Winnipeg Chinatown


ALR Volume 26: Winter 2014


For three years, Tulene has had the bathroom to himself. Still, he keeps a milk crate stocked with the essentials just inside his front door, for easy access. If Old Chow were to find Tulene’s toothpaste beside the bathroom sink, or his towel hung on the bent nail poking from the back of the door, he might demand more rent.

Old Chow is the probable author of the handwritten sign: This Is A Unisex Washroom. Keep Clean! On Tulene’s own door there’s a tarnished brass number “1”. At the opposite end of the corridor is a third door – unnumbered, bolted, padlocked, the mail slot nailed shut. Behind that door, Granny Chow passed away a few weeks after Tulene took up residence above this Chinatown junk shop. Tulene used to detect the odours of stale bread and sour milk wafting down the corridor, or when he approached the toilet seat, which had been left lowered, the lid still up. He would hold his breath and wrest open the tiny window beside the shower stall, and the smell of garbage would float up from the alley below. He never met the old lady.

Last Friday, Tulene came out of his room as usual, locked it carefully behind him, and nudged open the bathroom door. The air was damp as a dew-drenched morning, except it was four o’clock in the afternoon. Droplets glistened everywhere.

Tulene pulled aside the shower curtain, printed with a pattern of mallards – some flying, others short-necked, chests puffed, stiffly planted on their sheer, slightly undulating ground of waterproof plastic – and there, coiled around the drain, was a long black strand of someone else’s hair.

Tulene picked up the hair with two fingers and dropped it in the bucket beside the shower stall.

Back in his room, he realised he’d forgotten to brush his teeth but he couldn’t turn back now. He was already late for work.

Early on Sunday morning, Tulene returns from his Saturday night shift at the parking garage. He pauses at the bottom of the stairs and hears the click of a lock or latch – or perhaps it is just the creaking of beams and joists. He goes upstairs, looks both ways down the corridor, and sniffs the musty air. Without turning on the light, he can see that the bathroom window has been left open. Grey dawn has begun to trickle in, along with the aroma of garbage bins left out since yesterday.

It can’t be Old Chow’s doing – it’s the middle of the month. Anyway, he’s barely set foot in the place since the old lady passed, perhaps for fear of an indignant ghost. Tulene pulls the window shut and tiptoes away from the bathroom, down the unlit corridor. He gets within a few feet of the unnumbered door and stands still, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Out of the darkness, images appear: the reddish paint peeling in fine, curled flakes; the padlocked bolt. Except instead of a wooden board nailed roughly to the centre of the door, the mail slot is now clearly visible, its flap neatly closed – a prim, pursed mouth.

Tulene crouches down and places his ear against the metal lip. At first there is only silence; then he hears a faint rustling, a whisper so slight it barely displaces the dead air. Tulene listens until the blood throbbing in his ears becomes a roar. He hurries away for fear someone should discover him like this, deaf to every sound but that of his own heart.

Mondays through Thursdays, Tulene is free – that’s the best part of the job. Cooped up in the collector’s booth counting change for twelve hours, being served dirty looks by drivers who think the downtown parking fees just add salt to wounds bled dry by a night on the town. No one else wants the weekend shift. The second best part of the job is between ten and two, after the last Gucci loafers and Prada heels have strutted off towards the BOA Lounge or Empire Cabaret, and before they stumble back for their Volvos and BMWs. That’s four hours’ paid study time, so long as Tulene can stay awake.

On Monday morning, Tulene gingerly eases open the bathroom door and notices that someone has left a whole roll of toilet paper in the toilet paper holder. Each quilted sheet is decorated with a delicate floral print. He takes a corner between finger and thumb, and it’s almost as thick and soft as the fleece scarf he lost last week.

Tulene is still thinking about the toilet paper when he trails downstairs after breakfast, pulling at his freshly washed beard; there’s barely enough to wind around his fingers. It hasn’t been trimmed since his birthday and the tufts sprouting from his cheeks and jaws are mangy as the dealer’s dog.

On the front doorstep Tulene scans sleepy Chinatown streets, thinks about lighting up. Quitting smoking is harder than growing this beard.

‘What’s shaking?’ says Duchamp from the doorway of his shop.

He holds a mug of coffee in one hand and scratches his belly through a threadbare tank top. A forest of curly hairs pokes out above the neckline.

‘Not much,’ says Tulene.

‘Watcha got there, man?’ Duchamp looks him over lazily, like a well-fed wildcat.

