Chinatown Roundabout

by MT

Eastbroadway Chinatown

Or A Walker in New York (I)

The bus is heading for New York and my destinations are the museums and exhibits; yet the ten minutes I spent in downtown and Chinatown Philadelphia were no less fascinating. Arriving East Broadway where the bus stops, I am exposed to the inter-urban Chinatown networks. I am awed by the liveliness of the street—its vendors, sidewalk, food products, signs, crowds of people, the noise of the elevated train, people talking and cars run through. This is perhaps the remnant of nineteen-century urbanism still at work. The time is 3:30PM and the museums are about to close. The exhibits are what draw me here, but then I am hesitant. I have been working everyday in the Archive. Do I come here only to find myself in another cultural institution? What is it that we seek when talking about the experience of the city?

Environments and narratives of environments – architecture and architectural history – are alike in their fragmentedness. The parts of the city – empty lots, buildings, parks, and streets – bump against on another. They are incoherent. So are the folklores, travelogues, essays, guide books, histories written about cities and buildings – they wrap the architecture lamely and simply fail or refuse to compromise for the sake of disguised coherence. One does not fit another. In this sense the job of a historian is less a story teller, who tends to cover up the gaps, than an analyst, who looks into the breaches. Only by recognizing this does his or her work could be constructive.

The Chinatown is a good example: the cacophony is not cloaked under finely executed details and joints but leaving many gaps and incongruity for us to ponder upon the immigrant community. Three kinds of mobilities: circulation, production, and consumption. Several elements: street vendors, restaurants, temples, provincial guilds, banks. It is here that architectural styles, refined or unresolved, serve as commentaries of economic institutions and social groups, a manifestation of their functions and processes. The landscape manifests the society, or, to be precise, the landscape IS the society.

I enter a status of trance and let the camera controls my body – to press the shutter whenever a building or people on the street strike my vision – as though Robert Smithson at Passaic. When eyes are taken away from monuments, they began to see the world afresh. I become interested in people – people of different hair, dress, heights, origins, temperaments, moods, relationship. I am reminded of the dance-theater piece Impermanence of Meredith Monk, when the faces of ordinary people and their steady gaze at the camera much longer than the social decorum allows. Why do we feel uncomfortable when looking at the face of a stranger?

I begin to wonder the arbitrariness of look and looking – what is in it that we look and avoid to look at, the beautiful, the ugly, and the ordinary? What is behind the things we call taste, discrimination, and distinction? Perhaps the concept of ordinariness is itself misleading – there is simply no such thing as an average man other than in statistics. In this sense individuality defies classification and categorization, the bloody concept of social class and all that. Then this becomes a funny business of endless roundabout – Instead of asking who I am, what it is that I want to do, and where to be, sociologists and geographers tend to ask who we are when organized and act collectively? Both, I think, are equally pressing.

[for more pictures please see my updated flickr at bottom right]