Thursday, May 24, 2007

alley of food wonders

The alley of food wonders on Chongqing Road south is the kind of place where time is said to stand still, caught in a time warp 40 years ago and hardly changing since. While the rest of the city has built shiny new buildings and fast food places, this old alley has curled up in a ball like a porcupine and refused to move. It is frozen in time, such an observer would say. One need only look at the ages crusted on a black pot on a fire there to note this.

I beg to differ. As far as existing in time, I would say it is the buildings and restaurants attempting to be modern that dream of stasis, eternity, frozen. It is this secret alley that has continues to float with small changes. Modernism is a revolutionary doctrine of radical breaks with the past followed by total transformation. One need only look at any of the modern buildings in Taipei to know that modernism is about erasure. You could not guess if you life depended on it what used to be where that McDonalds now stands. But once that change comes about, thats it, goes the dream of modernism, no more. It is a break, and then a freeze. But since permanence is an impossible dream, the McDonlad’s will age. Someday that shiny Taipei 101, highest building in the world, will show signs of age. And there is nothing more melancholy than to see a building meant to withstand the sands of time slowly succumb –like an old woman of many face lifts, unable to run any longer from the facts, wearing shades and high collars and low-brimmed hats.

The magic alley, on the other hand, shows you all the shifts in the sands of urban time. The old is patched by the new. When I sat with Sara once to eat at the MaLa heaven, I could scarcely find an even spot for my 3 legged stool! One leg was always slipping into some cavity of the patchwork asphalt or another. I looked down and saw the motliest rag-bag of pavement I have ever seen. The owners of these businesses huddled up against the alley walls are so miserly with their one bag of cement each that theu must haggle with each other over who will repair what, pulling out measuring tapes and saying, “Look, its 4 cm closer to your closest table!” Whether or not they go to such extremes, it is clear that they would rather scavenge construction sites for broken cinder blocks or bricks to fill in holes than to measure out a whole quarter bag of the precious cement bought during the Japanese occupation and passed down the family line. . .

All the times gone by are plastered in bits and pieces there under the eater’s feet, or slopped there in uncountable bowls spilled there by thousands of careless elbows. The quilt of time in this alley is so ragged that one knows the patching will go on. Improvisation is the modus operandi. And I must admit that even this critic of modernism is so thoroughly brainwashed to it that I look at the mess under my feet and think, “Haven’t they ever thought of all pitching in and paving it once and for all?” But every change is visible; every gouge and every patch is there.

From the other side of Chongqing Nan Lu, alley 43 is invisible. The next block is a massive bank building. One can walk down the arcade sidewalk, skirting magazine hawkers and rows of parked motorbikes, without seeing it, a narrow opening between two shops, slip by. There si no name posted at the mouth of magic alley, just the alley number and a couple of fliers for apartment rentals and electrical work. One passes a couple of bicycles propped against the walls, stacked boxes of celery and carrots, and as the alley widens out a bit, the sky disappears behind a makeshift of tarps and corrugated tin. On the left one passes a woman at a sink, scrubbing a cutting board next to a tiny niche in a wall as deep as a phone booth where 2 very slim people fill plates with appetizers and pull noodles out of the boiling water.

Raising your eyes, the alley has turned into a teeming, steaming corridor, tables huddled up along the edges and people rushing through. Some establishments have space inside; the rest are run fully under the tenuous cover of tarps stretched across the alley; gas burners and cauldrons plopped right there at a wide spot, a few tables clustered about. The amazing thing is that many of the customers are white collar corporate employees, eating in places with no names, no waiters, no checks, no bathrooms, no doors, and very easy-going health inspectors. Is such a place really so different from New York delis serving pizzas, sandwiches, and salads? Normally customers get food to go in brown paper bags at such places. But even the humblest such pizza joint has been imprinted by the state. Just because most people here tend to support such regulation – even those supposedly favoring “smaller government” – doesn’t mean their imprint is not huge. Even vendors in NYC are heavily regulated, and dare not put out a single stool for customers to rest.

