A tale of two Chinatowns

kingoftheyeesYesterday I went to Aberdeen Centre in Richmond for the first time ever in spite of it being around since the 1990s. There are usually only two reasons I ever go to Richmond: to get on a plane at YVR or to visit one of my favourite places, the village of Steveston. We CAN be creatures of habit, can’t we?

It was a dreary Sunday and I had no plans so I decided to act like a bit of a tourist. I’d heard that the food court is really good there with all sorts of authentic Asian cuisine and there was some photography exhibit that was on display. Okay, a plan was formulating, reason to get dressed and leave the apartment.

In addition, I’d noticed that a local playwright that I am acquainted with, Elaine Avila, had recommended on her Facebook page, a play, King of the Yees, by Lauren Yee, a San Francisco-based playwright.

The play was at the Gateway Theatre and conveniently there happened to be a 2pm Sunday matinee.  This play, according to Jovanni Sy, artistic director, as he wrote in the program, was “one of the most highly sought after scripts in the U.S. in the past year.”

There was also a good article inside the program written by a professor of history at UBC, Henry Yu, about what defines Chinatown? We could actually all just expand that question to ask ourselves what defines a neighborhood in general. Is it just the way it looks aesthetically? Or is it more about the feeling, the connections between people, the sense of belonging (or not)?  

Yu pointed out that the City of Vancouver still only defines Chinatown’s heritage through architectural details while many other places have accepted “intangible character” as a very important part of heritage policy. As an aside, I noticed that John Atkin, Vancouver Heritage Advocate, was in the audience.

Before I even got to the play, my experience of visiting Aberdeen Centre for the first time left me mentally comparing the experience of the old Chinatowns that I’ve visited — Vancouver, Victoria, and San Francisco —  to this newer version. The new version was like Chinatown in one of those snow globes, perhaps. I didn’t dislike it intensely or anything. I just couldn’t help feel a bit confused. Like I’d been left behind. Like, How did this happen? Is it good or bad or just different. And if THIS version existed did we really still need the old one? Who is the old version for? And when all the old Chinese people, the first and second generation, die off, would the old version still be relevant, and if so, why? These are the kinds of questions whirling inside my head.

In the new version, the herbal shops and the ginseng containers were tightly ensconced beside a Mercedes Benz dealership, under the shiny lights and the changing colours of the dancing fountain. The aroma of noodles and pho and steamy broths mixed in with the scent of refined petroleum products wafting from all that plastic in Daiso, the huge Japanese discount store. 

There was no honking or loud Cantonese ribbing between adjacent shop owners pecking the air in the new version. I didn’t see any chickens hanging upside down. Vegetables and fruits and things I was curious about weren’t nestled inside baskets along the narrow sidewalks. There were just shiny mall tiles and a world record for largest Pez container display.

It was like some altered universe. As if I’d just left the country for a short and curious interlude.

And with that experience lingering, I was primed for the play, King of the Yees.

It was a play that used some of a culture’s most obvious stereotypes– the dragon dance, the face-changer, the gangs, the benevolent Associations, the commitment to family and cultural organizations as fodder for entertainment.  At times it felt like a bit of a Chinese version of Harry Potter with the main female protagonist (actress Andrea Yu) on a quest to find her dad, Larry, the King of the Yees and there, again, was a disconnect between generations that occurs regardless of ethnicity.   

Some of the funniest scenes to me were the dialogue between the actress Donna Soares, who claimed to be Korean in the play, getting instructions from a Chinese guy, actor Raugi Yu, on the correct way to pronounce Chinese. She did such an amusing job.

It’s a creative, unique, and modern twist on an age old problem. What exactly is the definition of progress?  You’ve only got until Saturday, Oct. 22,  to play around with that question in your own mind, with the aid of this play.

Goofing off for future productivity

 

It’s important to be self motivated when you work for yourself. This is true regardless of what you do. It’s especially true, and I admit that I’m biased, if the work has anything to do with writing.

One of the tricks about that is knowing yourself well enough to know when you need to buckle down, fight the inner child who just wants to goof off, tell them to go to their naughty mat and stay there, and force yourself to buckle down to get whatever you need to get done done.

It’s just as important to know when it’s playtime. Wash your face. Brush your teeth. It’s time for a little close to home excursion. Yahoo! Clap your hands with excitement.

I don’t know if it’s just the freedom of being able to do what you want, when you want to, or if it elicits traces of the feeling we all got, if and when we played hooky during high school, but taking the time is like reaching through and snatching a bit of the open space for ourselves.

