Chinatown Panama's Fire In The Sky

Written by Matt   
Thursday, 29 January 2009 14:58
Chinatown PanamaAs an avid planner, ask Friday morning of every week is the time I allocate to collect or search for various things I've realized I desperately need. Components for a homemade meat smoker, for instance, or several pieces from Speedo's new line of chlorine-resistant swimwear. I write these things down throughout the course of the week so I don't forget them, as they tend to come to me at any given time. If I happen to see a billboard, I might write down the make and model of the new shoes on display. If I see a man gunned down by drug dealers, I might remind myself to get a bulletproof vest. Last Friday I went in search of fresh palmitos and fireworks, two items I was fairly sure could be found in Chinatown. Palmitos (hearts of palm) are a rare artichoke-like vegetable grown in the core of baby palm trees, and after eating a salad with fresh palmitos, I simply had to make my own. The fireworks were for an unrelated project. I headed directly for the ghetto Chinatown just off Avenida Balboa.

There's something really cool about Chinatown, no matter where you are in the world: primarily in its ability to draw a distinct line between that which is Chinatown and that which is not: this otherworldly threshold that, upon passing through it, transports you to another place. Other neighborhoods, ghettos for instance, have a tendency to creep up on you. The porches on houses become increasingly slouched, sheets in windows become more prevalent, or the amount of people standing in the street at midnight grows. The thing is, these changes come slowly and methodically so that it's hard to notice them until its too late, something like a boa getting ready to slaughter a mouse. In Chinatown, it's like BAM: two steps around the corner and you're in the heart of Beijing.

Panama's Chinatown is marked by the same large iconic gate familiar to Chinatown fans across the globe. It is a relatively small grid of blocks located in San Felipe, most of which are narrow one-ways winding through shaded alleys. Panama's Chinatown is not the safest place to be walking by yourself looking like a tourist, in Panama. It's also not nearly as cool as Chinatown in other international capitals, but what it lacks in sophistication, it makes up for in absurdity. Recently, I saw a man standing on the corner with pants on his head: this was the highlight of my day.

"Hello," I said to a young boy stacking cans of bamboo shoots atop one another. There was a domesticated parakeet flying around the store and this horrid stench usually associated with Chinese herbs. "My name is Matt and I am here to buy palmitos." I don't know why I introduced myself, but felt it like the right thing to do in such a foreign environment. The boy looked at me as if Tupac had requested one of his kidneys. He had no idea what palmitos were and certainly knew not where to get them. "You are nice," I said as I exited the store. "Thank you paizano."

I learned the phrase paizano from some Asian expats in Panama who use it incessantly. When asked what it meant, they told me it really had no translation but was a way of recognizing a fellow countryman abroad. "So is it the type of thing that would be OK if I said it?" I asked, "or is it like an N-word sort of deal?"

"No, it's fine, you can say it," they told me. I don't know why, but I felt honored when blessed with this permission, almost as if I been knighted by the queen.

"Palmitos?" I asked the next produce shop which was more promisingly stocked with lots of unidentifiable vegetables and a small army of fruit flies.

"Oh, I no have the palmitos right now."

"Oh, no have the palmitos right now?"

"No, I sorry."

"That OK paizano. You are nice. Maybe you have..." I paused here, trying to reach deep into my cavernous vocabulary for the word for fireworks. "Maybe you have the small boxes of fire?"

"No, no." I tried to clarify. "I look for packages of fire, for the celebrations. For to go BOOM? For to see fire in the sky? I want to see fire in the sky. You can help me?" I didn't realize it at the time, but I must have sounded like a native Indian predicting some sort of apocalypse. It turns out fireworks in Panama are called fuegos artificiales (artificial fires), which is actually not all that far off from the path I was exploring. I left the store and told the woman she was nice. "Muy amable," is how I say it, and the reception is almost always a warm and welcoming smile.

Panama's Chinatown is less dense with Chinese people than other Chinatowns I've been to. It's also a little less sanitary, less touristy, and has the feeling of being a little more dangerous. In other Chinatowns, people have their favorite hole in the wall restaurants where the dumplings or the noodles are "simply divine," but I've rarely heard of Panama's version being the home to any spectacular exotic dish. They do have Peking ducks drying in the windows however, which I enjoy visiting, not unlike the arachnid exhibit at the zoo, because they're displayed behind a pane of thick glass. Panama's Chinatown also is filled with cheap knickknacks that are good for the filling of piñatas but little more.

Panama's Chinatown walks the fine line of being worth visiting and not during your vacation. If you're a real Chinatown fan, you may want to see it but otherwise your time may be better spent wandering through the similarly Chinese, but significantly more clean, stores in El Dorado (one of Panama City's largest Chinese neighborhoods) where many of the same things exist but there's less of a chance of getting robbed.


Last Updated on Thursday, 29 January 2009 15:13