Who will watch the watchers? Report from the Chinatown store detective

Oh, hai. It’s been a while I guess. I got distracted studying maths in the library.

No, really!

I’ve started an MSc in social research methods, and it includes… maths. And it turns out I’m worse at maths than I remember. I remember being great at maths. But back then, computers didn’t exist, and neither did puberty. So I may fail quant. But qual is pretty sweet so far (leaving more time for maths homework). Here’s my ‘participant observation’/ethnographic homework for my qualitative research methods class. I decided to follow white people around London Chinatown. (This is the kind of course where you do the homework but don’t have to hand it in, and don’t get a mark, and so like, WHERE IS MY VALIDATION? So hello again, blog. Two birds, one stone. Next week you get my math homework.)


Watching the watchers: White people in Chinatown
I followed cultural tourists and observed their behaviour and interaction with Chinese people in Chinatown. These people were themselves out on their own ethnographic journeys to observe the performance of Chinese ethnicity embodied by London Chinatown. This inverts traditional colonial ethnographic approaches by examining the examiner, situating myself as both subject and observer.

In observing their personal geographical explorations of what is for them, an ‘othered’ space, I expected to participate in ‘othering’ a landscape that is somewhat familiar to me, although in actual interactions, my participation tended towards that of othered subject, host and guide.

Negotiating physical space
There is nowhere you can sit and do a participant observation in Chinatown for hours, without becoming conspicuous or feeling conspicuous, or spending all your money on food and drink, running out of money, and getting full and sleepy. The ‘bustle’ is around; it is a place of rapid, efficient exchange.
There are many different paces on the thoroughfare, but all is movement. Gerrard St is indeed ‘bustling’ with people coming out to have dinner and drinks, and do their after-hours grocery shopping. The jumble of bodies shifting at different paces and in different parts of the road begins to separate into patterns. Clusters of white people move in a mass, slowly, down the middle of the street, forcing the swifter walkers to swirl around them, sidestepping efficiently. The middle of the road clusters of slow walkers mostly seem either tourists or groups of students. The tourists tend towards the middle aged, with sensible windcheaters, rucksacks and trainers, looking up at the lights, pointing, their gaze goes above the heads of the other people on the road, fixed upon reading shop and restaurant signage with an air of confusion. Their lack of focus on the road adds to their lack of awareness of who they will bump into.

Reading the signs
A common behaviour for outsiders in Chinatown, was a casting of eyes upward, scanning shopfronts, trying – and failing – to ‘read the signs’. Amongst tourists and those with less familiarity in particular, this behaviour seems borne of confusion – if the Chinglish names of restaurants, or Chinese characters themselves, will be suffused with meaning, providing some kind of entry point for understanding and hence, social guidance. A similar behaviour is to gaze at the restaurant menus that take the form of large backlit placards mounted outside the shopfronts, most of which, frankly, give no real guidance as to whether the restaurant is any good. Staring at these signs, trying to ‘read’ them, appear to be like a placeholder activity which is common amongst tentative ‘explorers’ of Chinatown – the outsiders are butting up against their lack of social and cultural knowledge, trying, but failing, to find an entry point, but participating in that ‘act’ of ‘reading’ the landscape is somehow instinctive for those making ‘first contact’ with the environment. Combined with the slow, tentative amble down the centre courseway, this is a dead giveaway that they are totally unfamiliar with their surroundings.

Making contact
I follow three middle-aged women into the Patisserie. They look uncertainly at everything, holding their arms crossed across their chests with a single hand up on their mouths: As if to say something. As if to ask. In this pose, their fingers come in to touch their silent mouths, then gesture out vaguely at the objects on the shelves, but do not make contact. They clutch their bags as if they might be mugged. They mutter amongst themselves in a Germanic language, then awkwardly leave without buying anything.

On their way out, they pass a younger group of three white people, male and female, who may be students or local residents, speaking in Spanish accents. The young male store attendant is explaining to them the nature of the baked goods on display. It appears that they have been far more comfortable in asking for an explanation. Outside the store, the women advance slowly down the middle of the street, with their eyes up on the signs, faster walkers melting around them.

