Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Upstairs, Downstairs in Chinatown

A pleasurable side-effect of travelling for business by train or plane, and not automobile, is precisely that I don't have to drive a car. 

This not only avoids the cost of parking, which depending on the city, could run as much as a couple of hundred bucks over just a few days. 

Photo 1: Businesses on Dundas street, Toronto.
Photo: RB Glennie

It is also that I avoid the cost of driving – the stress and hassles involved in just getting around by automobile in the unfamiliar streets of a different city. 

I'm lucky, I suppose, in that my affairs are conducted at or near the hotels in which I stay.  
Sometimes, I will take a cab, but often I will just walk from the hotel to the venue, to orient myself to the surroundings, observe them up close, and to see what there is to see. 

Regardless, after business is done, during the evening I usually take a stroll, intending to check out the quarter near where I am staying. 

But just as usually, I end up going much further, as the one block leads to the next, the one neighbourhood turns into another, and not getting back until later in the evening, in spite of my fatigue from working all day. 

This is how I get to know an unfamiliar place, not going where visitors usually go, but going where the natives are. 

I may bring a map with me, just in case I get lost. But generally I don't, and rarely consult the map when I do have one. 

This has got me to places where I didn’t expect, or perhaps want, to be: as on a recent visit to Vancouver, when I wandered into the notorious Downtown Eastside slum. 

It may have been my naïveté, but nevertheless I felt in no more danger there than I did in the areas just a few blocks away, where condos sell for a million dollars and (much) more.  

Last week, I was in Toronto. Having almost always visited that city by car, after work I instead I left my room in the Yonge street area, and headed west on Dundas avenue. 

Photo 2: Businesses on Dundas street, Toronto.
Photo: RB Glennie

I found myself, without design, in the city’s Chinatown, which begins around where the Art Gallery of Ontario is located, extending a dozen blocks or more down Dundas, to University avenue at least. 

There, I encountered a sort of architectural style that I didn’t identify as “Chinese” until I saw many examples of it in the Vancouver Chinatown. 

A lot of commercial buildings that I saw there, as well as in the Toronto Chinatown, are not entranced by a door leading directly from the street inside. 

Instead, businesses therein are reached by stairwells leading up and down from the street level, with the buildings themselves divided into two units, or even three or four. 

Often, these are stairs extend about a dozen steps directly from the street, down or up. But at other times, they are more elaborate, as in the picture below. 

I have given some thought as to why this sort of building-design is found especially in Chinatowns, and not apparently anywhere else. 

Perhaps it is merely a utilitarian attempt to acquire more tenants by expanding the number of units available in each building. 

Photo 3: Businesses on Dundas street, Toronto.
Photo: RB Glennie

On other hand, at least with some of these shops, the total square feet of space available to do business, has been foreshortened for being accessed by a subterranean stairwell (Photo 3 above). 

Apart from any functional reason why, the stairways of Chinatown objectify a different conception of place and space than in other parts of town – even where the building materials and designs are identical. 

I haven't been able to identify wherein this difference lies. 

But I think it goes back to an observation I had years ago, about the traditional layout of Chinese restaurants in my hometown and elsewhere. 

This applies particularly to such dining places established by immigrants and refugees from Hong Kong and Mainland China, and may not for newer “Asian fusion” places founded by second- or third-generation people of Chinese descent in North America. 

Photo 4: Close-up on subterranean business shown in Photo 3, Dundas street, Toronto.
Photo: RB Glennie

It is that the dining area of the restaurant is inevitably separated from the entrance: that is, it may be down stairs (as was the case at a downtown Chinese restaurant my family used to patronize), or accessed through a hallway; or as at another tiny place that I used to go to as a young adult, separated from the entrance by a removable barrier. 

Apparently, there is some need to place a barrier – be it stairwells or otherwise – between the general public and the indoor functions of the business in Chinatowns, that doesn't exist elsewhere in the city.

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