Amsterdam 1947, Chinese in the Binnen Bantammerstraat, Hairdressing salon ‘Oost en West’ (East and West), Chan Ching Hing family. Photo: Sem Presser/MAI
I own not just one, but seven tarot decks and yes I know how to read them. This trip is the first time in my life that I have travelled without my favourite tarot pack in my luggage. Then at Christmas my lovely sister and niece came back from a day out in Amsterdam with a Tarot of the Dwarves for my collection! Not my most mysterious deck, but we gave them a go anyway.
I left my cards at home this time because I wanted to just live my life without any predictions for a while. I just wanted to “be”, just let myself slip into the rip and be swept wherever it took me. I know I’m a strong swimmer, I wasn’t afraid and it seemed like anywhere would be better than the place all my hard paddling and conscientious Australian Crawl had landed me – and I was right. So much of life is pre-determined. We have jobs, mortgages, responsibilities. It’s so rare to be in a position where you can put those aside, even for a short time – but if you haven’t already got this message – I thoroughly recommend it.
Last night I was at a crowded, smokey party and got talking to two lovely Americans who have lived in Amsterdam now for 22 years. They were from that breed of inspiring American – you know the sort – smart, interested, engaged, creative – the kind that give you hope. Anyway we started talking about how I was living in a street called Binnen Bantamerstraat.
When I was searching for a place to live in Amsterdam I had lots of trouble finding somewhere. I’d try for a flat and find out it had gone the day before. Or I’d find somewhere then look at the map and discover it was practically in Utrecht (and let’s not even go down the Chinese Craig’s List Scam of 2009). Anyway, I came to the realisation that if I just spent a bit more money, life might be easier – and viola – to no small surprise, this turned out to be true. After months of frustration I found an agency who found me a flat within a day, I said yes, started a friendly email chat with the real estate agent that has continued to this day and moved into Amsterdam’s tiny but still quite wonderful Chinatown district.
Now another small deviation from my topic – trust me it all relates – the script I’ve been writing here is called Chinese Whispers. It’s an intricate and complicated murder mystery with a very sexy love/betrayal/coming of age story and it’s set in Sydney in 1925. A very important subplot revolves around the opium and cocaine trade of 1920’s Sydney (significant, profitable and bitterly and violently fought over). I’ve lived in this very exotic, violent and exciting imaginary world the whole time I’ve been in Amsterdam.
Then, there I was at what will undoubtedly be one of my last parties here and these great people started telling me about how the very street I’d been living on for the last six months was, up until 30 or so years ago, the epicenter of the Dutch/Chinese opium trade and that in my very short street there where several notorious opium dens, Mahjong gambling dens, boarding houses filled with Chinese, a flourishing Chinese community and of course – several famous Chinese restaurants. The photos in this post are of my street in 1947 and a second one of Josephine Baker outside a restaurant in 1932.
Check it out – Josephine Baker – on my street!
To say I was excited is well – just not knowing me. I feel like the cat that got the cream.
Because I’m superstitious.
To me this was an omen – a “sign” that I am living my life exactly right. I ended up on this street because I was meant to come to Amsterdam last year. I was meant to pull this script out of the bottom drawer where it had languished for years – I was meant to take myself away from my normal life in Sydney because the fact that I just ended up on exactly the right street for my project, the fact that the external spaces that have so determined my time here are imbued with the psychic memory (oh yes I did indeed just say psychic memory – 7 tarot decks remember…) of the very people and activities I’ve been trying to conjure up inside my head – it’s a sign. And these kind of signs have always been, for me, the best way to determine if I’m on the right track.
It’s always been that way, if I’m doing something that isn’t right, no matter how much I want it to be, things won’t gel. I won’t get the work I want, the work I do myself won’t have the kind of flukey revelations that just seem to lift off the page without any effort, I won’t get that lucky park, that perfect break, the good and coincidental connection…
But that said, I’m not completely stupid. I don’t throw runes, check tea leaves, avoid pavement cracks, consult my horoscope before I leave the house – I also know that our lives are determined just as much by the things we say no – or yes – to as by the tides of fate. And so also this week I said no to a bunch of work offers back in Sydney and every time that small word came out of my mouth I felt just a little bit lighter.
Because it’s Chinese New Year tomorrow – the Year of the Tiger. And my script has always ended with a scene during the Chinese New Year festivities – The Year of the Tiger, 1926. And if you are the kind of person who looks for signs, then that’s one that you might consider.
Or if you’re just a person looking to hold onto the feeling of freedom that came from travelling without the safety net of a favourite deck of tarot cards in your luggage, who let herself get pulled out by the rip and, once you were out beyond the break, started liking the feeling of being lifted up by the swell of a wave without the fear of it crashing onto you, then maybe you don’t need signs to know that saying no to a whole load of things that don’t make your heart sing just leaves the space in your life that you need to let the right ones in.
Gong Hey Fat Choy!