This level of awkwardness approaches an expression of real fear. The question is, what on earth were these women so afraid of? When Chinatown is the ultimate in commodified cultural experiences, where everyone is essentially a host or a guide and exists to serve you, feed you, water you, what is the threat exactly? Many of the interactions I observe remind me of the observations of developing ‘street etiquette’ and ‘street wisdom’ in the classic ethnography ‘Streetwise’ (Anderson 1990) – but removed to an almost Disneyfied level of safety within London Chinatown, where there is an extremely low risk of social breach resulting in anything detrimental or dangerous whatsoever. This is a testament then, to the abiding power of xenophobia, which overcomes some people even when they intentionally seek out the ‘exotic’.

Performances of knowledge and expertise: parody, bluster, validation
The next group of white people who catch my eye are again, coming down the centre of the street. They are young, a group of around eight, of male and female. They appear to be students – carrying satchels and loosely filled rucksacks, wearing saggy woollen knits, beanies and jeans, and speaking English in a mix of British and American accents. Like the tourists though, they walk down the centre of the road, observing the lights and the shopfronts. But instead of being tentative, they are exuberant, gesturing towards the red lanterns criss-crossing the sky above the street. One white male in the group is particularly vocal, and appears to be explaining something two women about these lights. “It’s Chinatown!” I hear him say. “[something something]…like this in China!” runs the end of another sentence. “And this is the HSBC!” he announces, gesturing to the bank. His manner appears intentionally parodic, as though he is specifically adopting a parody role of tour guide, as the expert leading his group through an unknown territory.

Meanwhile, another member of the group is acting as the genuine tour guide, in that she is the one who knows the restaurant where they should be eating dinner. She barks abrupt instructions, telling off her detractors, and establishing her role as the expert, the guide with local knowledge. At the end of Gerrard St, the parody tour guide and two other males clustered around him become separated from the rest of the group, attracted by a giant globular red lantern with the proportions of a small spaceship, suspended in the air on the rightward branch of Wardour St. They realise they have lost the others, and do not know where the restaurant is. The ‘real’ guide calls out to the failed usurper, admonishing the stragglers, and they shamefacedly rejoin the group, the expertise of the ‘parody’ guide now completely undermined.

Later, a pair of white men, who are either close work-friends or a particularly unfashionable gay couple (they resemble each other closely in rather dowdy work attire – dark pants, dishevelled pale shirts), can be seen arguing about where to eat for dinner. They both clearly perceive themselves to be expert. They do not walk down the middle of the street, but stick to the sides. They seem slightly drunk, as if coming out from having drinks after work, which could be contributing to the dishevelment. Their opinions are strong. One drags one to one restaurant, the other drags him back across the street. They make a great show of waving their arms about, and end up hugging in a sort of furious display of bromance and acknowledgement of their own silliness.

They end up staring blankly at the menu outside a third restaurant, and here their uncertainty becomes obvious. They really do not know where to eat. As discussed above, here, looking at menus seems to be a placeholder activity for pretending you actually have a yardstick of genuine knowledge against which to assess which restaurant to go to. Eventually a ponytailed waitress emerges from the door, and greets them. They look up, confused but relieved at the sudden sight of a true expert. She leads them inside, they follow her meek and mute as lambs to the slaughter.

Later, inside the supermarket as I wait in line with my basket of snacks (mooncake special!) and Singapore government-endorsed packet laksa, I observe a lone white person in the queue. He looks like a teenager, but could be in his early 20s. Probably a student doing his shopping. He is confident at the till, stepping up to a man in his late 50s or early 60s with grey hair, an ‘uncle’.

The boy engages the till uncle in conversation in what appears to be a performance of expertise, to elicit validation, separate himself from tourists and assert his ‘insider’ status in Chinatown. Specifically, he has bought pieces of durian and jackfruit in plastic containers, and appears to want to make it known to the till uncle that he knows exactly what they are, and is familiar with Asian food, particularly food less known or appreciated by Westerners. Durian is probably the quintessential Asian ‘exotic’ fruit, because it smells kind of disgusting, and can be an acquired taste. The boy asks the till uncle how often the durian comes in (Thursdays, the till uncle says) as if to emphasise that he is a regular/will be a regular. He asks whether they gets the whole fruit in (answer is no), making a bit of a show of how much he loves durian. He asks the till uncle ”do you like durian?” The till uncle says yes but it’s very expensive. I hear the boy mention he is from America.

