Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Chinatown, Dublin

Dublin doesn't have a Chinatown. Not officially. And I kinda blame the officials.

For a while I thought a Chinatown might spring up around Smithfield in the northside city centre. Sometimes the Chinese New Year festivities would revolve around Smithfield Square.

As for a more permanent presence, the last little Chinese shop near the bottom of the square - the one with its distinctive red and yellow paintwork next to Tully's Tiles  - must have closed down around three years ago.

I didn't shop there much. It was quite small and had a limited range. For my Asian staples I'd usually end up at either the Oriental Emporium on South Great Georges Street (they opened in 1991), or more often again at their very large store on Upper Abbey Street (opened in 2003). It's right by the Jervis stop of the Luas, and well worth a visit.

For a more critical mass of Asian shops and restaurants, though, the centre of gravity in recent years has been around an area along Parnell Street towards Capel Street. Nowhere near the scale of the Chinatown in San Francisco or even Liverpool, but it's there alright.

In the 'Moss Reid' series Dublin's new Chinatown makes its first appearance in book #2, Black Marigolds:

Over the years they had plenty of names for the east end of the street, from “Little Africa” to “the Chinese Corner”. Nowadays they called it “Mini Chinatown”...

The Chinese business association wanted to put up a modest arch to mark the beginning of this new Chinatown, but Dublin City Council was having none of it.

Instead, in November 2010 the councillors in their infinite wisdom passed one of those nonsensical motions that sound wonderfully marvellous and politically perfect on paper but end up in practice as, well... They turned it into a designated area. From now on it is to be known as “Parnell International New-Irish Town”.

Some designation. To say this mouthful of label has never caught on is an understatement. Try googling Parnell International New-Irish Town and see how many results it has managed to generate after nearly half a decade.

Chinatown is a many-sided bundle of contradictions. In a way these begin with its very name. Again, here's how the issue crops up in Black Marigolds. Moss is being sarcastic here - he doesn't have much time for politicians, apparatchiks and bureaucrats, and he's also harking back to all those Chinatown stereotypes in detective fiction over the years...

Call it anything but Chinatown, even if that’s what it actually is, because you might send out all the wrong signals.  
After all, there are two sides to a name like “Chinatown”. 
On the one hand it sounds short and catchy, pleasant and positive: all dragons and firecrackers, flying lanterns and inter-communal commerce. 
On the other hand “Chinatown” could be dark and sinister. It sounds like ghettos to corral the Chinese laundries, shops and restaurants, the Chinese sailors and Chinese gangs and gamblers – an impenetrable underworld of vice, violence, Triads and intrigue. 
Maybe that’s why the council didn’t like “Chinatown”. Or maybe one word would never quite do justice to all the complexities and connotations, the subtleties of immigrant life as everybody tries to get on, and as someone tries to package and sell the place to middle-class Irish consumers as a mildly exotic foodie experience. Or maybe “Chinatown” is the best word we’ve got. At least that’s what I thought until the latest plan turned up, this time for an “Oriental Quarter”...
Right, I'm off to do the messages in the Oriental Emporium, that little slice of China on Abbey Street.

A good online starting point to find Chinatown's restaurants - from Chinese to Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese - is the website.


And let's not forget that tomorrow, 19 February, marks the start of the Chinese New Year. This year it's the year of the goat. Or maybe it's the sheep. Enjoy - Xin Nian Hao!