Stephen is an economist, or something, but I’m the one of the two of us that knows the value of Value. Truly.
I know this because I know Chinatown.
It is actually more than knowledge. It is Love.
I love Chinatown. The One Chinatown that counts, that is. Toronto’s Chinatown.
I have been to other Chinatowns: Vancouver, New York and, yes, even Ottawa (such as it is). But these all of these pale in comparison to the Wonder of Wonders that runs up and down Spadina Avenue and which trails through the nooks and crannies of Oxford, Nassau, Baldwin, Cecil, D’Arcy and Dundas streets.
Growing up, Chinatown loomed large in my life and imagination. Since: 1) the town we lived in was just large enough to be mediocre; 2) because at that point in my parents’ long and begrudging march towards enculturation, grocery stores still seemed to be showing off at every turn; and 3) because an immigrant family generally longs for some rather “unconventional” Things anyway (i.e. staples, trinkets), it was Chinatown or bust for us.
Thanks to Chinatown, Toronto’s Chinatown, I discovered the limits of having only one good set of Social Niceties.
The difference, for example, between Bargaining and Haggling.
That space between Status and Entitlement.
The grey area overlapping Strictly Legal and Slightly Illegal.
I discovered that my parents, already fearless in clumsy English, were absolutely deadly when that pesky barrier of language was brought down. I learned that there was “The Way Things Are” and “The Way Things Are Here.” I saw my grandfather transform from The Bicycle Repair Man Down the Street into Ricardo Montalbán (of Chinatown) every other Sunday.
You can find absolutely anything in the hues, flavours and tastes of Chinatown: from artichokes to chicken feet. From Louis Vutton handbags to live baby turtles. From Hello Kitty to acupuncture. You just have to know where and when to look.
Sometimes it – whatever it is – finds you.
People have approached me in the conspicuous clandestine motions of Chinatown, and for the right price they have offered me everything. EVERYTHING.
I mean, what’s stranger than a live baby turtle?
You tell me. You’d be almost right.
Who are these people?
Who are you to want to know?
I realize that the Chinatown that fits in my head would overwhelm the actual streets of Chinatown as they stand in there Here and Now. The first time I went to Chinatown as a loosely accomplished adult, after a prolonged separation (fuck you for that, university education), I was struck by how…compressed everything was.
But I soon realized that even if those little details that make up memory and being are not really there, they are there anyway, running parallel to other Things.
It is a cultural Thing?
It is certainly a matter of taste. And it is taste that is carving that borders, sometimes, on hunger.
Experience is key. We do things not only because they are familiar – because of TRADITION, or its fraternal twin RITUAL, or their bastard cousin HABIT, or whatever – but also because they work. They make a kind of sense.
For the uninitiated yet determined, there is one rough shortcut that I can offer up for easy consumption, which comes in the form of a neat equation.
What’s the equation?
Here is the equation:
______X______ for $1 = VALUE.
Grocery chains and malls with all four walls intact and megastores are often flashy affairs, and the prices you pay are as much about spectacle as it is product.
Embarrassment of riches. Who knew?
In Chinatown, the spectacle is where you find the good stuff. You just have to work, a little, to earn it. Given time, glimpses can become insight.
Then again, strategies are only as good as their execution.
There is produce, but it won’t come easy. You have to look – really scrutinize for quality and live with your choices at the end of the day.
There is Hustle and Bustle, but also Dead Ends.
There are little old Asian Ladies selling herbs and spices on the edge of sidewalks, but make no mistake they are not to be trifled with.
They have an Eye that puts Gorgons to shame. They know it too.
There is also this Man:
He is awesome.
Chinatown is sincere and unsentimental.
It is unapologetic and gracious.
Firm, yet supple.
Finally: it is welcoming. Trust me. Follow the equation to wherever it leads you, and you might come to experience the value that is the True Value of Value!
I’ll be there regardless, anyway.
 Wherein “X” equals “whatever”. WHATEVER.