Saturday, October 04, 2014

the plazas of chinatown

1. where you were, where you are

When I got my first car in college, my favorite thing was to drive around Hollywood and take pictures of the weird little nooks and crannies, the places layered with history and dirt, both of which were lacking in my hometown. I fell in love with my own loneliness, and with every L.A. writer who wrote about history, dirt and loneliness.

A decade and a half later, I haven’t gotten tired of exploring L.A. Yesterday my co-worker Louis took me to his favorite Boyle Heights fish taco joint. On the way over we ended up having the where-were-you-on-September-11 conversation.

Twin Tacos.
In grad school, I said, feeling itchy in my privilege, but doing my best to own it. I was a T.A. and had to talk to all these 18- and 19-year-olds. We didn’t really know what to say. We kind of skipped over the human part and went straight to all this academic stuff, like, How is the media covering this?

I was in jail, Louis said, a little sheepishly, but owning it. We heard from the guards that a plane had crashed into the Twin Towers, and we were confused, because Men’s Central Jail is the Twin Towers too. I had family in New York, and I got permission to call them. And, honestly, just the place I was in then—not really being very conscious—I mostly used it as an excuse to make as many phone calls as I could.

I thought about how we all had our little defense mechanisms to get away from the reality of loss. Super brainy, lingo-laden meta-conversation or sneaking in a couple extra phone calls. It’s not so different.

Louis is probably one of the most conscious people I know now, a jolly hugger type with big ears and smiling eyes. He just lost a bunch of weight on a juice diet and gave up smoking at the same time because, he said, he likes extremes. The non-practicing addict in me totally gets it.

He’s eating food now, and the shrimp tacos were savory and crunchy. When I ate the fish out of my fish taco, he thought I was doing some kind of low-carb thing. Then I rolled up the tortilla part and ate it too. We drove back past the projects, terra cotta-red in the sun, past the old Sears building.

The other Sears Tower.
2. the real chinatown

Lately I’ve been exploring Chinatown on some of my lunch breaks. It took me a while to realize that Chinatown is a honeycomb of plazas that look like strip malls with a few pagoda flourishes at first glance, but which actually house whole worlds. You know how houses on sitcoms are always bigger on the inside than on the outside? The plazas of Chinatown are kind of like that.

Some kind of taxonomy.
I thought it might be interesting to explore each one, learn their history, come up with some kind of taxonomy. But I’m lazy, and I kind of want them to remain mysterious. I want this to be a stumbling, Situationist type of exploration.

There’s the one you enter from Spring street, just a set of steps and some racks of flammable clothing in a long yellow block of the same.* Then the opening opens up into a kind of swap meet full of $3 tank tops, Hello Kitty cell phone cases, shoes made of a fabric that is four degrees removed from leather, two banh mi sandwich shops (only one of which offers sardine banh mi) and some harem pants I’m trying to figure out if I can pull off. It’s shady in there, and unclear whether you’re inside or outside, like in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Because of all the clothes and fabric, it’s strangely quiet.

Life is just a chair of bowlies.
All the plazas have names pulled from the Wheel O’ Generic Chinese Names. Bamboo Plaza. Dragon Plaza. Far East Plaza. Central Plaza is the central one, with the most pagoda-y entrances and the wishing well and statue of a president of Taiwan, because it’s not like there are a lot of Chairman Mao fans here. There’s a statue of Bruce Lee around the corner.

A plaza of Monterey Park.

A bear of Monterey Park. You could probably buy him cheaper in Chinatow
Some of my Chinese-American friends, as well as people who like to show off how knowledgeable they are, like to point out that “Monterey Park is the real Chinatown.” And yes, I’d rather get a bowl of noodles in Monterey Park. There are more young people there. But for a place that is “not real,” whatever that even means, Chinatown has a lot of Chinese people. Many of them are old, and poor, which are categories that frequently get filed under Not Real.

The colors.
West Plaza probably has the most art galleries. I can see why artists would love Chinatown; it’s such an interesting shape. There are so many bright colors. I also know how these things go. I think Chinatown and Boyle Heights will be the site of L.A.’s next major gentrification growth spurt, and I wonder what this means for the homies and the old Chinese people. And me, of course, because I always wonder what things mean for me. I want my eyeballs to record Chinatown while in all its quiet, sun-washed afternoons, with all its businesses I don’t understand, like the convenience store with the big stuffed moose head.

The other day I was walking to lunch and heard someone call my name. My old Book Soup buddy Dan was across the street. “Chinatown is so crazy, with all its plazas,” I told him.”

“I know!” he said. “There’s a place I thought was a garage, but it turned out to be a supermarket.”

Then he and his friend were off to buy some mystery fungus.

Far East Plaza, where most of these pictures are from, because I only had my shit sufficiently together to bring a camera with me on one lunch hour, is the home of Chego, Roy Choi’s restaurant that sells a lot of sauce-y (and saucy) items. The menu is in Spanish and Korean only. I’m sure that was strategic, to make hipsters who, like me, are fluent in Spanglish, feel super down for understanding what they’re ordering.

Plaza diners.
There’s also a storefront that houses all the Chinese New Year banners going back to 2005, and a giant store called China Products, which describes it perfectly. There you can buy a dragon head, mystery fungus, faux silk purses, lavender flavored milk powder, pretty dishes and nine thousand kinds of tea.

A dragon head will run you about $70. Worth it!
Far East Plaza is tiled bright orange and red, which reminds me of the Del Amo Mall of my childhood. It was so big it had different neighborhoods—the fancy neighborhood with Banana Republic, and the Burlington Coat Factory ghetto.

A quick plaza fix is a nice break from Homeboy, where it’s air conditioned and fun and noisy and busy. You lose time and space. Then it spits you out blinking in the sun, on another street from the one you started on.

The author of this blog is the one with the (slightly) smaller belly.

*I mean all the storefronts on the block are painted yellow, you racist.