Interacting with Chinese people in Chinatown: Hosts & guides
So my positionality starts out, in a literal sense, as that of the store detective: following the customers around the store. The store being the street itself. I record my observations directly into my iPhone memo function, and pass as someone having a conversation on my phone, ambling along, or moving swiftly, behind people I am following.
However, soon I become part of the relationship norms that are constructed on the street between the ‘searchers’ and the ‘searched’. Hosting and guiding is seen as the domain of all Chinese on the street, for those ‘explorers’ who are brave enough to interact. I am asked to take a photo for some Spanish tourists from the Basque country, underneath the dragon gate. Later, I am asked for advice on where to eat.

Comparing value systems
A cluster of four white London men in their 30s, ‘city types’ in well-cut suits, but ties off and shirt collars unbuttoned, approach a cluster of Chinese young women and one man, I would say late 20s, early 30s, having a conversation outside one of the grocery stores. Man 1, who resembles a rather more ordinary version of Hugh Grant in Bridget Jones’ Diary asks them, “Excuse me, do you know your way around here?” He proceeds to ask where ‘New Fook Lam Moon’ is. The women do not know how to respond. Possibly surprised at suddenly being thrust into the role of guide and host.

I myself am confused about what Hugh Grant is asking. I decide to ‘participate’ since I am standing near the group of women, and say what is on my mind, which is “Do you mean a restaurant or the grocery store?” As New Loon Moon, my regular grocery store, has a very similar name and is right across the street. In the background I hear one of the Chinese woman indicating that this is what she thought they were asking too. This probably reflects different priorities of Chinese people and white people in Chinatown – Chinese people do eat here, but are also likely to be doing grocery shopping, and are less likely to eat in restaurants favoured by white people.

Hugh Grant says no, it’s a restaurant, and repeats the name and says it is 10 Gerrard St. I tell him that the name rings a bell but I have not eaten there, but that it must be around here somewhere because we are standing on Gerrard St. “Oh really?” he says. Yes, yes it is. He does not know what street he is on. He does not know the name of the street that comprises most of what people commonly understand as London Chinatown. Maybe he is not from the City of London; maybe he is on a business trip from out of town.

He glances up and down the street, and failing to see the name of the restaurant leaping out at him, then asks me if I can recommend a good restaurant that is “reasonable”. I ask him what kind of food he is looking for, eg Cantonese, Malaysian… he says Cantonese. I tell him that I often eat dim sum at Wan Chai corner (I point to the corner), because it is very good value, but am not sure if they do dim sum at night. However, if he wants roast pork and roast duck, the best place to go is Four Seasons. I point across the street. “Is it reasonable? I say, “it’s Chinatown, it’s all reasonable.” But I emphasise that it is the best. Which it is.

For some reason, I don’t want him to go to a crappy cheap Chinese restaurant and eat crappy cheap food, and think it’s great. I want him to understand what good Chinese food is, even if he doesn’t even want to go past the standard boring Cantonese food. He’s in a suit for god’s sake, dig a little deeper bro. I even tell him to assess restaurants based on how many Chinese people are eating there. Hardly a trade secret, but it feels like I am letting him in on ‘insider’ knowledge.

While I have been talking to him, the other three City types have continued consulting with the original group of Chinese people, who are giving a personal recommendation of a place they consider “the best” that they have eaten at recently. The City types set off, satisfied with their ethnographic street exploration/focus group of local knowledge. After they have gone, I ask the Chinese people which restaurant they recommended. “Four Seasons” they say. So we are agreed.

Value is on people’s minds in Chinatown. One of the ‘fears’ that could possibly present itself to outsiders is the fear of getting ‘ripped off’. They want it to be “reasonable”, not unreasonable. I don’t know any place in Chinatown that is “unreasonable” in terms of price point, although I do know places that are known for bad food and bad service. Meanwhile, for Chinese people doing their groceries, Chinatown stores represent ‘good value’ for us in obtaining culturally specific groceries that would be more costly from Western supermarkets (although cheaper in Vietnamese stores in Hackney).

