have ever met the subject of the story. But a one-dimensional character does not equal racist.

        Perhaps I am not sympathetic to the argument because I don’t find the slaughtering of a chicken horrific (even though I’m a vegetarian). If anything, the story suggests to me that the woman was clever in finding her way around a MUNI regulation. In any event, the norms of one cultural do often appear horrific to another. Does this mean that those norms cannot be discussed? Indeed, if those norms are in fact horrific (which I do not think they are in this case) do they not deserved to be satirized and held in low esteem?

        • You brought up really good points, especially the last one about satirizing cultural norms that are unusual or horrific from our point of view. Isn’t that a large part of the basis for comedy?

          And you’re right that sensationalism does not equal racism. In fact if we did not have these types of stories, this site would likely not exist. I think whether the story is sensational depends on the audience. If this same story were told in rural China, nobody would blink an eye. There would be no purpose of telling this story because in that part of the world, as in many other parts of the world, this story would be an everyday event. But when the same story is told here in San Francisco, we know it would be received with some horror.

          Or perhaps not? I had told the same story to different friends whose reaction range from “this is some racist bullshit story” to “so what? this woman is being pretty practical.”

    • Bemon

      My grandparents would do something like that… It’s not racist, it’s you being ashamed for being asian.

  • Ack! Vocab FAIL! Thanks, Tim 🙂

  • Lisa

    I’ve been riding the 30 Stockton daily for over twenty years, and I have never, ever seen a live chicken on the bus. Live fish in a bucket, yes, but never a live chicken. This is a very old urban legend as far as I’m concerned.

  • Wow. As someone who is only a fairly recent convert to the site, I’m now in for a pound. Very well said. One, the story just isn’t that interesting but that’s just my personal opinion; others’ mileage may vary. Two, I have to disagree with the poster who argues that the issue is the live animal. I’ve heard this story a few times, and it’s always on the 30 (interestingly never a 30x morning run) and it’s always involving someone of Asian descent who perfectly understands the driver’s admonition, kills the animal, and then still offers some sort of semi-English punch line.

    And to sound a final note of realism, as someone who actually rides the 30 through Chinatown 4 or 5 times a week, I’ve rarely encountered a MUNI driver who would even pay attention to whether the animal was living or not. Those runs pose about 100 more important challenges between the traffic, double-parked vehicles and passenger overcrowding. Maybe a novice on this run would do this, maybe.

    But, I wholeheartedly endorse the “we can be interesting without having to pass along stories based upon stereotypes” suggestion. Or put another way, I’m not listening to any more chicken stories unless accompanied by a (non-staged) AVI.

  • julie

    At Alemany Farmer’s Market, they sell live chickens. The only buses that come through are the 23 Monterey and 67 Bernal Heights, but Asian women (and sometimes men) are the ones who buy those chickens, and yes, they put them in paper bags in plastic bags, and take them on the bus. Never saw a non-Asian buy one.

  • Tim

    (Eugenia, I know you’ve talked to Eve about this.)

    Just wanted to say that I first heard this story within the first couple years of when my family and I moved to the states (79-81). So, occasionally, when I hear or read this story from people who swear they themselves or a close friend who swears by it, were there, a flag and some serious eye rolling goes up. Especially since they look like they were born in 1985. The story has changed slightly over the years. The bus route has changed from the 14 mission (and other routes), to the 30 Stockton. And it’s changed from Chinese Lady and Asian lady, to ‘one of those ladies with the pink bags’. A way a being racist without using the word. Like saying ‘one of those kids with their Ghetto Blasters’. So, I think it’s (even more) important to call out these stories when we hear them spoken in code.

    Good work.

    • eugenia

      Tim, thanks! The feedback and insight from Eve (of SFAppeal) were really valuable and I am also glad to know that you’ve heard the story since the 1980s. Amazing!

  • Michael

    Oh geez. Racist? Racism is actually the last thing I thought about when reading the [lie/urban legend/whatever-this-is]. I cringed at the thought of someone actually doing that on a bus! Yikes!

    But it never entered my mind that pointing out that it was an asian woman was somehow racist? Maybe the OP just tried to be funny? Please keep in mind, from Avenue Q:

    “Everyone’s a little bit racist.”

    Get over it.

    • yes, it’s true, everyone is a bit racist. i freely admit that i’ve got some shit to work on. but if members of a certain group tell you that what you say or do affects them in a negative way, do you listen, or simply dismiss it out of hand because you don’t happen to think it does or should affect them that way? this isn’t language police. it’s just a discussion that i hope will cause myself and others to think about the way that what we say affects people. it’s oh so important in everyday life and in this storytelling forum.

      • Michael

        But Jeff, if the world thought twice or thrice about what they say and whether it _might_ offend them, you’re basically destroying the entire comedic profession.

        Most comedy is predicated on poking fun of someone or a group of people by like characteristics. The laughter is a mix of uncomfort (did he really just say that?) and acknowledgment (because most stereotypes become stereotypes _for a reason_).

