Just look down: Adventures in the Chinese Zodiac

Pedestrians on the newly redone bit of Somerset in Chinatown between Booth and Preston are in for a real treat. The sidewalk is paved in blocky precast concrete squares with a textured surface finish.

For some time, walkers may have noticed some squares marked out like this:

These red dots marked where a few blocks were to be removed and replaced by a same size granite square inscribed with a shallow bas relief of a stylized Asian zodiac animal.

These make the street great fun to walk with kids, and amusing for adults too. The zodiac is repeated four times: twice on the south side, going from Preston up to Booth; and twice on the north side, going from Booth down to Preston. (There is a spare set in storage for replacements).

Two years ago, while in Boston, I saw a number of granite insets in their pavers near their Chinatown arch:

These became the inspiration for the Ottawa Chinatown experience.

Rather than a Chinese character that was not very engaging to non-Chinese, I suggested to the streetscaping public advisory committee that we employ similar blocks along the sidewalk, but with the zodiac animals, which will eventually cause children to demand to be walked along Somerset. Somewhat sceptical, the City challenged me to get them a cost. I tried getting prices from granite countertop makers, but they don’t normally carve their counters. At last, I asked cj fleury, who did the carved granite sculptures on Preston, and she directed me to tombstone makers, who carve all sorts of things into granite, from jpegs, using computer-driven routers. I got three prices, and the city agreed in less than 30 seconds that they could be funded from the landscaping budget.

Initial designs modified zodiac clip art from the web, which eventually became original illustrations by dint of repeated fixes. The first decision was whether to go with outline figures:

or bas-relief figures, such as this chicken:

The Chinatown BIA preferred the bas-relief, and worked with the contractors to refine the figures. The final stones came from George Brown & Sons, memorial makers, at the corner of Gladstone and Bronson, so they are even “local”.

Care had to be taken to ensure that the Rat and Mouse and Snake were not so realistic as to be frightening or off-putting to visitors. The Rat become Topo Gigio-ized and the other figures stylized and acceptable to a wide group of interests. Care was still required in placement to make sure there wasn’t some inadvertent connection between a symbol and the adjacent business, whether viewed from an Asian cultural view or western view.

Here are some of the shallow bas-relief figures you will see on the sidewalk. For the rest, you’ll have to come out to see for yourself !

Genuine Asian Zodiac figure for Rat: Topo Gigio



A rooster designed by a committee …

Beware, there be dragons in Chinatown !


4 thoughts on “Just look down: Adventures in the Chinese Zodiac

  1. Good comment about the “rooster designed by committee,” yeesh, it looks to me like a dragon with duck feet! I’ll be interested to see what our toddler thinks of it, he has a knack for identifying even the most stylized representations of his favourite animals, will he cue in on the feet and say “duck! qua-quack”, “woo-(stah), clu-cluck”, or just stare confusedly? should b fun!

  2. G. Brown and Sons is the landlord for the re-Cycles / Cycle Salvation shop on Bronson, occupying the front corner office (we have the rest of the space). The building was created for monument production back in 1925, with in-house work ceasing about twenty years ago. Our basement still has the original compressor (looks like a small locomotive!) that was used for sandblasting to etch the granite and marble.

    While Stan Brown and I have commiserated over the Bronson construction this summer, he didn’t tell me about his contribution to the Somerset project! Maybe he can do something for Bronson as well…

  3. Eric:
    Just want to extend a note of appreciation with regard to your efforts to make the city a more attractive and habitable place.

    Cheers! And Thanks!!

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