31 March, 2012

Letter from UK 2012 (2): Manchester

Letter from UK 2012 (2): Manchester

This article is dedicated to my friend Daiwok, former Mancunian, Fish-n-Chips authority, Midas, fine chef and Lenco-maniac (sorry if I missed other attributes).

On a fine day I am glad I got to spend a few hours in Manchester. There was little on the way. Power lines and animals grazing on the pastures outnumber buildings and people, even cars. 

Despite the lack of tall buildings in the horizon, one immediately knows one is approaching the city by the appearance of nondescript housing blocks. More, for someone who has gotten accustomed to genteel Chester, I felt an injection of adrenalin, an inkling of the energy of the city. The gritty thoroughfare was lined by shops catering to the various minorities, mostly Afro-Caribbean, outside which people congregate. In a few moments I saw more "colored people" than days in Chester. I guess it was like getting into Manhattan through Harlem.

Although much grit has remained, the city feels energetic; urban renewal (some say thanks to the 1996 IRA attack) and competent designs are everywhere to be seen. I like the dearth of tall buildings and the manageable scale. Around every corner, you get to see the new meeting the old. Even the gargantuan Arndale Center seems well integrated and not so imposing.

My driver parked just outside the center of town, in the big Wing Yip Chinese supermarket. The tower at the entrance is garish (what do you expect?), but surely great advertisement. It is reasonably well stocked, but not to the standard of ones in New York, catering mainly to the Cantonese. Its one distinguishing feature is its adjoining warehouse, where you can buy provisions in the bulk. I was told there is little difference between retail and wholesale here, as the same store caters to both clienteles.

Walking down Oldham Road, I soon got to Oldham Street. I had done my homework (visit this great website for music shopping), and surely I found the famous record shops. As I expected, Manchester is THE rock and roll town, and they only have pop music. But I was not disappointed, indeed glad that vinyl is thriving. Solace once more came in the form of an Oxfam shop, where I scored a few classical LPs.

Pass the craggy expanse of Piccadilly and one arrives in Chinatown, which looks like any other smaller ones (like Philadelphia). I was taken to a small Casino for a cup of free espresso, not bad! As usual, mostly Chinese inside (sad), mostly senior citizens. The Chinese here seem the same breed as our US 唐山 variety; unlike NYC, the PRC presence is yet not overwhelming.

Just at the edge of Chinatown is the Manchester Art Gallery. Obviously the Chinese don't hang out here. Judging by its holdings catalogued on its website, the small museum probably shows only a tiny fraction of its collection. It houses mostly an English collection, particularly the pre-Raphaelites. I was told by the very friendly staff that, unlike their more high-brow cousins down South who concentrated on the Europeans, Mancunians collected under-valued British Art. I enjoyed the Turner and Francis Bacon, also a few small works by more famous names, Renoir, Modigliani, Sisley, Boudin and the likes.

The cold and grey returned in the afternoon. So it is this morning in Chester. 

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