Saturday, October 23, 2010

Around Chinatown

When downtown I usually take my morning coffee in the genteel surrounds of Murchies or the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Starbucks in Chapters, but sometimes I walk into town along the upper harbour and then across the railroad side of the Blue Bridge and from there it's more natural to turn toward the Bean Around the World outlet on Fisgard Street. The establishment comes by its name honestly as the proprietor, an Englishman, sold the yacht he had sailed around the world in with his family when he settled in Victoria. Chinatown is Victoria's minuscule Bohemian district and Bean Around the World is where many of the middle class population of Victoria who play at being Bohemian take their coffee. Bohemianism, not being what it used to be, is no longer the province of the outcast, and is now mostly characterized by that extreme form of almost pathological conformism called politically correctness. It's almost an idolatry. Anyway, this is where they come to mumble their pieties to each other. Depending on my mood the aura can be oppressive or amusing. Ironically, the owner of the place doesn't have a politically correct bone in his body. There is something about regular ale quaffing that confers immunity from the disease, and I see him at Swans around the corner as often as at his java joint.

I became familiar with the place when it was the home of Cafe Philosophy. I was at the very first meeting more than a dozen years ago and for a long time attended it regularly as it moved from place to place. As it migrated Cafe Philosophy gradually sloughed off any attendees who might have had anything interesting or provocative to say. This was due to the personality of the organizer of the event, one Michael Picard. Possibly he had some interest in ideas though I never saw any evidence of it. Possibly he didn't believe the lumpen proletariat had any business pretending to think for themselves. A PhD in philosophy from MIT is really a certification warranting that the recipient has been purged of any tendency toward original thought and the resulting creature treats interesting thoughts like little Miss Muffet treats spiders. Eek. Politically correct groupthink, not philosophy, seemed to be Michael's guiding principle. I'm pretty sure he was convinced of his own superior qualities and so it must have been quite humiliating for him to be stuck with such a paltry job. I don't know if Cafe Philosophy still exists somewhere. Somebody told me that Michael had at last found a real job at a university. Undoubtedly he will share with the academic community his experiences among the unwashed.

I noticed a long time ago that people with ideas have very little money and people with money have very few ideas… as a general rule. Not all ideas are good. Some are bad. Most are not so new. The only way to find out is to submit them to the Darwinian ordeal of free enterprise. So for a city to have a creative heart it needs a low rent district so those people with lots of ideas but not much money can get a start. Unfortunately, even in the rather seedy part of town that surrounds Chinatown the rents are quite high. Still, this is where you will find Victoria's highest concentration of niche and odd ball shops. Government, Johnson, Pandora, Wharf are where to look for them. Especially notable are Fan Tan Alley, the narrowest street in Canada, and Market Square. Honestly, I don't know how these places are able to make a living. And judging by the turnover of shops in the area I guess many of them don't. But it's a tribute to the entrepreneurial spirit that another optimistic and enthusiastic soul will be ready to fill the gap left when another goes down. People who want to be their own bosses, people who get excited about an idea, who want to try something new, something from their own imaginations, and are willing to hustle and work and take risks have my admiration. I like these kind of people. Sometimes I want to buy something from them even though I'm really not the kind of person who likes to accumulate things.

That was why I was initially so enthusiastic about Cafe Philosophy. Let's talk about ideas in a public, commercial setting where anyone can walk in and take part in the give and take of an exchange of ideas. It can be contentious but when moderated by someone with a genuine interest and knowledge of philosophy and the kind of personality to keep the discussion moving and courteous, I thought it could turn Victoria into a modest echo of Periclean Athens. I was really disappointed in the way it fizzled out.

But even though I'm not that crazy about shopping, I enjoy looking in the windows and seeing the turn of the 19th and 20th century buildings where they are sheltered. Why are older buildings so much more pleasing to the eye and the soul than their modern equivalents? They suit each other, the new shops and the old buildings.

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