        Yes, someone makes a joke that is poking fun of a race _might_ offend them. But the chicken story? It may not be completely 100% harmless to the chinese, but it’s relatively harmless to compared to, say, beating them up for being chinese. It’s really the offended person’s problem – there’s multiple ways to handle the situation.

        I still say: lighten up.

        • ah, you’ve touched on something good here: context. you’re totally right in that comedy often indulges in these racial and otherwise bigoted exploits. some comedy wouldn’t be comedy if it didn’t. and i agree that it can be very funny and speak to who we are and how we relate to one another. running an online forum full of stories of mass transit, i would argue, is a bit different. we’re not comedians, though we might from time to time play to comedic writers. and yes, the chicken story is meant to be slightly funny and definitely uncomfortable. it wouldn’t be worth telling (and not half as crowd-pleasing) if it didn’t involve most elements in it. the story of guns and knives on the 22, to my mind, is a bit different. which brings me back to our original intent here: we moderate this site, and the main things we’re looking for are: calls to violence against individuals or groups, and hate of the same. making fun of a group of people is fine; calling for their extermination or outcast, not so much. luckily, so far, there hasn’t been too much of that, though you’d be surprised at the some of the comments we’ve had to delete from Muni Diaries.

  • Oogly

    My grandma buys live chickens all the time in Chinatown and brings to them for the slaughter.

  • Ryan

    Thanks for bringing this up, this makes a lot of sense, & knowing you guys are putting work into making sure implied or explicit discrimination doesn’t find its way into the stories makes me like the site even more.

  • I was waiting for a bus one Sunday morning at 8th & Mission around 7:30am. I was shocked when I saw a chicken flapping out of a plastic bag, and then the person holding the bag promptly stuffed the chicken back in. I took a photo of it, and now, I cannot find it. If I remember correctly, the person had no problem getting on a bus.

    I told my coworker about it when I got to work, and that person said that it was normal for people to buy live chickens and take them home. Unrelated to that story, but relevant to killing chickens, I have a friend who learned to kill chickens as a child.

    The same story, slightly different.

    I was waiting for a bus one Sunday morning at 8th & Mission around 7:30am. I was shocked when I saw a chicken flapping out of a pink plastic bag, and then the person (who I’m pretty sure was an older Asian female) holding the bag promptly stuffed the chicken back in. I took a photo of it, and now, I cannot find it. If I remember correctly, the person had no problem getting on a bus, a 14 outbound.

    I told my coworker (an early 20’s Asian female) about it when I got to work, and she said that it was normal for older Asian people to buy live chickens and take them home. Unrelated to that story, but relevant to killing chickens, I have a Latino friend, and he told me that as a kid, he learned to kill chickens.

    The story is true, and without descriptions of the people involved, I think it lacks color. The problem is not whether the post sounds prejudiced, but what the intent of the story teller is, and how individual audience members perceive the story.

    Had I said that my friend were Mexican, which he is, am I being misleading by using the term Latino? Does that make me less credible as an author? I cannot tell the difference between someone who is Filipino (I can’t even spell the word right without using spell check), Korean, or Japanese, so I use the word Asian. There are some people who would tell me off for not knowing the difference, and call me racist because I think many people with Asian heritage look the same. At the same time, if for some reason I do know the difference, and I mention someone’s specific nationality, then I’m told off for singling them out.

    People are always going to be prejudiced, that’s just the way we are. It’s up to the audience to decide whether they want to read prejudice into a story, and whether they want to take prejudices out of it. I would hope that an audience would do neither, and would just consider postings as someone retelling the facts as best they can. And if it turns out the facts sound just a little bit (or a lot) prejudiced, then ignore those bits, and don’t allow them to influence you. Or, learn to hate on everyone equally, just don’t do it in public because people will think you’re racist, and that’s not fun.

    My point is that descriptors are necessary, but one should not read more into them than what they really are; descriptors meant to add dimension to a story that would otherwise be dimensionless. Imagine if photos were stripped of race, sexuality, gender, etc… How interesting would they be?

  • Well said, Eugenia. I think a lot of people at Riders with Drinks cringed at this story… I know I did. Thanks for this post!

  • Zac

    I think it’s important to consider the perpetuation of unfair or uncivil stereotypes, but I also think it’s essential to recognize that the place we live in and the forms of transit we share are given color (if you’ll allow the blatant double meaning) by the people. The route a bus takes and the geography outside the window play a part, but it’s the people who ultimately give a certain line its character. And it’s fascinating and entertaining and yes, at times, annoying to get on a line and see how different sectors of our city live and act.

    The fact is, for me, as a white male in his 30’s who didn’t grow up in SF, the Asian passengers I encounter on the 1, 30 and 45 bus lines – lines that cross through Chinatown – behave so different from me I can’t help but notice and comment on these differences. I’ve seen hangers for plastic bags that fit on the back of seats (ingenious); I’ve routinely been stepped in front of as the doors open and men, women and children race for a seat ahead of others (perplexing and irritating); and yes, I’ve seen live chickens. I have a terrible video of it, but all it shows is a paper bag dancing every couple of seconds. If you’ve taken the 30 Stockton for 30 years and you’ve never seen a live chicken, maybe you’re not as attuned to that sight as I am, a relative outsider. Observing and commenting on another group’s behavior is human, it’s neurological, and it’s why cities are so fascinating to reside in and visit. And in the context of this blog or the Muni Diaries night at the Make Out Room, I think it’s part conversation, part entertainment. I look forward to more opportunities like it.

