Exploring the city from A to Z

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


I had originally intended to go to Chinatown the weekend of the Chinese New Year celebration, however the blizzard of '08 struck the day I planned on going. I figured it would defeat the purpose of seeing the parade considering I couldn't see outside my own window. Chinatown would have to wait... until now. My friend Pam, who was visiting from Boston, asked if we could explore the neighborhood, and despite the fact that the next place on my list was Central Park (the challenge rules are subject to change and blatant disregard after all), I decided to make Chinatown my next stop.

There are many Chinatowns, but New York's Chinatown is the largest in the United States. NYC's Chinatown is also, according to its website, "the site of the largest concentration of Chinese in the western hemisphere." It is bordered by Delancy St. to the north, East Broadway to the east, Broadway to the west, and Chambers St. to the south.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Chinese immigrants, particularly men, were drawn to America's Pacific coast by the gold rush and the promise of work on the Central Pacific Railroad. When a large anti-Chinese movement developed, culminating in The Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese workers fled to cities in the east.

The new law forbade further immigration, and so the workers' wives and children could not join them in their new country. This created a bachelor society in New York's newly developing Chinatown neighborhood, where there were less than 200 Chinese women and 7,000 Chinese men. The Act also prevented Chinese people in the country from applying for citizenship, making them permanent aliens.

In retaliation, Chinatown created it's own governing organization, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, with its own constitution, taxes and even police force. The CCBA was made up of smaller societies or "tongs." Gang violence between tongs and (white) rumors of opium dens and prostitution made Chinatown a feared place during this period in history.

In 1943 (60 years later, people), the Exclusion Act was lifted, Chinatown was given a small immigration quota, and the neighborhood slowly began to grow. When the quota was expanded in 1968, the neighborhood exploded, absorbing much of the original Little Italy. Today the area continues to grow, but with increasing rents many have moved to the satellite Chinatown that has even developed in Queens.

Pam and I took the 6 train to Canal St. and stepped out into a bustling street market scene. People were selling fruit, tchotchkes, and...sea food? I had never seen someone sell prawns, squid and assorted mollusks like a street fruit vendor. Just picture a basket of apples--crawling, clawing apples.

As we were looking around, one of the crabs in a basket pictured above actually got free, jumped to the street, and tried to make a break for it. A man from the stall went running after it and put it back in its basket on top of its brothers and sisters. It seemed to me that if a crab managed to break out like that it was only fair to let it go. That must be why I'm not in the seafood business. That and the smell.

Pam and I wandered the streets for a while, and then went to our first scheduled stop, Nice Green Bo Restaurant. I had read that the place was one of the best Chinese restaurants in the city. In fact, all the tables sported the restaurant's great reviews under their glass tops.

We stayed away from the more exotic things on the menu like the jelly fish and, "Wine Chicken's Feet." Pam ordered a noodle soup and I got the sesame chicken. I asked our waiter if I could get brown rice. He said something that sounded like, "(something, something) rice," which I took to mean, "we don't serve brown rice," so I said, "Oh, okay. White rice is fine." My meal came with no rice. Guess I read that one wrong.

I had heard great things about the Nice Green Bo's "soup dumplings," so I made sure to order some. They were called, "steamed tiny buns" on the menu. (Insert joke here) I must say, they were awesome!

Steamed tiny buns!

When they first arrived at the table they were piping hot, and with each bite boiling hot broth would spill out into our mouths. It was literally a taste explosion! After they cooled off a bit, they were delicious. I'd definitely recommend checking the restaurant out for the dumplings alone!

Our next stop was directly across the street at the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. Pam and I were on a quest for good ice cream and the CICF is supposed to have some of the best in town.

I was intruiged by the fact that the list of flavors had things like durian, ginger, green tea, and lychee, but then it had a separate catagory called, "exotic flavors" such as strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate. One of the shop's regular flavors was something called, "pandan." Pam and I jokingly referred to it just as "panda." I asked the woman who was serving us what pandan was. She said, "it's a green leaf that people use in Malasia in desserts." Almost two seconds after I asked her, I notice that underneath the flavor name in the display it read, "Pandan: a green leaf used in Malaysian desserts." I my face red?

I ordered a cone of chocolate pandan ice cream, partially out of embarressment, and partially because I wanted to be able to say that I eat pandas. And hey, if you're offered the opportunity to order pandan flavored ice cream, you have to take it, right? I can report that the ice cream was delicious. And for those wondering, panda(n) tastes kind of minty.

After the ice cream, Pam and I further explored the neighborhood. We saw a couple of interesting sights...

Roasted Aliens

This must be where they make "White Diamonds."

A Christmas present for my mother.

The ant show is in town!

A golden Chuck E. Cheese

Everwhere we walked, people would come up to us and secretively try to sell us "designer" handbags. "Gucci! Prada!" They would hiss. One guy just showed us a piece of paper with pictures of purses on it. It made Pam and I wonder why the hush hush? It was as if the people were trying to sell us heroin! Purses must be contraband south of Canal Street.

After walking around for a while, we stopped into the Kam Man market on Canal St. We had a lot of fun looking at all the interesting food and knick knacks the place had for sale. For example:

Preserved duck eggs. Now lead free!

Dried fungus

All kinds of tea! These pictured here are "pearls." They had fantastic names like, "Juliet's Kiss," "Lover's Blossom," and, "Gunpowder Green Tea."

Massage paddles...in the kitchen appliance section

I came really close to buying a mug with "lucky cats" all over it, but I chickened out after I saw a sticker on a bowl mentioning lead paint. I'd have better luck with those duck eggs.

Shortly after we left Kam Man, Pam and I left Chinatown. I can't believe I waited this long to visit this exotic and colorful neighborhood. I had a great time and I plan on making many future trips for steamed tiny buns and panda ice cream.


Pam said...

mmm...tasty panda goodness

Kirstin said...

Lauren! Call me up, we should do Chelsea together.. more wonderfully incomprehensible art!!! HUG! (Loved your Bowery post. I took a bunch of students through the Bowery last year.. I loved the stores with the giant sinks out front.)