TWO CHINATOWNS

In Arts & Life /

By Aaron Leaf

Stumbling out the door, Sunday about noon, shooting pains attacking the back of my skull.

I get a cup of fair trade coffee in Kensington Market and head to Dundas and Spadina for a hangover breakfast of $1.50 Vietnamese sandwiches. I can’t believe how much money I spent last night. The grandmothers are out in force this morning, waving their canes around while yelling in Cantonese at the old women manning the garlic and chili pepper stands. I have to remind myself it’s only bartering. No one’s getting hurt. I try to avoid them in my stupor, but I can’t. They roughly push by as I shop for oranges. It’s not yet noon but the streets are already starting to ripen.

Spadina is most fragrant on Sundays. The smell of Chinatown is everywhere: Rotting produce, tropical fruit, dried seafood, and buckets of shrivelled oysters, anchovies and shrimp. Memories of last night’s tequila shots trigger paralyzing nausea. A white guy with a beard plays a Japanese flute, his empty hat in front of him. He can barelybe heard over the constant rumble of streetcars. Cantonese pop blasts from a cheap trinket store and cars honk at the persistent jaywalkers.

Blue soft-shell crabs writhe and pinch in an outdoor display. They wave their sharp legs, desperately trying to right themselves. One escapes and is carelessly trampled by a fat little kid. He stubbornly runs ahead of his mom through the maze of legs and produce crates. His sister, pulling on her mom’s hand, pleads for a fresh coconut to drink. The greasy-haired man machetes the green coconuts as a spiky-haired teen lines up to buy one for his girlfriend.

Uninterested, she sits in the passenger side of the illegally parked Acura fiddling with the stereo.

***

Later that night the merchants have packed away their remaining fruit. They stack the used cardboard boxes by the curb, forming walls. The many hole-in the-wall restaurants are filled with people eating Vietnamese noodles, spring rolls and Chinese barbecue. One place claims to have the best barbecued pork in North America. And it does: Dripping, caramelized chunks of slow-cooked meat are cut from pieces hanging in the window.

After sunset the many neon signs give the street a flickering red glow. Pages of the Sing Tao Daily newspaper, plastic bags, and other assorted wrappers blow down Spadina forming deep drifts around alleys and streetcar stops. Large rats hunt for scraps. At around 10 p.m. people emerge from the restaurants and parking garages.

The night is just beginning. Clubland to the south, Little Italy to the west; a steady stream of barely-clothed women and men in vertically striped shirts get out of their sexy cars, too fucking cheap to pay the extra few dollars to park at Richmond and John. They walk past the open window of the El Mocambo, ignoring the blast of heat and rock music. The Rolling Stones played there, so did The Ramones, so did Elvis Costello. Shaggy-haired boys smoke outside, flirting with girls in parkas.

Last call long over, people pour out of the clubs and bars. Some go home. Some sloppily cross the street and enter an unmarked door. They go down a flight of stairs, past the bouncer who could pass for a biker, and into a low-ceiling booze can.

There’s a poker game in one corner, a punk band in another and smoke every-where. The unisex bathroom is crammed with people doing lines. Bikers, hipsters, prostitutes and club kids all squint in the fluorescent light, chattering away in a coke haze.

Above ground, things are now quiet. A mass of blankets and cardboard fills up a doorway. Someone is underneath. No streetcars are coming.

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