Ever since I read Letters from Thailand, I’ve wanted to go on a photo expedition to China Town. Last weekend I got my wish. I have been there before, many years ago but I don’t remember much.
Bangkok is a crowded city but China Town is absolutely packed. Old buildings stick together like pieces of a Rubick’s cube, the peeling paint of crowded shops, and everywhere you look, the ever present red and gold which is a favored combination among the Chinese people.
The air was heavy and sometimes I found it hard to breathe – a mixture of car exhaust, spices and burning incense sticks. A temple crammed between other buildings, a bright spot of color among the dull grey. Cats, walking, playing or sleeping under food carts. I chased them around with my camera but few of them did me the honor of posing. A Chinese woman smiled and called to me, pointing at something inside her shop. I went closer to have a look and found a mommy cat with her kittens, fragile little creatures that were just then having a milk lunch. The mother cat gave me a warning look so I stayed away, quickly snapping a few pictures before making my way out. I thanked the woman and she smiled at me.
Space is an issue in China Town and I found that especially when taking pictures there was not much room to turn around. The closely built houses had left narrow strips of pedestrian road, and I had to keep my elbows close and my camera closer, especially when passing by the food stalls with their uncovered pots. The suicide chickens (I know it sounds rather macabre but that’s the first thought that crossed my mind when I saw the cluster of hanging birds) are present everywhere and even though I was rather hungry I just couldn’t imagine eating that. I’m rather picky when it comes to food.
There are plenty of old buildings, most of them with shops on the ground floor selling a variety of merchandise, from traditional Chinese sweets, to pots, watches, small Buddha images, cooked food and pungent spices. I passed by a shop with people bent over small quantities of dried plants and something that looked like small twigs, sorting them in little groups, and I wondered if that was the local pharmacy.
Street vendors were out selling durian, the very smelly fruit (durian chips are much tastier in my opinion) and various snacks I’ve seen before but don’t know the names of.
It was rather claustrophobic, even though the weather was bearably hot, but the closeness of it all made me think on a giant ants’ nest and I had moments when I asked myself where all those people fit – there didn’t seem to be a lot of space and yet they were present everywhere and the partially-opened doors of the old buildings allowed for a quick look in the lives of their inhabitants. I felt like a voyeur, always looking, ready for a photo, trying to see in order to better understand the people. Here a tiny grandmother sitting on a chair inside the ground floor room, over there a row of wooden stairs, a glimpse of a Buddha image with the smoke of incense drifting out in the street, a pair of beautifully carved wooden chairs, people carrying boxes in and out of shops. Cats, gliding past, never in a hurry, and a panicked white rat trying to scuttle away from my approaching feet. He made my heart jump – rats and cockroaches have that effect on me.
I found my way out of the great maze and was assaulted by the hum of the traffic: tuk-tuks, motorcycles, buses, cars, a mixture of sounds, colors and smells, and in my mind I conjured the image of the mango tree and the red chair on the balcony and of space and quiet. Of home.