I did that yesterday. It was 31 degrees. I wasn’t staying in my apartment staring at a computer. Are you kidding me?  That would be crazy. I made my way out to Steveston at around 1:30 pm and headed immediately to grab lunch at Pajo’s on the wharf. I ordered the salmon and chips. I said “Yes,” to the tarter sauce. I shouldn’t be eating any of that but tough.  And on a day like yesterday did I feel lucky that I control my own schedule right now? Oh yeah!

I sat at Pajo’s, ate my lunch which was wrapped in newsprint, and soaked up the Vitamin D of the brilliant sunshine.fishnchips

Afterwards, I wandered down to look at all the slippery shiny sockeye fresh off the fish boats backed into the dock. The tourists and locals streamed past. Fingers pointed at which fish they wanted. Shaved ice kept the salmon in the big bags fresh. Caught! Poor Mr. Salmon at life’s end, that remorse mixing with my own anticipation of delicious meals ahead.

As I carried on along the beautiful cement walkway that fronts the river from the little village to the Britannia Shipyards, I admired the sparkling water, the boats, the people clustered in little groups of twos and threes, chatting and walking and drinking coffee at Starbucks. I saw the fishers on the dock. When I arrived at the little recreated historical village, I spoke with a volunteer. I wanted to know what some big ship near the dock was. Did it do research? What was it? “I think it offers luxury excursions,” she said. It was called the Pacific Yellowfin.

I admired the little wooden structures that I’ve been in many times before. I listened to the music from the 1940s. I admired an old phonograph, saw postcards of women in bathing suits, letters from home across a bed. I tried to imagine the life of the people who lived then, worked then, their joys, their sorrows. How hard it must have been and yet the anticipation of building, something, even if it wasn’t clear then.

Outside, I noticed the bull rushes along the shore, the sea grasses,  and the way the sunlight hit the top of the metal roof off the old shipyard building, the sparkles off the water painting everything new. There was one of those yellow pianos on the dock, sitting there, inviting anyone to play it. I touched a note, feeling regret that I used to play, took lessons for years and now, without music, without practice, all that dormant.

I stopped at the gardens behind one of the tiny historical houses and peered in at the last bit of greens and feathery dill.

Mostly I just luxuriated in having time, my own time to do what I wanted with. It’s a luxury and all I’m really trying to say is that it’s good to be grateful (always) but especially when the day unfolds in a way that offers a bit of this and a bit of that, in all the ways that make you happy. The experiences are every bit as tantalizing as the morsels at one of those progressive dinners that used to be popular.  I felt like Mrs. Dalloway minus the high society and the party at the end of the evening.

To compensate I bought my own salmon.

Cutting it up and freezing it later. That’s a story for another day…

Floathome memorabilia that fits

binocular case

I’ve never been a collector. Mostly it’s because once you start collecting something then I expect every birthday, every Christmas, every single occasion, someone will give you something related to what you’re collecting whether it’s a tasteful version of what you’d want or not and pretty soon your house is crammed full of angels or elephants, owls or bird nests, robots or wooden tugboats, turning you into the next contestant on Hoarders Anonymous.

If you move a lot, the challenge is to collect as little as possible.

The two women who own the floathome that I’m staying on may or may not be collectors. I don’t think they are collectors in the true sense of that word but they do have a knack, and I’m not sure which one of them to credit for putting together the interior of this place, their West Coast home, in a way that means everyone who comes here is impressed. From the artwork to all the little touches that add up to create a unified physical space the way a painting can, or a garden, or even an office, when it’s designed with love and attention.

Last night, I had six friends over for a BBQ, and one of them asked me, “Do the people who own this place have roots in Newfoundland and Labrador?”

“I don’t know, why?”

“Oh, it just has that feel to the place.”

“Oh, I said, absentmindedly, “well, they do have a house in Newfoundland and that’s the only reason I get to stay here.”

Oh yeah! Then it all made sense.

We had been focused on familial roots, sharing how we had arrived in B.C., either by leaving Ontario or Boston Bar or Nelson and from as far away as New Zealand, so my attention had been focused on the past and family roots, not the present when I answered the question.

This person had just come back from a first-time trip to Newfoundland in June and she said the house really reminded her of being there.  Of course it would.