Back at the supermarket, I get on the same checkout counter as the durian lover who moves on. The nice till uncle rings up the till. I probe the issue “Oh, that boy liked the durian!” I say. “Yes, he like the durian! You like durian?” “I don’t like it so much, but my parents love it, they are from Singapore and Malaysia.” “Oh yes, it’s very expensive here. Where are you from? I’m from NZ, but my parents love it, they eat it a lot when they go back.” “It must be expensive in NZ” “Oh yes, but it’s cheaper than here, and you can get the whole durian more often, it’s closer to Asia than here.” “Oh yes, New Zealand, Australia, closer to Asia, it’s cheaper.” “Where are you from?” “Hong Kong.” “I think they are cheaper in Singapore and Malaysia.” “Oh yes?” This is what we talk about. The price of things, here and throughout the diaspora.

At the supermarket, as I wait with the white boy buying durian in the line, I also observe the interactions of a ‘mixed race couple’ – a Chinese woman and white man, local Londoners, in work clothes, dark coats – she taps at her Blackberry in the queue. Just has a couple of things in her basket, perhaps for a snack at home tonight. He is not in the queue and says he will “wait outside”. I first assume that this means he is going to wait outside the shop; but in fact it seems that he meant he would wait outside the queue, in the supermarket aisle. Or maybe he did mean he would wait outside the shop, but then felt too uncomfortable to wait outside there on his own. Either way, he doesn’t want to get in the queue with her. He doesn’t want to ‘cross the line’. He radiates a slight lack of comfort with his surroundings, even though they seem an established couple. He wanders a little way into the shop but not far. He comes back. She takes a mooncake from the shelf, and she points out the mooncake special, and asks, something like ‘should we get another one’? She is basically trying to get him to encourage her to buy an extra mooncake.

Mooncake! Such things occupy a special place in the Chinese food hierarchy. But her partner does not seem to share this enthusiasm. He probably doesn’t like mooncake. He wanders off again. When we are next in line, the Asian woman gets up to the till but at the last second dips out of the queue underneath the barrier tape, grabs another mooncake, and dips back under the tape again to the checkout, glowing with victory and pleasure of getting two lotus seed mooncakes for only 4 pound. It’s a great deal, how could she pass it up? I couldn’t, and I don’t even like mooncake!

A note on mixed race couples in Chinatown: These were nearly all Chinese women with white men. They did not walk like the foreign tourists, but did engage in the ‘slow amble’ down the sides, usually arm in arm, taking the air and enjoying the romantic sight of the lanterns strung across the street. The women often demonstrating and explaining something to the man, like a ‘personal tour guide’. Outside, the men seem comfortable ambling along, viewing the ‘town’ laid out before them. Interactions with other hosts and inside spaces however, seemed to vary according to their level of familiarity, comfort and enthusiasm for things Chinese.

Who runs this town?
Everyone thinks they have the run of the place, either consciously, or obliviously. Including the supermarket workers. I always get jostled by supermarket workers moving crates in Chinatown, although my own clumsiness cannot be discounted. But you try to move past them in the store and they bump/shove you out of the way; even outside the store they shove past you. They are the ones who actually keep Chinatown running, of course, on the engine-oil of fruit, veg & meat, so maybe they feel they have priority, right of way. Their movements are swift, almost brutal, efficient and brusque. They move really fast and don’t give a crap who is in their way.

Meanwhile, tourists move slow and either don’t give a crap who is in their way, or don’t know how to comprehend the space at all.

And Londoners, both Chinese and non-Chinese, who have familiarity with the streets, move fast but manoeuvre around efficiently, almost officiously.

Who runs this place? An important question, because when ‘Chinatown goes on strike’ but the businesses are all owner-operated and it’s the owners who organise the strike, it says that they, the bosses, perceive themselves to be service-providers – that is, servants. Servants of the white monoculture that comes in to be fed and to be entertained.

Tonight I did not notice the British flags at the checkout of Loon Fung, even though the line was fairly long.  I had previously noticed them using British flags to signal for the next customer, above the bobbing heads of the snaking grocery line. Perhaps they are only used at peak periods. Or maybe this was a product of summer Olympic nationalism; and by now those flags have broken by the repeated Border Agency raids.

Anderson, E. (1990). Streetwise: Race, class, and change in an urban community, ERIC.