Sunday, 15 November 2009:
I take what I said back. It’s only in certain neighbourhoods that we see fascinating shops, though I was surprised where some of these were found. In the Lower East Side, a precinct of run-down tenement blocks with a high proportion of new immigrants from China, the Dominican Republic and goodness knows where, there’s a street of art galleries. In Brooklyn, there was a shop specialising in art books and another that advertised 200 kinds of pickles. One hundred apparently was not enough.
Most of today though, the only shops I saw were mundane ones such as convenience stores, drugstores, and shops selling pizzas or running shoes. Canal Street was even worse. It’s busier than I remember it – but the wrong kind of busy. It is half a mile of kitschy stuff, cheap perfume and “I love New York” T-shirts. Touts offered satchel bags, socks, costume jewelry – and in one case, diamond rings, or so he said. They didn’t hassle, but they tended to obstruct the smooth flow of pedestrians – who were many indeed – so walking down that street wasn’t a pleasant experience. However, it was an aural delight; every three paces you’d hear a different language, often two or three languages at the same time. In the right ear is a language from the Indian subcontinent. In the left, Vietnamese and an African tongue is competing for your attention. Only one in twenty of the people on that street were White, presumbaly English-speaking. They mostly kept quiet, perhaps intimidated by the tsunami of immigrants into the area.
Canal Street led to Chinatown, and like Sydney’s Chinatown, it feels completely alien to me. All around me I hear Cantonese and see shops signs transliterated into English in archaic ways, such as “Woh Hup Restaurant”. Here and there a building facade is sinified with an upcurled roof. My skin curls too. It was a relief to escape via the area’s southeastern corner, under the ramp leading to the Manhattan Bridge to the second, newer Chinatown. This one is populated by more recent migrants, with shops looking more like those in smaller cities of China. The lingua franca is Mandarin, with various regional accents. The signs, in Chinese, with no translation, talk about remittances and bargain airfares to Shanghai.
In the second Chinatown, a small crowd (of Chinese) was gathered in front of a (Chinese) restaurant whose shutters were half down. Inside, the lights were on, but although lunchtime was approaching, it was still not open for business. People in the crowd asked each other what might be the reason, but no one seemed to know. Finally one guy noticed that there was a sign stuck on the upper part of the front door, but obscured by the shutter which had been pulled down to waist level. He slipped into the narrow space between the shutter and the door, only to come out to say that the sign was in English, and he couldn’t read English. So another guy took his place, wedging him in to read the notice and translate it for the rest. I could hear him read the words out loud. In heavily-accented English he called out: “Department of Health and Sanitation…” The restaurant had been shut down for being unhygienic.
On the Brooklyn Bridge, a young man asked if I could take his picture. Sure, I said, and took several shots, with flash, without flash, portrait and landscape, with Brooklyn in the background, with Manhattan in the background.
“Are you from India?” I asked, guessing from his accent.
“Yes,” he said. “And where are you from?”
“Oh, I’ve been to Singapore. I went to Sentosa.”
“Oh, good grief,” was my kneejerk response. It’s embarrassing when people have Sentosa as their chief memory of Singapore. The place is so fake. Yet, its fakeness is not really the chief problem. What is, is that no part of authentic Singapore is interesting enough to supplant the pole position that Sentosa has taken in the collective memory of tourists. That tells you how unexciting real Singapore is.