When I first enter Chinatown, my attention is immediately drawn to the apothecaries and tea shops that are like no other: the famous five-spice blend, ginseng roots, dried rosebuds, dehydrated fungi, lizards, seafood and occasional flying dragons, and green teas from every type and breed and roast. Than my eye catches the colourfully irresistible fruit stands – with white peaches, nectarines and mangos, durian and and litchis. Chinatown perfume opens similarly with a dusty-sweet cloud of medicinal yet sweet smelling Five Spice, accompanied by an overwhelmingly syrupy sweet peach.
Next I am dazzled by the fabrics – satin, brocade, silk and simple cotton. A tapestry of colours and floral patterns that is very much like the bouquet of exotic florals at the heart of Chinatown – mostly gardenia, but also the spiciness of Chinese peonies, drawn on the back of a sandalwood-carved fan. Added to these are the gunpowder-like hot and dry Szechuan pepper.
As the scent progresses on the skin, it leads me lower and deeper, into cellars and basements dimly lit by paper lanterns and filled with fragrant antique furniture – camphor and mothballs aside, the scent of wood dominates, and besides the waves from the ornamental sandalwood fan, and through the gardenia wafts and the smoke from Buddhist sandalwood joss-sticks, there is an underlining coarse-voiced murmur of patchouli – like the secret writing of an ancient man. It’s dirty and dry and earthy and musky – but also ancient, with the texture of ink calligraphy on rice paper.
Once Chinatown settles on the skin, it is softened by the powdery sweetness of vanilla and musk, and the dry down of very dry, pencil-like cedarwood, and the hints of smoky, rosy and honeyed guiacwood.
Comfortable yet strange; pretty yet bizarre; juicy from hints of a lusciously sweet peach and also slightly fishy, like the dried exotic seafood sold by the merchants in Chinatown. While the scent is an abstract rather than realistic portrayal of a Chinatown experience – it does, in its own charming way, bring together elements – both visual, sensual and smellsual, that recall a day of wondering and discovery in a Chinese cultural gem that is contained in many North American cities.
Chinatown might need some time getting used to and is an unusual scent that contains many conflicts that surprisingly (and naturally…) resolve themselves just by existing, in a the manner of Zen: medicinal vs. sensual; sweet vs. dry; modern vs. traditional. Everything in this perfume, from the brocade inspired bottle, to the phases of fragrance development on the skin, is a phenomenal experience that is veiled with alluring mystery.
Top notes: Five Spice, Peach
Heart notes: Gardenia, Tuberose, Peony, Szechuan Pepper
Base notes: Patchouli, Sandalwood, Guiacwood, Cedarwood, Vanilla
Image of Chinatown bottle courtesy of Bond No. 9