If you like mysteries, Chinatown’s got mysteries. I mean, I’ve been coming here since my teens, but have never been able to figure this place out. A visit to a framing store will find you an 150-year-old shrine buried in its basement; a chat with a Taiji master at the park will teach you the parallels between I Ching and binary coding; and that’s not to mention all the power brokers that’d sit tables apart at Capital on Sunday, eating the same salt-and-pepper wings. The trouble is, for every mystery answered, two new ones open up, and you feel no closer to grasping this lovely neighborhood.
If you feel perplexed and lost, congrats: You now share what binds so many people in these eight-or-so square blocks. Turns out everyone else has been puzzled, too. The lady at the stereo shop wanted to know why everything was suddenly covered in chile oil; the hairdresser cannot believe all the Insta models are doing these shoots for free; and damn near everyone wanted to know what’s to become of this place — even before the pandemic.
So the chatter continues, with friends and strangers, in front of impossibly colorful doorways, and accompanied by endless combination of flavors. This place feels like a home to a few, but a portal for everyone else.
Or is it the other way around?
Ah, at the end of the day, the only thing I’m certain of is this: There are fewer and fewer places like Chinatown left, and we’ve gotta do everything we can to fight for her and her people.
Pete Lee is a director/photographer who spent 2019 shooting a cookbook about Chinatown for Mister Jiu’s while developing a feature film about a washed-up exorcist. See more of his work at ohpetelee.com and @ohpetelee.
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