Here are some of the treasures I like here.

beach chairs

These beach chairs are lined up on a kitchen ledge. They are always facing in the same direction and that always bugs me. People would never sit at the beach one behind each other like that. So, I moved one. They, of course, will move it back as they should.

bathing beauties

There is a three -foot long line of bathing beauties from another time in a wooden frame in the kitchen. This is only a fraction of the bevy of beauties lined up in it. You can never have too many female friends.

painting by Bobbi Pike

Who wouldn’t want to sit outside just soaking in the scenery from the vista of this yard painted by a person named Bobbi Pike.

wooden fish

I sit in front of this fish every day and do my work on the computer. I like him.

shellbox

This is actually an entire box covered in shells. Sometimes those are beyond tacky. Strangely enough, this one isn’t. It’s in front of the fireplace.

fish wall

They have a whole fish wall with fish heads and starfish. This guy facing you as you climb the first set of stairs means business. No getting away with anything around here.fishing basket

It’s imperative to have a basket to put all your special things -flys and lures and bubble gum cards. Huck Finn would have had one of these.

beaver teethmarks

The wood on the bottom left has been branded by a beaver. The other morning, I was at my computer (where else?), and I heard this weird sound and when I looked out the back screen door, I saw a beaver knawing on something right out the back door. He dove under before I could photograph him. For reasons I’m not sure of, Pat likes to collect these branches that Mr. Beaver has sunk his big teeth into.

What would you collect if space and money were no object?

River rituals on Annacis Channel

Annacis ChannelSimple pleasures.

Coming downstairs into the kitchen and opening the back door onto the floating deck. Cool river air seeps in through the screen door first thing. Noticing the flow of the river and how that changes every day. A tap. A stream. A languid pool.

Of course, there’s no escaping the ever present hum from the traffic pushing towards the Alex Fraser Bridge, a deep rumble, a constant whiz, air through a wind instrument, every so often the sustained roar of a big truck rising above the steadiness, a more consistent note.

This morning, three Canada Geese flew eastward.  A Blue Heron, barely visible in the shadows, sat perched near the neighbor’s deck last night.  I remembered it from last summer. Was it the same one?

Late yesterday afternoon, I watched a massive eagle, plucking its way in the shallow waters of the shoreline across Annacis Channel. I watched him through the scope from the second floor and he spent the longest time standing in those shallow waters, occasionally dipping his hooked, yellow beak into the murky water, bug hunting I suppose.  From a distance a geometric pattern wove the dark feathers on his body together and his thick legs, feathered and strong, held his body like a cup. His eyes beady, intense, all seeing.

Later on, he was joined by two smaller eagles and they began to dive bomb into the middle of the river, swooping in a triangle, up and down, gliding, trying again,  catching nothing that I could see but converging like synchronized swimmers putting on a show. My camera lense isn’t good enough to capture them from this distance.

Back on the deck, the spiders are spinning their webs off the Adirondack chairs and I want to remove them.  I want to sit out there, but so far, I haven’t the heart to destroy all their work, rip apart their delicate homes. Their days are numbered however. I want to sit out there first thing, coffee in hand.

Every once in a while, I’ll hear a big splash, and look up to catch water twisting and then the rippled circles on the river’s surface. Sturgeon? Salmon? I’m surprised that fish can live in there. It’s easy to pretend the splash is more sinister. What was that?

The river turns glassy and golden-green at night. Its flow slows as the clock ticks off hours on these long summer days.

In the morning, there are dew drops on the fanned strawberry leaves shading roots in the pot tight around their base.

Once Norman, the cat, has gobbled down his breakfast, he sits at the door waiting to be let out. Lately, I’ve been keeping him in. I saw a documentary on the disappearance of song birds and I know, if I stay strong, he’ll eventually give up, go upstairs and lay down and be quiet.  In the notes, it clearly says, “there’s no need for him to go outside.” I say, it’s not for him. It’s for me. Peace.

Small things to be noticed at the beginning of a day have a way of becoming rituals in the long run.

Staycation II: Revisiting close to home

breakfast

I’ve relocated back to the float home for July. For the second year, it’s Staycation Central thanks to owners Pat and Janna who have made their annual migration back to their ocean-side home near Bonavista, Newfoundland.

As with every place we inhabit,  I have found my favorite place inside their home. It’s not, as you might expect, on the top deck, although that is especially nice on a sunny afternoon when the wind is minimal and the bees dip and settle.

For me, there is nothing better than Sunday mornings on the second level where, with coffee and fresh raspberries and yogurt, I can settle into the corner of the comfy velveteen couch, The Globe & Mail and The New York Times plucked from the old tin mailbox outside and now resting on the side table. This perfect cocoon on the comfy couch, offers a comfortable positioning to write longhand which, itself, such a rarity, feels deliciously decadent.

Couch

I can write my morning papers by hand with my favourite pen. My hand moves across the page of the large, hard covered Writer’s Way book I found for a steal ($2.50) at a recent flea market at the Westminster Quay. I can let go of all weekday worries of shoulds, musts, and ever-present wondering about redesigning my life and just relax into the moment, to feel gratitude, to just be.