‘I got nothing.’ Tulene holds out empty palms. His backpack stays snug against his shoulder blades.

‘Me neither.’ Duchamp laughs, gargles coffee. ‘I got nothing. I’m nothing. I’m useless.’ Duchamp kicks at an armless doll that has rolled off a mound of broken toys and is lying across the threshold.

By day, Duchamp’s place is junk-shop heaven. Nights, he pulls the batik-print curtains across the storefront window and thudding bass shakes the block right up to where Tulene sits at his kitchen table, head bowed over a doorstop-worthy tome entitled: Advanced Calculus. Tulene hopes the insistent beat will hammer the formulae into his head – formulae that make little sense today but might one day bridge the way to a job at a big corporation, or teaching grade school.

‘Hey,’ says Tulene. ‘Did someone move into Grandma Chow’s old flat?’

‘Did Old Chow scrub the cat-piss from the floorboards, or give that dump a good airing after they found her body, three days rotten?’ Duchamp snorts. ‘Man, that dive is a case for Public Health.’

Tulene remembers the smell, a mixture of sewage and spoiled meat. After paramedics broke down the door and manoeuvred the body downstairs on a stretcher, the smell penetrated every corner of the building and lingered for a week. Tulene rolled up his bath towel and wedged it under his door. He held his breath each time he bolted across the corridor to the bathroom. He flung open the tiny window above the toilet, and the smell of the garbage below seemed almost sweet.

‘Guess you’re right,’ Tulene shrugs. ‘Well, I gotta go.’

‘Hot date?’ Duchamp slugs back his coffee, drags a hand across foam-flecked lips.

‘No.’ Tulene looks down at the scuffed toes of his salt-stained boots. ‘Just meeting a friend. For study.’

At twenty-two, Tulene is the oldest student in the GED class. For this reason, he doesn’t mind being teased about the scarcity of his beard. At least it erases three to five years off his face.

Every Monday afternoon, Tulene shoves his notes, unfinished homework assignments and Advanced Calculus into his backpack, and goes to meet Junjun. Junjun is taking his GED because his Chinese high school grades can’t be translated into Canadian. Tulene hopes that at least he is glad for a chance to practise his English.

In Junjun’s small, quick hands, the calculus problems dissolve like finespun cotton candy. Fingers dance across the keys of his calculator; pen-tip glides dragonfly-quick above paper. Tulene can barely restrain himself from applauding each time Junjun completes a particularly tortuous problem, writing the solution triumphantly on the answer sheet, spearing the page with a final decimal point and throwing down his pen.

x(t)=c1+c2t+c3et+Atet+Bcost+Csint. Easy.’

Bcost+Csint,’ repeats Tulene, enchanted.

‘In China, this is for babies – we already do in grade eight.’

Then painstakingly, in broken English, Junjun guides Tulene through each knot he has just unravelled, stopping often to ask, ‘Do you understand?’

‘Yes,’ says Tulene. ‘You’re so good at calculus. You’ll get a really good job one day.’

Back in October, Tulene was sitting alone in the cafeteria of the Adult Learning Centre, slumped before an empty paper plate, a crushed can, and eleven open packets of Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise.

‘Excuse me. The coffee here – is good?’ Junjun had said, in Mandarin.

Tulene looked up uncertainly.

‘Sorry, so sorry,’ said Junjun, in English.

Tulene’s mouth was full of day-old bagel, or he would have said it was OK. Most people thought he was Chinese – if not wholly, then in general. He was in fact part Chinese, an indeterminate percentage, on his mother’s side. That part was mixed with some Metis, also indeterminate. Someone had told him that the Natives actually came from Mongolia; they’d walked to this continent across the Bering Strait so, essentially, Metis were Chinese and vice versa. Tulene wishes he’d verified this before his mother died. They’d lived together above the noodle house where his mother washed dishes for seventeen years. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter where they might have come from. After the funeral, he dropped out of school for the last time and moved a block away, to the room above Duchamp’s.

‘My name is Junjun,’ said Junjun, and held out his hand, even though Tulene’s fingers were clearly daubed with mayonnaise, which he hurriedly rubbed onto his jeans.

‘Tulene,’ Tulene mumbled, wishing he had not drained his Pepsi so fast. He was having trouble swallowing the last bites of half-chewed dough.

Junjun looked at him with an expression of unguarded surprise. Tulene would soon learn that this meant Junjun had not understood.

