A pervasive sense of style

I might have my issues with China but that said, one of my favourite places in the world to have breakfast is in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I love the hustle and bustle. The mania that passes for normalcy. The smells. The noise. Even the windows dressed with dead ducks have their appeal.

Practically every Chinatown I’ve visited has been the same – full of life and vigor: Vancouver BC, Los Angeles, London, New York. And that in itself had created a pattern in my mind, a pattern that has been broken by Chinatown in Milan.

IMG_0136 (800x600)Okay, in fairness, while San Francisco’s Chinatown has its origins in the gold rush of the 1900s and takes up about 22 blocks of the city, the one in Milan is much, much smaller and far more recent.

Chinese immigrants first arrived in the city as far back as the 1920s but it wasn’t until 1979 and onwards that they started to come in earnest. By the turn of the century, there were about 10 000 Chinese immigrants in the city – and probably more today. Located between the streets of Via Paolo Sarpi, Via Bramante, and Via Canonica, Milan’s Chinatown is one with a difference.

IMG_0154 (800x600)And what makes it different? It has style. Milanese style. The Milanese are a stylish people. Enviably so. And, apparently once the Chinese vendors figured out what makes the Milanese tick with regard to shopping preferences, they adapted accordingly. Instead of the noisy chaos, there’s a quite elegance about the place. Duck is still readily available but the window space is given up to parma hams. Chinese ‘stuff’ in all its forms and fancies is to be had, but displayed with a certain panache that San Francisco probably wouldn’t know what to do with. And while many locals moved out when the Chinese retailers first moved in, they’re slowly coming back. The area is prospering.

IMG_0142 (800x592)IMG_0158 (800x598)And yes, there are the money markets, and the tacky shops selling the usual Chinese fare but even those have some class. But there are  expensive designer shops, too – more upmarket – catering to the Milanese pocket and the Asian tourist. It has everything that your usual Chinatown has – in style. I was bemused.

IMG_0147 (574x800)What got me though, was how well the two cultures have blended and how part of the city Milan’s Chinatown is. It seems to have assimilated. Or has it? I read that Chinatown is the target of many prejudices and tension. The fear that many Italians have of China is mainly due to the fact that the very important fashion business suffers from dumping prices and copying.

And apparently moves are afoot to relocate it to another part of town… where it would be ‘less infringing’. Who knows.  If you’re in Milan, it’s definitely worth a visit.

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Why I love living in Budapest No. 3

Nemzeti Színház - National Theatre

I started my countdown of the top ten reasons why I love living in Budapest back in 2010 and never made it quite past No. 4.  That’s not to say that the last year or so hasn’t given me reason to change my mind –  but I’ve hardly been here. I’ve been back a month now, without any trips, and am finally rediscovering what’s so great about. So different. So unique.

There is an abbreviation that is bandied about by some in Budapest – OIH – used to describe certain things about life in the city that could happen only in Hungary. Other than the language, methinks that everything that happens here, happens somewhere else as well. I’ve had crap customer service here; I’ve had crap customer service in Ireland. I’ve had to deal with bureauracy here; I’ve had to deal with bureauracy in the States. I’ve heard tales of crooked politicians and dubious deals that could have happened the world over – just with a cast of different actors speaking a different language. I’m under no illusions about this city, or this country; I have my moments of doubt and worry and concern about its future.

The area in front of the theatre’s main entrance stretches like a ship into an artificially constructed expanse of water that is sometimes there.

But I live here by choice. And one of the many reasons I find it so engaging is that so often it simply doesn’t make sense. Just when you think you have a handle on it, it literally defies all reason. Quintus Horatius Flaccus, a Roman poet from about 65 BC suggested we ‘mix a little foolishness with [our] serious plans; it’s lovely to be silly at the right moment.’ The National Theatre is one fine example of how Flaccus was taken literally, by someone. When I first saw it back in 2007, I was pretty impressed at the audacity of it; the brazenness. But as the the giant corporates have pitched their offices right next door and are gradually encroaching on the garden-cum-statue park, it simply begs the question: where are the planners?

We architects and urban planners aren’t the visible symbols of oppression, like the military or the police. We’re more sophisticated, more educated, and more socially conscious. We’re the soft cops.

Robert Goodman, After the Planners

Tímár József (1902-1960)

Coincidently, I watched Dustin Hoffman play Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of  Salesman the other night. I remembered seeing the statue of Tímár József’s in the same role a few years back in the gardens of the Nemzeti Színház and went back to see it again. It captures the essence of the character beautifully. In a not-so-rare flight of fancy, this time though, I saw him as even more depressed. More tired. More weary. The big buildings are closing in around him; the green park that once fanned behind him, is now a building site; the wire fence is coming closer and closer as every piece of available land is taken over by commerce.

Willy Loman with Moses in the background

I believe there was a big hue and crywhen this Nemzeti Színház was first envisaged, commissioned, designed, and built. It was before my time. It’s such a shame that it is being hemmed in by glass and concrete. And that the frontage has been lost to nothingness. It’s such a shame that no-one seems to take pride in it; that is has become a national symbol for cronyism and political meddling in the arts. But as John Huston says, in his role of Noah Cross in the movie Chinatown, ‘Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable, if they last long enough.’ It’s still worth a visit.