From that little corner, I can scope out the entire room with all its marine-themed artifacts and allow daydreams to hover.  The olive-green river on an overcast day, like today, flows continuously past, movement as reminder of the fleeting realities we all face. The reflections of the trees off the far bank and the texture from smooth to linear, circles of tidal movement, seem like the varying thickness of paint on a canvas of abstract imagery. A fantastic creative retreat this does make. I feel a renewal of inspiration here the way you’re supposed to when you leave your familiar for viva la difference.

shells

A tugboat chugged by yesterday. I love tugboats. No matter how large, I imagine plucking them from the river and floating them in the tub.  The blue heron squawked by its legs outstretched behind it prehistoric. The eagle, I can’t see, calls out to me with that tell-tale, identifying high-pitched staccato piping.  The swan, alone this time, floated by the other morning. I wonder like last year if I’ll see them just once? I hope not.

beachglass

My return was christened yesterday. I dropped my keys into the river as I went to lock the door. I watched with horror as they succumbed to the green liquid just for a few seconds and were gone. Sucked under. As far as accidents go, a minor mishap. A walk, a bus ride, a Skytrain trip back to my apartment where, uncharacteristically,  I had copies of all of them. They were easily replaced, although I will miss my Roots lanyard key chain.

The familiarity of return. The anticipation of new finds. It’s good to be back even if it’s close to home.

Floathome Staycation Rocks but Gently

dawnontheriver

It’s been a fantastic Staycation on the river and now, boo hoo,  it is over.

earlymorningriver

As I write this, Pat is on a plane somewhere over Canada mulling over her own summer memories of Newfoundland and her other neighborhood.  She’s high above some place in this beautiful country that I’ve never seen or maybe never even heard about. Far beneath the big plane, sleepy inhabitants, like me, are waking up, making coffee, getting ready to enjoy whatever plans they have for their weekends.

outside

I’m up early, ready to wash all the sheets and towels and try to put everything back to the state of perfection I found it in minus the Purdy’s Haystacks. Sorry Pat. I’ll get you some. Trying to test me? I failed! But, you knew I would.

So many visitors commented on how tastefully this place was decorated. A real nautical theme but not overdone.

fish

porthole

It has been so wonderful to be here. I’ve had a lot of guests over for dinner. I’ve become familiar with a neighborhood that I’ve almost never visited prior to staying even though it’s a mere 20 minute drive from my own place. I’ve enjoyed walking down the road, a mix of light industrial and hodge podge residential and on Thursday, I finally saw a real live Canadian beaver, on the bank in front of the house. How do you know it’s Canadian? my manager asked me when I told him.  “It’s here isn’t it?”  The swans visited only twice. The blue herons at dusk.

My friends and family said to me, “You look like you belong here.”

mantle

Mostly, I’ve loved seeing what goes by on a river that has such great significance to B.C. and the history of our province. My impressions of the Fraser have been forever changed, at least in terms of how people use the part that winds through New Westminster, Queensborough, and Richmond.

sailboats

I never imagined that people kayaked it and two nights ago I even saw some guy, standing on one of those flat board, in the pouring rain, exploring. Can you believe it? Don’t fall in, buddy!  It could get messy. Contrast that with some of the yachts that have glided by and even a few yahoos speeding past, purposely making waves so the float homes will rock. And all the little whatever they are called, those tiny boats with one guy steering the motor from the back, just dodging to this bank and that log boom and having fun on a summer evening. Men fish off the banks under the bridge. There’s a lot going on. The brown river with the amazing history attracts life, human and wild and industry.

shells

I’ve bonded with Norman. Pretty much turned him into the most spoiled little kitty who thinks whining works. They’re going to hate me. Yes, sorry, I do have a habit of getting up really early and Norman just LOVES that. Don’t plan on sleeping in! Of course, Norman’s up, eats and then it’s nap time again.

Norman

I’ve enjoyed the luxury of having a built in washer and dryer and Netflix and a deck and living somewhere that people want to come and check out. It’s amazing how social life can be when you live somewhere that people WANT to see.

pulley

It’s been great to come home to a place that made me happy to just stay put.  Gratitude.  Thank you Pat and Janna.

Fraser River Sky at Dawn

earlymorningriver

awake at 5 ammoonoveralexfraser

on the river where the pink light

complements half crescent moon

guides eagle’s shimmering squeal

slate current pushing

faster today,

pushes transient logs back to where they’ve

already travelled.

There, a fish,

it jumped,

did you see it?

Lights from the bridge shining distortion,

make no difference to

tugs chugging east, ever-steady hum muted

beneath siren

crossing the bridge, farther on.

To the south,

Alex Fraser spires imitate drawbridge

and just behind me,

Norman, your cat, peers out like a prisoner,

or a child, waiting his mother’s return.

Sky mixes pastels,

slivers of pink

alight tips of clouds

hints at heaven’s reality

what’s for breakfast?