One thing that has always puzzled me about Chinatown is the preponderance of Chairman Mao-related things that are for sale: busts, paintings, photos, tea towels -- he is second only to Hello Kitty in ubiquity. Correct me if I am wrong, but shouldn't most Chinese people who made it to the U.S. hate the guy? I mean, isn't he the reason they left in the first place? It would be like fleeing Ceausescu in Romania in the '80s and then screen-printing his visage onto your leg warmers. You don't see the handful of folks who have gotten out of North Korea whittling Kim Jong-Il doorstops out of redwood. 'Tis indeed strange. I had to get to the bottom of it, so I did what any journalist would do (after consulting with a real journalist to find out just exactly how): I was going to ask someone in Chinatown about it.
I picked Red's Place, the most "locals only" bar in the neighborhood I could find, at least in my estimation. The name itself could be a salute to communism. After all, there aren't that many redheaded Chinese people. It's very small inside, and usually packed with bent, elderly men who are still cursing the no-smoking-in-bars law. The few times I have gone in, I am always greeted as if I am a health inspector; like I can't possibly be there to drink. I entered this time with my hand raised in a wave, as if to say, "No need to padlock the storage room; I'm just here for kicks."
I pulled up the only available stool and sat down. I was the only woman in the place except for the bartender. The men around me were either sitting by themselves, taking in the scene as if it were their first time there (though I knew, intuitively, that it was definitely not), or chatting with permanent smiles fixed on their faces and chuckling about who knows what.
It was the heart of the Chinese New Year celebrations, and the streets were packed with people carrying festoons of flowers, stems of cherry blossoms, and orchids. I walked through at least six photographs in the making as tourists snapped away to preserve the day for future bored houseguests who would no doubt be forced to view the souvenirs from their trip. I am happy to say that my head will be featured prominently in at least five of these shots.
Inside Red's, though, it was a different scene. People peered outside occasionally to see the events, but for the most part had a "been there, done that" vibe that must be second only to those apartment dwellers in Pamplona who endure bulls stampeding past their homes once a year. I looked around and smiled sheepishly, hoping to make eye contact with someone long enough so that I could initiate a conversation and then grill them about Mao. It wasn't working; their countenances allowed no purchase for my gaze.