In honor of Chinese New Year, I decided my next adventure would be to New York City’s Chinatown. I had hoped to post something before the festivities began, but quickly realized I knew next to nothing about the neighborhood and it would take a few trips before I felt comfortable making recommendations.
The largest enclave of Chinese people in the Western Hemisphere, New York City’s Chinatown is truly a world of its own. Bordered by Lafayette to the West, Broome to the North, Allen to the East, and Worth to the South, it’s reasonable to surmise that many New Yorkers have yet to explore Chinatown’s crooked streets, while equally as reasonable to estimate that many residents of Chinatown seldom find reason to leave their neighborhood.
Having lived in New York for some time now, I am always amazed to pass through an area of the city where the sites are completely new to my eyes. My first thought is always: I cannot believe that this place has existed, day to day, without my ever knowing. Chinatown is one of those neighborhoods that I have frequently felt the furthest from home in my own city, which is, I think, an exciting and refreshing feeling. For those who feel as though they’ve seen it all and have never truly discovered Chinatown, it is a must.
Digging into the neighborhood’s past, it’s not difficult to see why Chinatown remains, to some, a bit inaccessible. In its early years, Chinatown was somewhat of a “bachelor’s society.” Dominated by male immigrants (mostly Cantonese-speakers), the area was run by “tongs”—associations, or gangs, formed by clan identification, political leaning, or crime syndicates. Fittingly, Chinatown’s only green space, Columbus Park, is situated on what was once the center of Five Points—a slum settled by immigrants in the 19th century where organized crime, poverty, and disease ran rampant. Made famous by the movie Gangs of New York, this violent history is most often identified with Irish immigrants, however, the turf wars did not end as more and more Chinese immigrants moved into the area.
At the onset of Chinese immigration to the U.S., anti-Chinese sentiments in New York proliferated, and so Chinese immigrants relied on each other for protection and loans to help them start off in the U.S (thus the creation of tongs). Also, historically Chinese immigrants, unlike immigrants from other regions, have resisted assimilation more than other groups. While one may need to squint to see the remnants of “Little Ukraine” in the East Village, Chinatown remains uniquely Chinese. Even after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965 caused the population of Chinatown to explode, the neighborhood held strong to its community values. It is not simply a neighborhood that happens to have more Chinese restaurants than others; everything about this neighborhood is imbued with the culture of its inhabitants. From signs completely in Chinese to supermarkets filled with imported goods, it is easy for a New Yorker visiting the neighborhood to feel like a foreign tourist in their own city.
To get a taste of this neighborhood’s rich past, start out by visiting the Museum of Chinese in America (http://www.mocanyc.org/, 215 Centre Street , general admission $10). The museum also hosts walking tours if you are so inclined.
From there, walk South to Hester Street and then head East to Hong Kong Supermarket (157 Hester Street, corner of Elizabeth and Hester). Whenever traveling abroad, I found that the grocery store was where I felt most intensely that I was truly somewhere other than my home. Food is so integral to who we are and so bound to our everyday life that to see how someone else might shop and eat is to really see a different perspective. Hong Kong Supermarket is worth a quick walk-through for this very reason—the vegetables, the fruit, the canned goods, all are unlike those found in your local D’Agostino’s. If you’re feeling adventurous, pick up some new ingredients. My sister-in-law, who is from China and a fantastic cook, has got me hooked on a dish called Mapo Tofu, visit here for a recipe: http://www.pbs.org/food/fresh-tastes/mapo-tofu/
From Hong Kong Supermarket, continue East and take a right on Bowery. Walk South to the Mahayana Buddhist Temple (http://www.mahayana.us/, 133 Canal Street, no admission fee, donations welcome). Oddly enough, even though this temple is situated right off the Manhattan Bridge, in the midst of a hectic intersection, and right next to the Fung Wah bus stop, inside it manages to be a surprisingly calming space; mere steps from the chaotic bridge traffic is a 16-foot golden Buddha. Unlike the muted colors of a Catholic Cathedral, the temple bursts with color—from the intricate drawings displaying the story of the religion’s beginnings to the pink neon light that outlines the giant Buddha, the temple is unlike anything I’ve ever seen and certainly a surprising sight for the middle of Manhattan. For a $1 donation you can grab a fortune from the foot of the statue, and as if I wasn’t surprised enough to be standing in front of a giant Buddha, imagine my surprise when my fortune contained the word “ass.”
From the temple, head South until you reach Doyers Street. This crooked alley, once infamous for being the center of tong-turf-wars, is now frequently featured in movies depicting Chinatown. Stop either at Nom Wah Tea Parlor (the first dim sum–think Chinese tapas–restaurant established in 1920, http://nomwah.com/, 13 Doyers Street) or Joe’s Shanghai for lunch/dinner. Situated on Pell Street (another quintessential street in Chinatown—this narrow alley is crowded with Chinese signs, and is also a good place for a cheap haircut), Joe’s Shanghai boasts the city’s best soup dumplings (http://www.joeshanghairestaurants.com/, 9 Pell Street). Expect a wait to be seated, and be warned that the dining experience might be just as chaotic as the streets of Chinatown, but you’re guaranteed to love the dumplings, and the prices are unbeatable for New York City. If you’re entirely too hungry to wait around for a seat at Joe’s Shanghai, head across the street to the less-crowded Famous Sichuan (http://www.famoussichuan.com/, 10 Pell Street) for Chinese Hot Pot—like fondue, a hot pot filled with boiling broth (spicy or mild) allows you to cook your own food at the table—and the menu has some very interesting ingredients for those more adventurous eaters.
After honing your chopsticks skills at lunch or dinner, walk West to Mott Street. Although those visiting Chinatown might first associate the center of the neighborhood with Canal Street, to me, Mott really is the heart. Less crowded and chaotic than Canal (although not entirely!) Mott is lined with restaurants, markets, and novelty stores but lacks the frenetic foot and car traffic of Canal. On the corner of Bayard and Mott, stop into Yunhong Chopstick Shop (http://www.happychopsticks.com/, 50 Mott Street)—an entire store filled with chopsticks! Ranging from $5 to a couple hundred dollars, pick up a souvenir to remember the day.
To end the night, take a short walk (about 12 minutes) over to 169 Bar (http://www.169barnyc.com/cmsmadesimple/, 169 East Broadway). This eclectic bar brags an absolutely unbeatable happy hour: from 1 to 7:30 pm, for $3 you can get a beer and a shot or, put your chopsticks to work, and order $3 pork or vegetarian dumplings.
That’s all I can suggest at the moment, but I feel my ventures into Chinatown are not over. If ever you’re feeling as though you’ve seen all of New York—Chinatown is the place to visit, if not for a new experience than to see at work a neighborhood where community remains very visible.