    • Zac, thanks for a very thoughtful commentary. I appreciate your views, and even agree with a lot of what you’ve said here. Some of these things happen to me, too. I guess I try to mitigate those initial impressions with a thought or two to how they might make people feel when retold. What I mean is this: When I recount a story, I might think about someone’s skin color as a way to describe them. But I do my best to try to factor in whether that’s even relevant to whatever story I’m telling. “Some white guy stood in the doorwell and blocked access to the backdoor” is very different from “Some white guy told a black guy he was ‘ghetto.'” In one case, it’s completely beside the point what the guy’s skin color is, while in the second example, skin color provides context. For us moderators of the site, we’ve chosen to moderate these things on a case-by-case basis. I hope that works for people.

      • Daishin

        Well my 15 year old extremely white nephew says “he’s all ghetto” living in Marin. The only thing ghetto about him is his sneakers.

    • Well you satisfied my video requirement, so kudos to you. And, unlike Lisa above, I too have seen the live animal here and there. I, however, have never seen a driver who cared.

      I guess an underlying question we’re all struggling with is “how much context do we need”? If the cultural context is all that makes it interesting, maybe we should start up a culture blog, I’m looking for stuff where the fact that it’s MUNI is what makes it interesting. I ride a line every morning where I see some of the same people dart ahead of whomever got to the stop first to jump on the bus. They are all of all different backgrounds including one woman I strongly suspect of being Irish. Annoying. And I’m not sure she has the excuse of “some cultures just aren’t used to the idea of the queue.”

  • Anonymous

    Muni Diaries crew: Don ‘t beat yourself up over it…Riders With Drinks was an awesome event and people getting their panties in a wad over an urban legend and forgetting to simply recognize the amusing tale is just a reflection of the bay area..everyone has a soap box!

  • I can’t believe that nobody had called you out on this, to presume that this person must have assumed that the person is chinese, because nobody can tell, is a little racist on its own. I guess they all look the same. As a 35 year resident of SF, growing up in the richmond district, I am pretty good about discerning nationality on looks alone. Also you are assuming that looks is all this person used to make that observation, perhaps she was speaking Chinese to someone as she got on the bus, or he recognized her accent when she responded to the driver.

    All of that aside, we, as a society need to get to a place where describing someone by skin color is no more biggoted than describing by hair color, it is, after all the most noticeable trait on most people.

    Finally, to be racist, it has to be negative, if that really happened, that woman would be awesome. I get flustered when I am told I can’t bring a cup of coffee on muni.

  • To add another angle, as an animal rights advocate, I wish more animals would be slaughtered in the open. People need to know what they are supporting. We want our cheap meat, but we also want it to be hidden from our eyes, lest our delicate souls get offended, oh my!

    Whether this story is true or not, a point to keep in mind is that there is NO country where more chickens are slaughtered in more horrific and barbaric conditions (ever seen footage of a chicken farm or slaughterhouse?), than the United States of America. So for Americans to be “offended” at situations like this is indeed curious. Even if some version of this story is true, that chicken probably had a WAYYYY better life than the average American chicken. Keep that in mind, the next time you sit down to your chicken dinner.

  • As one of the blogs to which you link without comment, I would like to add something additional to the conversation. I was prompted to mention the often quoted story about the Asian woman killing the chicken after initially being not being allowed on the bus by an announcement from the BART agent that morning advising the woman who just entered the BART system and was heading down the escalator that “Live” chickens were not allowed on BARt.

    While I’ve had a lot of visitors to my blog as a result of this link, none have commented on it, so I must have passed the racism smell test, otherwise I’d be awash in negative comments.

    Meanwhile, I’m just another urban pilgrim Dancing with Myself at http://rlbtzero.blogspot.com/. (The post that was linked is on another version of Dancing with Myself located at http://rlbtzero.typepad.com/.)

  • Daishin

    I also heard a version of the same story from years ago but instead of an asian woman killing the chicken, it was an hispanic woman who did the deed before getting on the 14 Mission. Maybe several years ago it might have been my Italian grandma who would have done the same thing. Perhaps just another urban myth!

  • Dexter Wong

    When I first heard that story, it was in Heb Caen’s column. I don’t remember whether anyone checked out its veracity, but it was a funny story. I rhought it was a way for a woman to make the best out of a bad situation.

  • Dexter Wong

    One more thing, some Asians buy live chickens because they want the freshest possible chicken. When I was a boy, my mother always bought live fish from a fish tank at the market and the fishmonger would kill it with a blow to the head, then clean it. Once again, the freshest fish.

  • Nichole

    Why must people always be identified as belonging to some group? Man/woman, gay/straight, black/white, fat/thin, intellectual/moron, or by ethnicity? I’m so sick of identity politics.

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