February 1st, 2012

Neon History

In the middle of the 1980s, after lobbying from businesses and Chinese community leaders, a series of decorative gates were built to mark the various entrances to Montreal’s Chinatown. One of these is found at the corner of de la Gauchetière and Jeanne-Mance, the western end of the district. But to me, the real signal that I have entered Chinatown is when I pass beneath the Wing’s Nouilles Chinoises neon sign, one block east at Côté Street.

The Wing Building is the oldest surviving structure in Chinatown, built in 1826 and designed by James O’Donnell, who had moved to Montreal from New York to oversee the construction of a somewhat more illustrious project. Over the past 186 years, it has served as a military school, paper box factory and warehouse, according to Barry Lazar and Tamsin Douglas’ Guide to Ethnic Montreal. These days, the building is known for a distinctly eggy smell: this is the main supplier of fortune cookies to Chinese restaurants across eastern Canada.

The first time I came across Miss Villeray, she was looking a bit worse for the wear, holding fort above a neighbourhood bar that had seen better days. In 2008, the bar was sold to an ambitious entrepreneur who fixed it up without throwing away the original decor. It’s now a haunt for Villeray’s trendy thirtysomethings. Not my crowd, but I always appreciate the fact that Miss Villeray was restored to her former glory.

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July 15th, 2011

Photo of the Week: Canal Street

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

Decay, Canal Street, Chinatown, New York City

Decaying building on Canal Street, Chinatown, New York City.
Photo by Vivienne Gucwa

Every week, we feature striking images from our Urbanphoto group on Flickr. Want to see your photos here? Join the group.

November 25th, 2010

How a Roast Duck Sees Chinatown

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Food by Christopher DeWolf

Melbourne’s Chinatown as shot with a camera made from a duck

Earlier this week, I paid a visit to Martin Cheung‘s studio in the Cattle Depot Artists’ Village in To Kwa Wan. I was there to speak to him about his work with pinhole photography, a medium that uses crude, handmade cameras to record images that often look as rough as the devices that made them.

We spoke for awhile about Cheung’s fascination with pinhole photography. It’s meditative and not as aggressive as conventional photography, he told me, and it forces you to consider the process of taking a photo rather than the result. He showed me how to make a simple pinhole camera with paper and tape. Then the conversation turned to ducks.

Cheung studied art in Melbourne, where he also worked in a Chinese restaurant as a waiter and kitchenhand. Nine years ago, in his final year of study, Cheung had a thought: “Roast duck is such a symbol of Chinese cooking, so I wanted to see how the duck saw Chinatown.” So he bought a roast duck and turned it into a pinhole camera.

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October 3rd, 2010

A Window into Kuala Lumpur

Posted in Asia Pacific, Demographics, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Two weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were celebrating Malaysia’s national holiday at a street party in Bangsar, an upscale neighbourhood of Kuala Lumpur. We had just walked there along broken sidewalks, the sun beating down on us — Kuala Lumpur is not the most pedestrian-friendly place — and we were in desperate need of a drink, so we popped into a bar and ordered a couple of beers. We found ourselves in the midst of a panel discussion about what it means to be Malaysian. “Are we a nation or a collection of peoples?” asked the moderator, an earnest young journalist of Indian descent.

One of the speakers, a young half-Chinese, half-Indian man dressed in a traditional Malay outfit (with the addition of red heart-shaped sunglasses) gave a witty and entertaining presentation about the ambiguities of national identity. His delivery was upbeat, but his message was serious and thoughtful: Malaysia could hardly be described as a true nation, he said — otherwise the government would not have to invest so much in convincing everyone that there is such a thing as “1Malaysia” — but it is also more than the sum of its Malay, Chinese and Indian parts. Like Canada, which is also prone to existential crises and frequent periods of self-doubt, Malaysia is a country that exists in a perpetual state of in-betweenness.

This lingered in my mind for the six days we spent wandering the streets of Kuala Lumpur, a city that few travellers spend much time in and even many Malaysians seem to dislike. For all its importance as an economic and administrative hub, KL doesn’t present itself on a platter like Penang, the darling of Malaysia’s tourism industry. It’s a sprawling, disjointed place that makes casual exploration difficult, but I enjoyed its unpretentiousness and the way it opened a window into Malaysia’s cultural complexities.

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October 9th, 2009

Contemplation

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Phuket Chinatown

I came across this guy in Phuket’s Chinatown, a quiet, crumbling reminder of the days when Phuket made its fortune from tin mining, not tourism. He might seem deep in thought but in reality he had just been picking his ear and was looking at the product of his excavations. We’re allowed to tell little lies in our photos, right?

August 3rd, 2008

“To the Glory of God”

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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Chinese United Church, Second Avenue SW, Calgary

July 20th, 2008

The Main from Two Angles

Posted in Art and Design, Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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St. Laurent Blvd. just below René Lévesque Blvd.

