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Sunday, Nov. 3, 2002

Bustling Chinatown's squeaky-clean world within

Special to The Japan Times

Even before you pass beneath one of the 10 ornamented gates marking the boundaries of Yokohama's Chinatown, you start picking up signals that you're about to cross into a different country.

News photo
A street festival in Yokohama's vibrant Chinatown

It's more than just the red-and-gold banners, the garish architecture or the scent of sesame oil and ginger in the air. The Chinese themselves may describe it best, with the word renqi. Pronounced "hitoke" in Japanese, and written with the characters for "person" and "spirit," it can be translated variously as "bustle," "animation" or "vivacity."

As its 18 million visitors a year would attest, this Chinatown is indeed the real thing -- and bustle, animation and vivacity describe it perfectly. Though its narrow streets are rarely uncrowded, the bustle becomes a veritable throng around mealtimes. This should be no surprise: The sheer gusto with which Chinese are known to attack their native cuisine is not only a wonder to behold, but a pleasure to emulate.

The oldest restaurant here is the venerable Heichinro, in continuous operation since 1887. Several others are branches of famous restaurants in Hong Kong and elsewhere. While roughly half the area's 200-odd eateries (including Heichinro) serve Cantonese cuisine, including the ubiquitous dim sum, other styles of cooking are very much in evidence: Shanghainese shops -- most famous for steamed crabs in autumn -- number about two dozen. You can also find Peking duck, spicy Sichuanese dishes and Taiwanese zongzi (leaf-wrapped sticky rice dumplings) as well.

Next in number after its restaurants come Chinatown's several dozen bakeries. Many of these cater to visitors' penchant for Chinese yuebing (moon cakes) -- traditionally an autumn-festival confection, but sold here year-round -- as a present for the folks back home.

But this district -- with its innumerable shops selling such ready-made presents as Chinese teas, ceramics and health goods -- is equally remarkable for what you don't see: street crime, drugs, prostitutes or youth gangs. In contrast to the wild side of U.S. Chinatowns projected by Hollywood films, Yokohama's squeaky-clean image seems almost too good to be true.

"Our members work very closely with the police to head off any problems," says Tadayasu Abe, managing trustee of the Yokohama Chinatown Development Association. "We're committed to keeping the area clean and safe, day or night."

In addition, the association publishes a visitors guidebook, issues free tourist maps and operates a Web site. With an eye to the future, it is also involved in the "Central Bay YMC" project. The three letters stand for the immediate area's three main attractions: Yamashita Park, Motomachi and Chinatown, which are cooperating closely to build on Yokohama's popularity as a tourist destination and convention center.

"With the city planners, we discuss things like improving access, for example, by smoothing traffic flow and designating places where large tour buses can discharge their passengers and park," says Abe.

While first and foremost a commercial entity, Chinatown is still a community with deep spiritual and cultural roots. Kanteibyo, the large temple to Guandi, the War God, owes its origins to a small shrine built in 1862. Currently in its fourth reincarnation, completed in 1990, it honors Guangong, a legendary general from the Three Kingdoms Period respected for his virtuous courage.

Immediately adjacent to the Kanteibyo is Chuka Gakuin (Yokohama Overseas Chinese School). This institution was founded in 1897 by Sun Yat-sen, who returned to China from exile overseas to orchestrate the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty in 1911, and whose Kuomintang party remains a strong political force in Taiwan. The school is one of the oldest of its kind outside China. Current enrollment, from nursery school through high school, is about 450 students.

Although demographics of the local community have changed over the years -- only about one-third of its students presently come from families working in Chinatown proper -- the school's curriculum (and therefore its political orientation) treads a fine line between the Taiwan standard and the needs of overseas Chinese families, as well as those from the mainland.

"Right now, a majority of our students are children of Chinese from the mainland, who want them to have a Chinese education," says vice-principal Jiang Zaixiang. "The balance shifted from Taiwan around 10 years ago."

Jiang said his school emphasizes a cosmopolitan approach. High-school graduates are typically bilingual or trilingual, and many enter major Japanese universities such as Waseda; others head to colleges in China, the United States or elsewhere.

In contrast to the permissiveness often seen in Japanese schools, Jiang stands by his institution's policy of "stern-but-loving" discipline. "We don't allow students to dye their hair," he smiles. "No loose socks. If we catch them using a cell phone, we take it away."

Chinatown is a 5-minute walk from JR Ishikawacho station on the Keihin-Tohoku Negishi Line, the third station from Yokohama. Parades and other activities are held on special holidays, including the Chinese lunar New Year and Oct. 10, the anniversary of the 1911 revolution. The Yokohama Chinatown Development Association provides basic information in English at its Web site: www.chinatown.or.jp

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