robertisenberg

Chinatown

In Philadelphia on October 7, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Philadelphia 020

Chinatown looks best in the rain. Rivulets of black water slide along the gutters and swirl down storm-drains. The pavement reflects glum light like an oil-slick. And everywhere, multi-colored signs hang from brick facades, bright against the sterling silver sky. Sturdy Roman letters mingle with with splashes of Chinese characters.

“It’s so dirty,” Ky says.

“I know,” I say. “That’s what I love about it.”

Ky crinkles her nose. She abhors dust and dirt. She vacuums chronically. The putrid steams of Chinese markets make her gag. But as we stomp through puddles and hide beneath a $4 umbrella, my love for Chinatown is rekindled. In Philadelphia, this neighborhood is small — only a few blocks of shops and restaurants, plus a couple of banks — but the crowded streets and crush of buildings feel familiar. The basket full of shrimp, left open to the drizzle, triggers deja-vu. I am strangely at home in Chinatown, though I speak no Asian languages, and I am clearly a yangguizi.

We don’t have much time, and there’s not much to do. We ate a large IHOP breakfast, so the many Szechuan restaurants are out. We bought this umbrella from one of those bizarre souvenir shops, which sell a wide range of unrelated wares — little Buddha statues and wall-mounted scrolls, tea-sets and gold kittens that wave. These shops enthrall me; once, in Chicago’s Chinatown, I found a store that sold only DVD’s and washing machines. It’s common, in such places, to find baby turtles for sale. I imagine stepping into a shop, looking for toothpaste, and walking out with a silk vest, a butterfly knife, and two infant tortoises. In Chinatown, this is a perfectly reasonable shopping list.

I wish we had the whole day, but a wedding is scheduled for this afternoon, and we still have to check into our hotel. There’s not much point to visiting Chinatown, except that I’m writing a screenplay about inner-city Asian-Americans, and I had hoped to spend some time poking around the neighborhood. Really, though, Philly’s version of Chinatown isn’t big or busy enough to warrant much attention. I should go to New York, where the Asian districts are sprawling.

“I think I’m set,” I say to Ky and Peef, who have been patient with my picture-taking but don’t share my obsession. “Before we go, do you mind if we step into the vase shop?”

They look amused. It’s the kind of store only I would think to visit: a dusty warehouse packed with vases and statuettes. Jade containers share shelf-space with ornate flower-pots. Mandarin characters seep down gilt paintings. This store is Chinatown in miniature — a place that sells $1,400 vases, old in style but newly sculpted, though the carpet is scuffed and held together with strips of duct-tape. When I step around a wide pillar, I’m startled by an old man, sitting humbly in his chair; his chin bristles with a gray goatee, and he nods to me — a curt bow — and somehow I know he doesn’t speak a word of English.

When we leave, I decide that the old proprietor must make a cameo in the film.

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