July 15th, 2008

Ominous Sky

Posted in Canada by Christopher DeWolf

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8pm near the corner of St. Laurent and René Lévesque.

July 4th, 2008

Chinatown Saint-Jean

Posted in Canada, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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One of my favourite Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebrations is in Chinatown. The programming, on the stage in Sun Yat Sen Square, is eclectic and unexpected, a combination of Ukrainian folk dancing, Mandarin poetry recitals and, towards the end of the afternoon, awkward Chinese pop songs sung by a teenage rock band (with a cover of Audioslave thrown in for good measure). Nonplussed seniors sit in the square watching the entertainment.

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June 27th, 2008

The Bowery

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

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I’m not sure what I was expecting. The Bowery is one of those New York streets that have been mythologized and made famous by American pop culture; although it is less well-known than some other Manhattan arteries, its name still evokes sleazy bars, flophouses and the kind of grit and disorder that was associated with New York in the 1970s and 80s. The reality, of course, is quite different: for most of its length, the Bowery is a broad, low-slung and surprisingly quiet street. The north end of the street is increasingly populated by luxury condominium developments; in the south it gradually dissolves into the Chinatown confusion of grocery stores, street vendors and competing signs. In between is a string of home lighting businesses. I’m not sure if they emerged recently or if they’re a remnant of the old Bowery, destined to be gobbled up by gentrification or an expanding Chinatown.

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March 19th, 2008

Chinatown Reflections

Posted in Canada, United States by Christopher DeWolf

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Corner of Grand and Allen, New York

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La Gauchetière near St. Urbain, Montreal

March 5th, 2008

Under the Manhattan Bridge

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

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It’s a bit of a paradox — bridges are meant to connect two sides of a gap, to bring them together, but they often act quite intentionally as barriers because the space beneath them is so problematic. There is a tendency to leave it unused and overgrown with weeds, or to give it up for some perfunctory use, like parking.

But there are many creative solutions to dealing with the space underneath a bridge. I came across one of them when I walked under the Manhattan Bridge in New York’s Chinatown. Shops, retail arcades and produce stalls occupy the space beneath its stone arches; a fruit and vegetable market winds its way up the sidewalk along the north side of the bridge. Instead of dividing a neighbourhood in two, the bridge serves as a focal point for Chinatown.

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February 4th, 2008

Coke Machine Glow

Posted in United States by Christopher DeWolf

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Chinatown was probably the oddest part of central Boston, mostly because it had yet to be scrubbed clean of its grit. This old Coke machine, randomly found in the middle of the sidewalk and stocked not with soft drinks but with Miller Lite and Budweiser, is a prime example.

January 28th, 2008

Chinatown’s Jewish History

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If Chinatown’s Jewish heritage isn’t obvious, it’s probably because it has been erased by time and redevelopment, swept away like Chenneville St. and its quietly imposing synagogue.

Makom: Seeking Sacred Space, an ongoing exhibition at Hampstead’s Dorshei Emet synagogue, examines the historical traces of Montreal’s Jewish community with photos of former synagogues near the Main.

“The exhibition raises some really interesting questions about the way that spaces that are claimed by one group of people or one community are also claimed, in their own way, by other communities,” said Leanore Lieblein, a retired McGill English professor who helped organize the exhibition. Even in a synagogue that has been renovated and used for something else, she added, “you can feel the presence of past lives in that building.”

Chenneville’s synagogue was a case in point. Located on a small street (now shortened and written as Cheneville) between St. Urbain and Jeanne Mance Sts., below Dorchester (now René Lévesque) Blvd. and above Craig (now St. Antoine) St., it was built in 1838 by Montreal’s oldest Jewish congregation, Shearith Israel.

In 1887, when Shearith Israel moved to a much larger home on Stanley St. – following the westward migration of Montreal’s older generations of Canadian-born, anglicized Jews – the synagogue was rented by Beth David, a congregation of Romanian immigrants who arrived in the late 19th century, part of a huge wave of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. Over the next three decades, the area around present-day Chinatown – with Bleury St. to the west, Sanguinet St. to the east, Craig to the south and Ontario St. to the north – became the heart of Jewish Montreal, a haven for Yiddish-speaking immigrants who established businesses, synagogues and many of the Jewish institutions that still exist.

Israel Medresh, a journalist for the Kanader Adler, a Yiddish-language daily newspaper, sketched a portrait of the neighbourhood in his 1947 book Montreal Foun Nekhtn, translated into English in 2000 as Montreal of Yesterday.

“The corner of St. Urbain and Dorchester was the very heart of the Jewish neighbourhood,” he wrote. “Nearby was Dufferin Park, then a ‘Jewish park’ where Jewish immigrants went to breathe the fresh air, meet their landslayt (compatriots), hear the latest news, look for work and read the newspapers.”

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