Thursday, February 2, 2012

Homesick Restaurants, Drums, and Gongs

(Photo of Mak Fai lion by Matt Brown)

A haze of smoke covered my neighborhood last Sunday and the acrid taste of firecrackers bit at the back of my throat. It didn't matter. I still followed the lion dancers and their drums and gongs for at least an hour until the cold drove me back into my apartment.

The day before the streets had been clogged with people who are rarely seen in Chinatown/the I.D.

A dragon snaked its way down to dance at the Chinatown Gate; the street was full of onlookers that obscured the sight of its undulations. My quiet little neighborhood looked like Ratchaprasong during a Redshirt gathering---an ocean of heads.

King Street had been closed to traffic and a stage had been built near my apartment. People crowded around it to watch t'ai chi demonstrations and taiko drummers, many of them eating as they watched.

There are over seventy restaurants in my neighborhood, serving food from Hong Kong, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Japan. Usually during the day they are frequented by people who miss the food of their homelands. There's a burst of office workers at lunchtime, but otherwise each spot serves people who come for a taste of home.

But last Saturday there were lines outside the places that offered $2.00 takeaway specials--lines that looked as though they were queued up for the new iPad. People roamed streets with food in their hands, smiling, many pushing baby strollers or holding a dog's leash.

The owner of Phnom Penh Noodle House hurried in his shirtsleeves to the closest grocery. "We've sold one hundred pounds of chicken wings already," he said. At that point it was around one o'clock during an event that had begun at eleven and would continue for another two and a half hours. Projected figures for the four-hour special in the dim sum joint across the street from me had been 250 customers--they had 800.

As the crowd began to thin after three o'clock, a group of young lion dancers took to the streets, followed by enough enchanted children to qualify the Mak Fai lion dancers as 21st century Pied Pipers. A little blonde friend of mine was one of them; she's the only person I've ever met who is as besotted with drums, gongs, and whirling lions as I am.

A year ago I was in Bangkok's Chinatown, wandering through a densely packed crowd on Yaowarat Road. I hadn't brought my mobile phone with me, so when a friend saw me in the midst of bodies and tried to call to let me know he was there with his family, his call went unheard. This year he is dead.

We forget our time is finite. We think "Later. We'll talk later. We'll do that next week. Or month. Or year." Another year goes by and we find ourselves watching the lions, the taiko drummers. t'ai chi practitioners, suddenly in tears as we watch the beauty of the world not only for ourselves but for eyes that are no longer able to see.

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