Chinatown (Bond no.9)

Aurelien Guichard's numerous accomplishments as a perfumer are difficult to discuss without bringing up two of his "masterpieces" - Chinatown, and the reformulation of Visa by Robert Piguet. Both are chypres overlaid with oriental accords, and both emit judicious rays of peachy light through dense arrangements of flowers and precious woods. Of the two, I've only worn Chinatown, and cannot comment from a personal perspective on Visa, but I do know that Guichard understands that bright fruity notes work especially well when they are given something substantial to shine through.

I approached Chinatown with some uncharacteristically specific hopes. I hoped it would contain an opalescent white floral accord. And it does. I hoped it would contain at least one interesting citrus note. And it does. I hoped it would have a bright holographic peach, if even for a moment. And it doesn't. I hoped it would exhibit a notable trajectory from an opening of bright, peachy florals, to the odd stewed-fruit note Luca Turin likened to Edmond Roudnitska's Prunol base, to what finally becomes a rich chypre foundation of gussied labdanum and oakmoss, with sheer sandalwood and vanilla adding oriental textures to everything. And . . . it doesn't do any of that at all. Herein lies the rub for me and Chinatown; I cannot expect perfumes to perform for me exclusively, but when their reputations precede them, and my knowledge of what makes a modern masterpiece braces itself for impact with virgin territory, the hope is that the little things, like bright floral and peach notes, will be dispensable, and the big things, like a drydown trajectory into definitive chypre and oriental stages, will be very much accounted for. Imagine my disappointment when I found that Chinatown lacks that which I desire most, and has in spades the things I'm not all in for. What's the matter with this perfume? What's the matter with me? Where's our chemistry, the tango I thought we'd do right from the start?

The first issue is the opening. Chinatown's interesting citrus note is a very thick, waxy bergamot and lemon accord. To my nose it's mostly synthetic bergamot. I don't know if it's just one layer too many for this composition, with a very light note struggling against a tsunami of darker, heavier base notes, or if it's simply a matter of Guichard choosing this specific type of bergamot for Chinatown, but something here is troublesome. I can't bring myself to fully enjoy its unusual "waxy"-type of cleanness. Maybe memories of my years as a janitor in an elementary school have something to do with that. All that disgusting floor wax, and those disgusting ZEP cleaning products, with their despicable fake-citrus odorants. I don't know what it is, but I'm not crazy about it, and that's really all I can say. Moving on.

The second issue is the peach note(s). There isn't really a true peach in this fragrance. But there is peach blossom. There is also a very pretty melange of white flowers, with the headiness of tuberose and gardenia balanced by peony's freshness, all with peach blossom acting as the sweet fulcrum into the grandiloquence of Chinatown's kinda-sorta gourmandish, woody base. It's a well-executed floral element that somehow disappoints me by not being fruity enough. I want a succulent peach note! And I want it to be hyper-realistic for at least two or three minutes on skin! Why isn't it in here?

It's supposed to be bright and clean at first, and then rapidly subside into a slow-burning sweetness that smolders through cardamom, sandalwood, and patchouli. Instead it never appears at all, but the smoldering effect of something sweetly floral - i.e., peach blossom - arrives within five minutes after application, prefabricated and ready-made but lacking precedence and true context. It's like one of those artificial fireplaces that you plug in - a fire without the spark. Nevertheless, like the electric fire, it's there, it's very pretty, and I get partial satisfaction in this regard. Better to have less than nothing at all, I suppose. But there could have been a little more of a deliberate reference point for the sweetness in Chinatown's dense (but oddly under-worked) heart. In fine art, particularly in painting, when artists work with a limited palette of mostly monochrome grey, splashes of color can only add to visual effect by inhabiting two opposite points in the composition. You never want your red, or your green, or your yellow to just sit there all alone in one corner of the canvas. It should have at least a dab of itself elsewhere. The peach blossom in Chinatown is like a color floating aimlessly on a canvas. It's striking, but separate from the image, and bears no relationship to it.

The third issue, and the greatest issue for me, is that of Chinatown's trajectory, or lack thereof. There's that bright, waxy bergamot up top, for about sixty seconds on skin. Then, the floral accord, very nice, a touch plasticky and indolic, but still, very nice, with notable peach blossom. Just fine. And then . . . simply a linear chypre gesture of slightly funky labdanum, a resinous faux-moss base, mostly derived from the rosy interplay of guaiac wood against brisk patchouli and cedar notes, with the piquancy of cardamom connecting this uninteresting point to everything that came before. And it smells very flat. Disturbingly flat, actually, with images of vinyl records and someone's forgotten plastic raincoat left lying around somewhere. There's sweetness, there's spice, there's some woodsy notes, but they're all compressed into an inert accord that smells much too synthetic and much too contrived to be considered the stuff of greatness. I wish I could say otherwise, but all that comes to mind in Chinatown's drydown are those dreadful Yankee Candles. That's right folks, this fragrance reminds me of Yankee Candles.

This isn't the first time this has happened to me with Bond no.9. Andy Warhol Lexington Avenue, the only other Bond I've worn, gave me a serious Yankee Candle vibe as well. But Lexington Avenue also had a very festive feeling to it, and its vibe was a bit more occasion-specific (Thanksgiving gatherings, Christmas parties), whereas Chinatown comes across as being woefully nondescript. The synthetic nature of its base accord detracts from whatever impact its composition may have had on my imagination, and the only thing it alludes to is a candle, but I'm speaking subjectively here. I can understand how other people would find more parallels between this perfume and classical chypres of yesteryear, Thierry Mugler's more recent creations, and even other interesting Bond perfumes. People have said that Chinatown and Lexington Avenue are related, so I may have done well in trying Lexington first and following it up with this perfume. At least I know what's happening with the brand's creative mentality toward postmodern chypres. They want things to be sweet, sticky, brightly-lit, but through the recklessly coated lens of patchouli and synthetic wood notes. The synthetic feel is deliberate, part of the fun. But I'm not having all that much fun.

I think people gravitate toward certain "feels" in their perfumes, and the Bond "feel" is a bit more synthetic, a little more "perfumey" and chic, in the most pleasant, fun-filled sense of the word. I haven't tried enough Bonds to say that with true authority, but it's my impression based on the two I have encountered, and this impression is, for lack of a better word, unimpressive. Creed is for people who want realism integrated into staid, gentlemanly compositions that rarely smile, but still know how to light up a room. There's nothing chic about Creed, as the brand takes itself far too seriously for that. It's kind of interesting to think that if Creed were to try to do Chinatown, they might also fall short of my expectations, but in the inverse way - good drydown proportions, nice movement, a few lucid notes, but no debauched vinyl-plasticky sneer for fun. I'm just difficult enough as a person to want both to intersect and become a sum far greater than its two parts could ever hope to be, and that's why I'll keep trying with Bond. I do not for one second think that Chinatown is a masterpiece, a "treasure in a beautiful bottle," and instead feel that it is a very mediocre perfume by a man who misjudged the charm of overtly synthetic materials. But Bond has so many fragrances. There must be one to love lurking right around the corner.


  1. "There must be on to love, lurking around the corner." I would abandon this dream, if I were you. I once had that dream, and it has been crushed, stomped on, and had Chinatown poured all over it. (So I guess that says how I feel about Chinatown.) :)

    On a positive note, the reformulated Visa is one of my favorite perfumes.

    1. Wow it's that bad, eh? I'll look into Visa, thanks!


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