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How my childhood in Chinatown led to an obsession with wristwatches Add to ...

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I have long held the highly personal and mostly unproven belief that men from the Middle Kingdom are born with a love of wristwatches – that it is part of our DNA.

In the early years of the Chinese diaspora, young men would be given an entry-level Rolex or Omega watch, depending on their family’s finances, before setting out to make their fortunes. It was to be a reminder of a waiting family at home, an encouragement to keep promises made.

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My parents ran a shabby but authentic restaurant in Toronto’s old Chinatown in the late 1950s and ’60s, and I became friendly with one of the regular diners, a fellow who made his fragile living gambling at a local illegal gaming hall. My recollection of his appearance is vague, but I remember his watch perfectly – a 14-karat Omega Moonphase with day/date/month indicators.

He would display his pride and joy whenever it wasn’t in a pawnshop or being held by a moneylender. The watch was his talisman, his protection against poverty and misfortune. And it was proof of our friendship – he let me wear it on my too-small wrist to study its mechanical beauty.

Growing up in that gritty part of the city, I was surrounded by many negative enticements. Smoking was the ethos of the time, and my father kept a bottle of Johnny Walker scotch in the kitchen to enhance his recipes – and to calm his sense of desperation that white Toronto didn’t want classic Cantonese cuisine served in a Sino-Canadian dump, and that he was drowning in debt.

The many provocatively clad prostitutes who came to use the restrooms rarely bothered to stay for a single egg roll, but seemingly had ample coin for alcohol and drugs.

Neither my older brother nor I were attracted by the myriad bad habits we woke up to each day. Instead, I developed a fascination with watches. I often fantasized about the day when I could walk casually into a department store and buy my own. Later, watches became my addiction of choice – at first, I bought watches I could afford, then progressed to models well beyond my genuine financial reach.

So it was not exactly an accident that I recently stumbled upon an entertaining online question-and-answer feature called The Watch Snob.

Readers e-mail in questions: Dear Watch Snob, is my brother-in-law a piece of garbage for wearing a new Rolex? Should I buy the same black watch Kobe Bryant wears? Is it prudent to charge an $80,000 Grand Complication on Visa or is MasterCard better?

One e-mailer asked what it was that people spending thousands of dollars were getting that his father didn’t have with his $59 Timex; after all, a watch is for telling time. Though the remark had the feel of a ringer in a comedian’s audience, The Watch Snob’s answer was elegant and, for me, quite provocative. He said a person’s watch is about much more than telling time; it is about his personal style and illustrates the story of each individual’s relationship with time.

Lately I’ve been mulling over these remarks as they relate to my own experiences. I’ve realized that my fascination as a collector has always been with the watch’s story and its magical connection with the wearer.

Years ago, a street person approached me in Kensington Market looking for a handout. When I noticed he was wearing a 1960s Ronald McDonald watch I refused to give him any money, but offered to buy his watch. His reaction was surprising and almost violent, full of obscene remarks directed at my ethnicity and my pressed suit, and a suggestion for where I needed to shove my cane.

I surmised that the plastic watch typically given to top McDonald’s employees was not for sale at that moment.

I once found a wonderful 1950s Universal Genève stainless-steel watch in a thrift store for $5. It had been sold among a bunch of meagre artifacts by the landlord of a flophouse. The watch wasn’t working, but clearly had been loved and cared for by its most recent owner and it was my pleasure and responsibility to repair and restore it.

Like the McDonald’s watch, its story was one I would have to guess.

In the 1960s, my father became just successful enough with his restaurant to afford a few small luxuries, such as a steel Rolex date watch for himself and Omega Seamasters for my brother and me.

My dad wore his beloved Rolex whenever he wasn’t working in the restaurant. We used to joke that he should have bought one without a calendar display because he had to tediously reset the date each time the watch came out of the drawer, advancing the hands through 24 hours before the number in the date window would change.

Shortly after my father retired and shuttered his business, he became very ill. For a brief period he was in and out of hospitals, until doctors decided he should spend his final days at home putting his life in order.

He spent his last moments on this planet happily buffing his Rolex and setting the date, which he advanced one extra day. That was more than 20 years ago, and I still ponder the question of whether he was confused, or not quite ready to say goodbye. Perhaps he hoped the error would earn him a little more time.

 

Jerry C. Hom lives in Toronto.

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