The magic alley businesses are as primordially connected to that place as mollusks in a crevice of rock. I wonder if they pay taxes. The smells that sweep over you as you nudge through the crowds are not always pleasant. Wastewater and food scraps are tossed aside to wash down a drain. The men at the Sichuanese pulled noodle place are burly, tank-topped, and glistening in the fog rising from their cauldrons. While most of the businesses seem to be typical small businesses with men and women working side by side, the Sichuanese place is a gruff fraternity. The two men making the noodles are at the center of the two, the one behind the big table of sauces and broths and toppings and appetizers seems to be the king, the wielder of a dozen spoons, a blue flame roaring under a black pot encrusted by decades of fire. The table is an awe-inspiring collection of concoctions, with the secret recipe broth and the rich stew or gravy meat sauce steaming at the center, surrounded by chilli oils, a bowl of MSG, bowls of pickled vegetable mixtures, and several pots containing I don’t know what. On the inside end of the table are stacked the tea eggs, the pork intestines, the tripe, and the pig ears that serve as appetizers. On the end toward the alley are crowded the bowls being filled with noodles by the vice king, who wields big chopsticks, pulling up the chewy braids of dough and coiling them in a sieve like scoop, which drops them in bowls. The sauce king takes over then, scooping spoon or dipper full of various sauces over them, or picking up individual bowls and flipping magic juices into them as fast as a dealer at a poker table, and his face says just as little. 2 or 3 scruffy men serve as all-around helpers, shouting orders back to the king, packing take out orders on a little table, clearing bowls, putting bowls down, pointing out empty stools for newcomers, refilling condiments on the tables, or taking payment. (add in about primordiality of food in china?)

I found the alley thanks to a flaky psychotherapist who took a hundred dollars to see me, in a tea house, and then stood up my girlfriend the next day, claiming later that he had been unable to get through the demonstrations around the presidential residence. He had told her that he would meet at a tea house, of all places, so I went up to Taipei early to make sure I could find it. Having found the teahouse ok, I happened on an alley which led back to the magic alley and decided to get a quick bite before the session. Then I spent 2 hours with Dr. Chen in the empty tea house, explaining my childhood in Chinese to him (and the cashier, 10 feet away, behind a screen). I had a right to be afraid, a right to be depressed, he said, and tried using methods of the “Narrative School” to help me. For example, he asked me what it was I wanted and led me question by question to the conclusion that it was all as easy as could be – and furthermore, many people only came to him once or twice and felt fine. I said I thought I would need more time – except the price was a little high, to which he says What is money? This is not a thing I can control. If you don’t pay me within a few days, what can I do? I am serene. Which I found a little disingenuous.

The next day I rode with sara up to taipei for her first appointment. I had left all the breakfast at home in the rush to leave, and she was still mad at me when we got off the bus. I pulled her into the alley, and she chose the same place and same table I had sat at the day before and came to life a little under the sway of tasty chilli oil dumplings and sour soup. She was nervous. I walked her up to the teahouse and left her, sitting in the park and strolling about. 2 hours later I returned to find he had never showed up! A couple weeks later we contacted another therapist and made appointments for Thursday night. But half way to Taipei we realized we would not be able to make it nearly in time. We called to him to apologize and he asked why we had not showed up the day before. Anyhow, they were out, so we made new appointments for Friday night, and made our way to his place to make sure we could find it. Before heading home we decided to stop by the magic alley, and there we tried the all male revue noodles for the first time: it was their last bowl, they said, so we shared a bowl of zhajiang noodles so chewy and luscious I gobbled up all the sauce. I had strange dreams that night. Somehow, the magic alley had become intertwined with failed visits to psychotherapists! But all in all, sucking up noodles was good consolation, and even missing out or messing up a session we still came with the mindset to confront ourselves head on, so the magic alley became the scene of some wide ranging conversations.

We did make it to see Dr. Gao the next night, an hour or two later than expected due to ridiculous traffic, but he changed out of this t-shirt and obligingly saw us until 11 pm. He even gave me some bread while I waited in the living room for Sara to finish. When we got back to the station the last bus and train had left long before, so we spent an unexpected night in the glorious Paradise Hotel with its peeling walls. The next morning we awoke to a chanting of female voices, which Sara concluded must be some celebrity fan club up early to see their god or goddess. We saw the magic alley before heading home, carefully finding a level spot for our stools and slurping down fiery pork chop mala noodles. Then we moved over to a female run spot for soup to cool us down.

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