‘My name is Junjun,’ Junjun said again, phrasing it this time to sound like a question.

‘Tulene,’ Tulene repeated, almost choking in his efforts. ‘My name is Tulene.’

‘Too-lean,’ said Junjun gravely and inscribed it in meticulous black ink in his leather-bound notebook.

Junjun is on a mission to find the best coffee in Canada. Tulene has never liked the taste of coffee. It’s disappointingly bitter, unlike its enticing aroma. Each Monday, Junjun arranges to meet Tulene at yet another deli, greasy spoon or espresso bar. He photographs his order and posts it on his blog entitled: Winnipeg’s Best Western Coffee. He labels the pictures with date, time, star rating out of five, and the name of the roast: Three Sisters, Kicking Mule, Blonde Costa Rican.

At first, Tulene was baffled by Junjun’s fastidiousness. ‘They’re just names,’ he objected, ‘They don’t mean anything.’

Junjun kept writing but his eyebrows rose in surprise, and Tulene hurried to repeat himself.

‘They – are – just – names,’ Tulene said, stopping between each word so that they no longer ran together, merging into an indistinct whole.

‘Every name has meaning,’ Junjun replied, now animated with real surprise. ‘Your name very unusual, must have special meaning, no?’

Tulene started to disagree, then stopped.

“Tulene” was simply his mother’s misspelling of a place-name; really two places mixed up in her mind that she had once heard on a radio programme about the Canadian north. Villages so isolated that sometimes in winter, mail and groceries could not be flown in for weeks. Villages as magical as the ones in Tulene’s picture books, filled with heroic princes and beautiful princesses. ‘Tulene far, far away,’ she told him. ‘Always cold, always snow.’ He spent years perusing their out-dated and dog-eared Maps of Canada until he finally discovered, tucked away in the Northwest Territories, the hamlets of Tulita and Deline. He ran down to the kitchen, thrust the map in front of his mother and pointed, ‘Look, Ma!’ His mother glanced down, frowned, and returned to peeling the veins from a plate of snow peas. ‘Maybe,’ she said, ‘Maybe. Too long ago now.’

Since Parlour Coffee opened on Main Street last year, Tulene has often walked past on his way to class. Outside the tall windows, customers in black suits and sunglasses soak up the sun on a storefront bench. They sip at takeout cups and cigarettes and ignore the proximity of the Woodbine Hotel.

Junjun says Parlour reminds him of Vienna, which he visited with his parents on a tour-bus vacation. He tells Tulene about a city where every building was a cupcake confection. Painted brick, marble columns, three operas to choose from every evening. After the performance, the applause lasted for fifteen minutes. The rafters rained roses on the Italian prima donna. Junjun hadn’t understood a word.

There is no such thing as Pop, or Juice – or Coffee, for that matter – on the gilt-framed chalkboard behind the marble counter. Tulene scans the list of unintelligible names and settles on an espresso, which at least sounds like an English word. The clerk names the price. Espresso at Parlour costs three times the price of a regular cup of joe. Tulene has never paid much attention to price-lists; has in fact avoided looking too closely because Junjun always offers, even clamours, to buy.

Tulene starts to count out the change in his pocket. He slaps his jeans again, hoping to hear the clink of coins he might have missed, his palms growing moist, just as Junjun arrives. ‘Café au lait,’ says Junjun to the clerk and places his hand over Tulene’s hot, shaking one. ‘Let me pay, please.’

Junjun thinks nothing of slapping his textbooks down on the countertop beside the window and slipping onto a leather-covered barstool, squeezing past patrons toying with smartphones, retouching makeup with mirror compacts and trawling the street for eye candy or a reciprocal appraisal. Tulene tries to slip onto the free seat beside Junjun but can’t help elbowing his neighbour, who doesn’t flinch, but fixes Tulene with a gaze so steely it pierces the fake leather of his favourite jacket – a motor-cross style popular the year he left school.

Espresso sloshes from cup to saucer. Tulene feels the blood flooding his cheeks and vows never to come back to Parlour. What’s wrong with meeting at the cafeteria?

‘Best coffee in Canada,’ Junjun smiles, and raises his glass.

Tulene’s espresso is bitter, unfamiliar. He tries to savour it, allow the burning brew to linger in his mouth, educate his taste buds in European sophistication.

