Last time I've been to Chinatown was during the same fall season, about 3 years ago. And here I was, standing at the weathered red and green Paifang, familiar vibes running through my mind, eyes and hands, finger on a rapidly chilling shutter button. Same hustle and bustle of an Asian fringe metropolis, but one that didn't require a 15-hour plane flight, albeit at a reduced scale of 1:1000, infused with a western backbone. Signs, smells, subtle hues of red and green - a field day for the senses, a true playground for anyone with a hightended curiosity or plain old ADHD. What was I doing here again?
Rewind a couple days earlier, clutching a couple of costly plane tickets to Hong Kong in my hand, to-do and to-pack list on my desk at home, mountains and skyscrapers in my mind. Glancing at the heap of blank film rolls prepared to get on a plane, I tell myself - I'm not ready yet. Need some practice back home to hone my focus, know what to look for. I've studied exhaustively, crawled all over google maps and DigitalRev, preparing for the Pearl of the Orient. But nothing can prepare you for the real thing. Short of actually planting feet on the pavement of Nathan Road, Chinatown Chicago was going to be a good warm-up.
A joint effort between LXT Works and Forty Three Stories, I was joined by partner in travel Kris. After eyeing the forecast for a couple days prior, we concluded that the notoriously gloomy Chicago fall had bit in hard, and that we'd have to contend with a dying dim bulb for a sun for our excursion. Fast forward to trip day, surrounded by locals and tourists alike, we step into the crowd to be swept away into the flow.
Staring down the barrel of main street, like kids in a candy store, trying to take it in, one by one. Asian cultures are exceedingly visual by nature and design, the multitude of signs on building, like hanzi on paper, all reading like one big pulp novel somewhere between Sin City and Hard Boiled Wonderland. Shops selling any imaginable artifact from half way across the world dotted the ground floors of the mismatched row houses. From magical anti-ailment puffer fish powder balsam to jade-encrusted calligraphy-embellished dragon-shaped shaver holders - and everything else in between - everything was out and about, ready to be haggled for.
Tiring of commerce gazing, we segued into the side streets to let our focus wander uninhibited, cool off. Residential areas, full of red-colored doors, garages and awnings, provided an interesting backdrop for back-alley urban exploring. Rusty, but hardy-looking bicycles and a maze of low-hanging utility wires completed the backdrop. Faces, young and old, shifted into view, only to disappear behind veiled doorways and second-story windows. A stark contrast, an empty landscape, strewn with abstract shapes of brick and mortar.
Any sapient traffic to cross us by seemed to emanate from the direction of the Chinatown Square. Guided by the stream, we ended up at the cheese part of the maze. The Life of this Party, surrounded by a miniature Great Wall of pale teal, emblazoned with vibrant red regalia and neon signs. Two stories tall, shops, cafes, barbers, healers - Main Street all over again, this time packaged neatly into a rectangular box with passageways. Life moved, nothing was still, despite the lighter than usual traffic. We played silent witness to the bustle, traversing, looking for hidden lines, unwittingly prying into people's lunch breaks with our cameras. A meal later and we were on our way.
A bright red dot on our original exploration plans, we snaked our way to the Chicago river where ancient machinery lay in wait amid a plateu of green park land. But first we had to enjoy a diorama of red brick housing complexes, each next row less distinct than the one before. Pictures of early 20th century English mining towns crawled into mind. Smokestacks being the only absent component from an otherwise perfectly symmetrical tapestry of chevron roofs and square pattern of windows.
Monoliths of red receded to make way for patches of green. A thought struck - Funny how the world can sometimes be reduced to two singular colors..? The river didn't contribute any blue to the picture though. If there was a color in the catalog called Heavy Gray, this would be it. The sky fell down fast, its presence drowning out the color and light from the world below. The factory across the river turned into a hive of pale lights, the rust on the old vertical lift bridge came alive and seemed to eat away, hungry for iron and steel. You could almost smell the decay that wasn't there. It all seemed like a scene out of an 80's sci-fi B-movie. where the last remaining humans huddled away in an ancient derelict moon base on the dark side of the moon, launch platform collapsed, unable to leave.
As light became increasingly scarce, our cameras were no longer able to capture the world as it entered its sleeping phase. We turned back, following a breadcrumb of railways and street signs as they led us back to our parking lot on the far side of town. Wires hung down low, twisting silhouettes slithering against the pink haze of the neon-infused sky.
Hands on the wheel, ready to pull out and just one thought - how nice it'd be to come back on a sunny day? Clouds make any scene sound like a page from a hard-boiled detective novel...