It’s that invisible, emotional umbilical cord that ties us to our past. Chinatown, especially when it’s hot, reminds me of that day in August of 1987, when I stepped out of an airport limousine and into a different world.
The stench hit me even before the heat that day, and as long as I lived there, I wondered if I carried the smell with me; if I invaded nightclubs and restaurants perfumed with the smell of durian fruit and greasy bread and sesame oil and fish.
Today, my quick tour through Kensington Market and Chinatown is mission-based. Beads of sweat forming on the back of my neck, I want to get what I need and get out.
I don’t dally in the market, hitting the health food store and the fruit stands for what I need. It’s too hot, and I want to be home in front of a fan. On Spadina Avenue, in the crush of bodies and racks of knock-off Hello Kitty purses and cheap luggage, I move with purpose, sliding gracefully around the tourists and the delivery people pushing dollys full of boxes. Like riding a bike – this way of moving, thinking, looking up to assess the sidewalk – comes back easily. This is my ‘hood. Get out of my way.
After a quick stop to grab a Vietnamese sub and cold chow mein noodles for my lunch, I brace myself for the Chinese supermarket. Down the stairs, past the sidewalk displays of produce and dried shrimp, the smell is damp, salty, with a vague undertone of rot, and reminds me of the caves and grottos along the Bay of Fundy when the tides have rushed out ten miles or more, all wet sand and Irish moss.
Produce. Nothing is labeled in English, and I guess at herbs, packed in cellophane, feeling lost because I cannot make my way through foreign territory by smell. Thai basil I know by sight. The strong smell of Cilantro permeates the plastic. I have no idea whether I’m buying peppermint or spearmint, but into the basket it goes.
Next, fat wet Japanese udon noodles, and a package of oil-fried tofu. Then down the aisle to the intimidating wall of noodles. Thirty different kinds of rice paper wrappers for spring rolls; different sizes, flavours and brands. Vermicelli noodles, enough to tie a string, if placed end to end, around the world. Ah, sweet potato vermicelli. I grab at what looks good, searching for the brands I know. It’s all the same, isn’t it?
And sweet potato candy, dried and sugared, three packages for a dollar. Jars of pickled ginger and garlic, four for a dollar. And tea; all the tea in China, it seems, but it cannot be. Again, which one to pick?
My arms full, I struggle to the cash. I have no hands free to nab moon cakes or rice candy. Next time, next time.
My hands are full as I walk down the street, so many bags, but there’s more. Shaded by a wide umbrella, there’s a display of fat juicy lychee, plump and sweet. The man fills a bag of them and directs me inside to pay,. There are still so many strange and wondrous fruits I’ve never tried, afraid I guess, figuring they’ll all be as weird and dank as durian. Manilla mangos get added to my pile on the counter, and the woman at the cash looks at me approvingly as I juggle my bags to find change for her.
“You like shop Chinatown, yes?”
Yes, yes I do.