These days, Tulene’s tutor, who scowled and shook his head at him last year, now smiles even when Tulene slinks into class late, eyes downcast, and heads for the back row. But what Tulene is grateful for, more than good marks and free coffee, is that Junjun has never once made a disparaging remark about Tulene’s mutt heritage, let alone his complete ignorance of any one of the seven or so dialects of the Chinese language. ‘Good,’ Junjun had said. ‘I only want to speak Canadian English from now on.’ Now we are both foreigners, Tulene had thought. But that was absurd, in a country pieced together from the leftovers of abandoned cultures.

What a nonsensical language English can be. Take a word like unisex, implying a creature neither man nor woman, but one sex. Yet it is not the same as hermaphrodite – a word Tulene remembers from a fifth grade biology class where earthworms in Plexiglas containers writhed over and under each other in a tangled knot. Tulene could not tell their heads from their tails, let alone whether they might be male or female. To his relief, it transpired that they were both.

At least no distinction is made between masculine and feminine words. Tulene hadn’t thought about this until Junjun asked, ‘So is coffee a girl or a boy?’


‘In Chinese, some words have the symbol for a girl, or a boy.’

Tulene remembered French classes, the baffling illogic of un and une, le and la.

‘It’s neither,’ said Tulene. ‘In English, coffee is just a thing. Only humans and animals are male or female.’

‘What about plants?’ said Junjun. ‘Plants are living too. And coffee is made from beans.’

This made Tulene’s head spin. ‘No,’ he said, finally. ‘Coffee is just a thing. It does not have feelings.’

Today, Junjun rushes through the steps and Tulene struggles to keep up. He completes three quarters of the assignment, then says, ‘You understand?’

‘I think so.’

‘You finish by yourself,’ says Junjun. ‘The rest is easy.’

Tulene’s eyes widen but Junjun is already on his feet, shrugging his hooded Roots jacket back onto his shoulders.

‘You didn’t finish your coffee,’ says Tulene. The café au lait is cooling in its glass, a film of milk-grease congealing on top.

‘It wasn’t that great,’ says Junjun.

‘I thought you said . . .’ begins Tulene, but Junjun has already started to back away, eyes downcast, as if scanning the floor for something that may have slipped out of his pocket – loose change, or a phone number scribbled on a napkin.

At the same time, Junjun’s neighbour lays down her mirror compact and turns her attention to her hair, held up in a high, blonde chignon from which stray wisps have begun to escape. As she pulls pins from her head the tendrils loosen and multiply into a thick, shimmering cascade. Junjun swerves, too late, as strands of fine-spun gold alight on his shoulder and graze his cheek.

‘What about English conversation?’ Tulene has to raise his voice to reach Junjun, thrown off course by the sudden intimacy.

‘No time,’ calls Junjun. ‘Not today.’ He ducks as the blonde gives her head a final toss, unleashing a brittle, powdery perfume.

It must be her hairspray, but it’s not a scent Tulene can place. He recalls the old bathroom cabinet, the cracked mirror on the sliding door behind which his mother stored a few simple items: toothpaste, deodorant, extra bars of Irish Spring.

‘OK.’ Tulene coughs. ‘See you next Monday.’

Junjun looks confused for a moment, as if they have not been meeting every Monday since October.

‘Parlour?’ adds Tulene helpfully.

Junjun is shuffling backwards towards the exit. ‘No, not Monday. I have a dinner.’


Junjun hesitates. He returns, places a hand on Tulene’s arm.

‘She is a really nice girl,’ Junjun says quietly. ‘Emma. From our class. You know her?’

‘Emma,’ says Tulene. The hairspray is making his eyes water. ‘That’s a nice name.’

‘See you later,’ says Junjun and walks out of the big glass doors, down Main Street, where the cars are honking and crawling, packed together two by two.

Tulene stares at Junjun’s unfinished glass for a long time. Then he pulls it discreetly toward him. He raises the glass and sniffs at the film of milk-grease.

The taste is not half as bitter as the espresso. Milk and sugar, Tulene decides. That’s the trick, the way to make this foreign coffee more palatable.

For a while after his mother’s death Tulene had considered heading north, packing a sleeping bag and hitchhiking as far as there were still roads. He knew that the places he was looking for were only reachable by plane. He would have to start off by finding work, with cargo perhaps, helping out on the runways. The plan took on the significance of a pilgrimage. Then his grief subsided. Now the desire to travel at all was something buried that only stirred infrequently, like a hibernating creature.

When Tulene gets back, Duchamp is still sitting on the stoop, scratching his belly, cigarette dangling from his lips, ash dropping. Instead of a chipped mug, there is now a bottle of Budweiser by his feet.

