The moment I stepped off Manhattan’s canal street subway station, I could feel the zeal of Chinatown seep in. Not only were my eyes overwhelmed by the surging public, but so were my ears. The background noise was a constant clatter of people communicating in assorted languages. Shops lined either side of the streets. Shopkeepers stood outside their respective stores luring customers in by presenting their unique sales pitches.
“COME Madame……..COME Madame, I show you cheap bag……..NICE cheap bag.” The shopkeeper stood next to me, his tone resembling that of a stalker enticing a child with candy. When I didn’t respond he patted me on the shoulder, adamant that I enter his shop where he claimed to have placed his secret treasures – counterfeit brand name bags at bargain prices. He appeared to be in his mid-forties, Chinese in descent with a cleft on his chin. He had snippets of hair scantily arranged over his skull – almost like sun-burnt grass sprouting from set soil.Taken aback by his aggressiveness, I very firmly said: “No Thank You.”
Walking along the street I noticed the diversity of offerings on sale - perfumes, handbags, watches, chinese healing stones, sun glasses and many others. The healing stones were available in all sizes and colours. One shopkeeper claimed that the black amber stones could improve kidney function, eliminate white hair, sharpen memory and also rectify the disorder associated with ringing ears! Can you believe it?
On my left lay Mulberry Street – the hub of Chinatown’s seafood market. I had no intention of stopping there, but after seeing so many peculiar looking sea creatures – large ones, small ones, placid ones, feisty ones --I decided to take a peek. Some hung from steel poles while others lay resting on wooden tables, buried under layers of soft, smooth ice resembling perfectly spread icing on cake.
Large circular tubs placed underneath these tables contained the finer selections of fish. These were small (about 5 cms in length), silver and shiny. Very shiny. Some blinked momentarily, as though still partially conscious despite being away from their natural habitat. Older Chinese women gazed at them in delight as if they were some newly discovered diamonds – scrutinizing their ins and outs with their bare hands. Only after severe inspection and satisfaction (optimum satisfaction could be known by nodding of their heads) did they consider purchasing.
The overpowering fish stench was a cause of concern for some visitors – few had covered their nose with a hanky while others only had an expression of disgust on their faces yet did nothing to alleviate the odour from their surroundings. Rather, were so engrossed by the fascinating display of the waterworld that their visionary receptors at times ruled their sense of smell. The ones who appeared least traumatized by it were the fish-sellers who had possibly become immune to it.