Discovering Chinatown

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Posted 19 Apr 2010 in Music, Photos, Travel

As I think I’ve said before, the joy of passing from one district to the next in New York is the rich, seamless transition from one predominant culture, one predominant attitude, into another. Probably I’m seeing that through rose-tinted spectacles, as a tourist – not appreciating that for some the transition is far less painful. It’s probably so for the locals of South Bronx who see wealthy artists moving in and raising the rents, or for Italian families in Little Italy who can’t help but notice that as Chinatown grows, so their community contracts. It was doubtless once so for the many families in Tribeca, Nolita and Williamsburg that have had to move on as property prices have soared. Nevertheless, to the tourist, the endless variety of communities one ecounters in the city is remarkable.

Of all of them, Chinatown is probably the easiest to locate and get to grips with, and yet equally perhaps the hardest to interact with. It’s been a constant on my trips to NY, somewhere I’ve always gone, and somewhere I’ve always been at my most touristy – taking photos, peering at food stalls, always walking, never stopping to really take in what I’m experiencing. The Canal St area is such a bustling, fast-paced neighbourhood. But last week, on the final day of my first stint in the city, I strolled South of Canal St towards the Financial District and, appreciative of the blazing sun, found myself taking a break in Columbus Park. It was just as busy as everwhere else in Chinatown, but the provision of benches, and grass upon which to sit, gave me an opportunity for a breather and gave me, in turn, one of my happiest travel moments. Having weaved through the crowds, and admired the many, complex board games being played by the locals, I found a seat and watched a traditional Chinese band set up their instruments and pass around reams of sheet music.

It would be very easy to accuse me of cultural tourism – only engaging with something if I encounter it packaged up and prettified in an outdoor space, and I’m consious too that claiming to love a style of music so far removed from the Western tradition makes me sound positively pretentious. But sat in the sun, watching groups interact, games unfold and listening to cascades of strange, beautiful notes and thunder-clap cymbals, I felt like I was experiencing a moment of real beauty, and marvelled at the sound of the songs I heard. Very short clip, below.

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