‘You’re back early.’

‘Yes,’ Tulene mumbles. ‘I need to study.’

‘Don’t work too hard,’ says Duchamp. ‘Want a beer?’

‘No, thanks.’ Tulene can feel himself begin to redden as if the beer were already in his belly, firing up his insides.

Duchamp has the bottle to his lips when he lowers it abruptly and calls, ‘Party at my place tonight. You should drop by. Never know who you might meet.’

He winks, and Tulene turns away to hide burning cheeks. All that caffeine is making his heart pump twice as fast.

‘Maybe later.’

‘Take it easy, man,’ says Duchamp as Tulene starts up the stairs.

On the landing, Tulene pauses. The bathroom door is closed. Tulene approaches and studies the handwritten sign. Below the words This Is A Unisex Washroom, penned in thick black marker, are Chinese symbols in blue ink. Tulene has always assumed the Chinese symbols are a direct translation. For the first time he realises he has no way of knowing for sure.

Tulene listens at the bathroom door for a minute, then two, then three, and hears nothing. Through the crack beneath the ill-fitting door, and under his own door too, seeps a weak late-afternoon light. Only one doorway remains dark. Tulene sets off down the corridor; his footsteps accompany the beating of his heart. Standing before the unlit door, Tulene raises his fist and strikes it.

He stands and waits. When his legs tire, he leans tentatively against the door. When it does not budge, he sets his shoulder against it. He struggles senselessly until he remembers the mail slot. With hesitant fingers, Tulene traces the edges of the metal flap, daring himself to lift it by just a crack. He takes hold of one corner and raises it. A slip of paper slides out and flutters to the floor.

Tulene leaps backward, letting go of the flap, which clangs shut. Surely the keeper of the mail slot is about to wrench open the door and come roaring out! Tulene holds his breath and shuts his eyes hard; he no longer believes this will make him invisible, but the habit still offers comfort.

When he finally dares open his eyes he is met by the familiar darkness. He crouches down again and rakes the dusty floorboards until his fingers close upon a folded slip of paper, thin enough to fold twice more and hide inside his fist.

Passing the bathroom door again, Tulene sees that it was not closed after all; it is open by a hair. He touches a finger to its surface, and the door swings open.

The air inside feels like a spring day after it has been raining. Tulene smells flowers but cannot name them. Jasmine? Camellia? There was a row of glass-stoppered vials on his mother’s dresser, labelled with these names. As she sickened, Tulene shook their contents onto cotton balls and dabbed them on her shrivelled throat from where the coughing came. No matter what he did, the room’s smell of vomit and bleach was stronger.

Flowers must be female. But no, they are hermaphrodite; they have pistils and stamens.

The draft comes from a door beside the shower, a door that Tulene is almost certain has always been locked before. Now it is wide open. Tulene had assumed there was a broom closet or electrical panel hidden inside. Now he wonders if it once opened onto a balcony or a fire escape torn down years ago, for there is no ledge beyond, just a sheer drop. It is only two floors to the garbage bins below but he doesn’t feel like stepping closer to check.

Tulene looks down at his clenched fist, the knuckles so white that it seems the colour of his bones is showing through his taut skin. As he watches, his fingers uncurl and the slip of paper opens its folds, perching in his palm like an origami bird. Sunlight pierces it and reveals a whole line of writing in reverse on the other side – blue ink, on paper lightly wrinkled by the sweat of his skin.

Slowly, as if looking in a mirror, Tulene struggles to decipher the message. What at first appear as random shapes and swirls gradually become letters, then the beginnings of words, but still Tulene cannot make sense of them. They are like fragments from a story lost to childhood, one that his mother might have read to him, whose meaning is now closed.

The shower curtain is floating fitfully in the breeze, flapping against the empty stall. Tulene stares at the printed ducks: the blithe, airborne ones and the staunch, standing ones, determined to stay rooted even though the ground beneath them is slipping out from under their feet – has already slipped – and is fluttering toward the open door. He holds out his hand.

The breeze seizes the corners of the folded paper, snatches it into the air and whirls it outside. Just before it flits out of sight, Tulene glimpses clearly the words suspended in mid-air, ablaze with sunlight:

When I hold you, I hold everything that is –

Tulene reads swiftly, without effort. He can almost be sure he’s read them correctly, the after-image of those words still hanging before him in the empty air.


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