Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Enter the Dragon

This week marked the beginning of the new year in the traditional Chinese calendar. So if you've already blown all of your other new year's resolutions, here's a second chance. Have you ever eaten at a Chinese restaurant and seen the various animals that represent each of the years ringing the outside of your placemat? Well if you were to look up the year 2012, you'd see that this is the year of the dragon: the most lucky of all of the animals in the Chinese zodiac. And can you guess whose birth year was also a year of the dragon? That's right, yours truly. Now we all know I am the luckiest son-of-a-gun to come down the pike. I mean, I get to travel to great timeshare destination and then blog about them for a living. But I don't know how much of that I would read into the dragon symbol. I do share this distinction with the likes of John Lennon, Che Guevara, and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few. But each of them were shot to death, which is not lucky at all. Besides, I see myself cashing out slumped over a plate of chocolate-covered potato chip cupcakes. But I guess time will tell.

Anywho, I thought it might be nice to rent a timeshare in China and file my new year's dispatch from there. But it turns out that I am a persona non grata in China, or what is known as a "cyber-dissident". My attorney assures me that it's all a misunderstanding, having something to do with a blog posting I wrote about the two giant pandas at the National Zoo in D.C. They are on loan from China, as you may know, and I simply said that "technically speaking, they are bears and not pandas," and that "pandas are a separate genus of animal with one living species: the Red Panda." All of which is quite true. But the "Red Panda" bit was somehow mistranslated to being a slight on the communist party, with the bears as Manchurian candidates sent to D.C. to disrupt U.S. foreign policy, or something crazy like that. Apparently it was in all of the papers over there, and our ambassador had to smooth things over. Who knew? Anyway, I've been advised to stay away until this blows over and not talk about pandas anymore. Boy, I hope I didn't just screw that part up by telling you all of this.

Anyway, we are fortunate enough here in North America to have what are known as Chinatowns in many major cities: New York, San Francisco, Baltimore, Chicago, Seattle, Montreal, Vancouver, and many, many more. All of these various Chinatowns started in places where the immigration of Chinese labor was heavy, and concentrated.

In the case of San Francisco, the oldest and longest running Chinatown in the West, the gold rush and construction of the transcontinental railroad brought thousands and thousands of Chinese laborers to the western shores of the U.S. Now some Chinatowns are almost purely tourism-based, while others are functioning centers of Chinese-American culture. San Francisco's enjoys the benefits of both. It was purely an ethnic enclave at the turn of the 20th century. But it was nearly obliterated by the 1906 earthquake and fire. When it was rebuilt it was reimagined as a tourist center, and many of the buildings that have come to represent Chinatown were constructed during this period. It has been described as a "city within a city" and is the most densely populated neighborhood of the City by the Bay. It has its own government, post office, hospitals, parks, and all of the amenities you would associate with a "stand alone" city. And then there's the food. Oh my. They say that if you ate in a different restaurant every night of the week, it would take almost a year to try them all. I might just have to look into that. You know, for research purposes. There are numerous San Francisco timeshares to choose from on RedWeek.com.

New York's Chinatown, on the other hand, is first and foremost a residential enclave. And when I say New York's Chinatown, I mean Manhattan. New York City, as a whole, boasts as many as five distinct Chinatowns. But the famous one in lower Manhattan is home to the largest Chinese population in the West. It was formed when the work out in California dried up, and for many decades was one of the worst and most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. But changes in immigration laws and a national mood shift towards Asian immigration resulted in a thriving community of manufacturing, groceries, jewelry merchants, banking, and food vendors. Now most, but not all, of the garment manufacturing has left the city and returned to China. But just about everything else remains. You really need to visit the area of grocers and fishmongers around Canal Street. I highly suggest haggling with them over their prices and the freshness of their products, so long as you are up for the lively response this will illicit. Maybe pack a hockey mask, just in case. And if you cannot afford to pick up a diamond ring at one of the many jewelry shops, all manner of bogus Rolex and Cartier watches are readily available on the street. Rent a New York City timeshare and take the 6 train directly to Chinatown.

Victoria, British Columbia's Chinatown survives almost purely as a tourist attraction. The oldest in Canada, and second in age only to San Francisco, it too started as a result of a gold rush. And like San Francisco's, it expanded as the Canadian rail system spread. But over the years, its size and Chinese makeup shrunk. Now don't get me wrong, it is still home to many, many Chinese-Canadians. But rather than be a stand-alone, city-within-a-city, it is more of an ethnic neighborhood, and it is a lovely one at that. Think Little Italy with soy sauce instead of marinara. Be sure to hit the area around Fan Tan Alley and check out the shops, restaurants, and public art on display in this area. Fan Tan Alley itself enjoys the distinction of being the narrowest official street in all of Canada, at just 0.9 meters wide. Folks, that's just under three feet across, so you will be walking and not driving. And if you happen to be more than three feet wide yourself, well, you can stand at one end and look down, and think about laying off the Peking duck. Rent a timeshare at WorldMark Victoria Resort, and take in all that this beautiful city has to offer.

Well, I am off to WildPlay West Shore Victoria to swing from the trees like a monkey. Seriously, it's an outdoor "adventure zone" just outside of downtown Victoria, where old and young alike can test their courage on the Monkido (as in monkey see, monkey do) "aerial obstacle course". It's a series of zip lines, tightropes, rope bridges with missing planks, and at least a dozen other ways to totally kill yourself. But I figure this is my lucky year, being a dragon and all, and what's the worst that can happen?

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