The Exotic Side of New York: Chinatown

Before the hurricane and the turmoil connected to it, I made my way out to Chinatown to get some last-minute-souvenir-shopping done before I wouldn’t get a chance to do so this week.

I assume everyone has heard of Chinatown in New York before. It is supposedly the largest Chinese population outside of China and it makes up 100,000 of New Yorks’ citizens (legally, that is). People’s opinions range as to where Chinatown starts and where it ends, and I do not feel qualified to give you the right answer to this, either. What I can say for sure is that it tries to get rid off its neighbor Little Italy and might even succeed in pushing the Italians out of its way completely within five years or so. In days long gone Little Italy used to be the superior area size-wise, being far more impressive in area covered and dimension displayed than its Chinese counterpart. Now it is quite the opposite, as Chinatown has more immigrants than the Italian area does.

To get to Chinatown, you can easily take the train. The most common stop is the Canal Street stop on the blue and yellow line and, I dare say, it is also the most touristy part of Chinatown. Other stops are East Broadway and Delancey St on the F and M, or Grand St on the B and D. When you get off at the East Broadway stop or the Grand St stop, you can easily make your way to the notorious Chinatown buses, which I have talked about extensively here. If possible, I try to stay away from the huddled, souvenir-polluted part of the Chinese neighborhood and go straight to its heart around Grand St or East Broadway. Here you can still find very authentic Chinese cuisine (if this term can be used appropriately in this case), buy fresh fish and other ingredients hard to get outside of Chinatown (my roomies swear they have never had a bad experience with buying fish here, contrary to the initial feeling of repulse I had), and purchase old-school Chinese items for fun or for serious. It is also great to inhale life-time Chinese flair and sometimes I do believe I am transformed back into an Asian city jungle, finding myself among foreign-looking faces and within an unfamiliar chatter of words but with the strong sense that I am still somewhere in New York.

Another thing I really like about Chinatown is that everything is incredibly colorful: The signs, the decorations in some windows, the lanterns… I would really like to witness one of those famous Chinese New Year’s parades, just to get a look at the great costumes and traditions displayed during the walk. These parades typically take place in February; regretfully I ‘ve missed out on it this year, but I wouldn’t mind observing it in 2012 (gosh, does this sound far, far away!). So even during the gloomy, gray winter months the Chinese do not fail to impress here in New York.

Many stereotypes are in circulation when it comes to Chinese immigrants in the US, and even though I am not a big fan of these, I have to admit that at least one is true: Most Chinese do not speak English. It is fairly common in the Big Apple to stick to one’s language if one plans on simply staying in one hood and not venturing out. Spanish-speaking boroughs and Dominican/Haitian areas would be more examples of people who solely know their mother tongue and speak only rare bits and pieces of English. Chinatown does not pose too much of an exception to this rule, as most inhabitants live, work, and exist here on a day-to-day basis, being in constant interaction with their fellow natives. Albeit I heard there are x amount of different versions of Chinese, Mandarin being the most common one, I guess interacting with each other does not cause many difficulties.

I can also imagine living in Chinatown to be fairly an adventure. I used to have a Chinese-American co-worker who was halfway fluent in Mandarin and took on a room in the midst of it all. Her rent was very cheap, possibly the only incent for her to take it: an enviable $320 a month! When I compare this to my rent it is roughly 3 times lower, a cost that could be advantageous in the long run. However, her commute does become an occasional problem, as she first has to take the train and then a bus for 20 mins straight to get to her apartment. Buses are pretty unreliable here in New York and this does not exclude mass transit in Chinatown.

Back to my souvenir story: Of course I got off at the Canal St stop with the Q, desperately trying not to look like one of those tourists who are just there to be ripped off. I found a nice store with two figures I wanted to have and haggled the price down from $11 to $7. Until then I had only done this twice, but found that haggling is easily done here: You simply start off with half the price or a bit less than they are expecting and soon you are in the middle of a nice back and forth until they got what they want and you don’t feel stupid for paying the ultimate rip-off price. Done!
On my way out I was on a mission to get a pair of sunglasses I had wanted to purchase since the BEGINNING of this summer: Mirrored aviator glasses which I thought might be cheaper here than anywhere else. In Midtown you can buy them for some (loud-scream) cheap $3, but I was still looking for a better deal. The first guy who offered them said they were $8 a pair. Naw, I thought, and offered him $2. He declined, even backed away from me, and put them back. And so it went throughout the entire street. Sometimes the seller even laughed as if I was making fun and then retreated as if I had insulted him. “2 Dalla? Noo, I couldn’t do tat! Pah! They cost 10 Dalla, Miis.”
I really had no luck at all in buying them there. Eventually I gave up and started seeing the other beautiful things on my way to Grand St. Such as, for example, a few cute bakeries, which ultimately reminded me of the great time I had in Boston’s Chinatown. I will surely come back to try some of their pastries and get a supply of these for home. Chinese cakes are fluffy and taste a bit different than anywhere else plus you can get a good amount of pieces for a low price.

Chitown'sneighbor, Little Italy

Chitown during one cold winter
Chitown around Grand Street

During this excursion I once again noticed my lack of knowledge when being in certain neighborhoods. It could definitely be fun to spend some exciting 24 hours in Chi-town and one day I even plan on doing so!

Now, I heard there is supposed to be the equivalent of Manhattan’s Chinatown and Little Italy in Brooklyn. Up to now, I have only made it out to the Italian restaurants and bars (disappointingly small) and wouldn’t know the real comparison between these two. Albeit I hate to admit this, there is still so much left to discover here!

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One thought on “The Exotic Side of New York: Chinatown

  1. Great post, I’m so glad reading a post about Chinatown in NYC. And I’m also glad that you like Chinese cake. Yup, Mandarin is the standard Chinese language. South China got various dialects, I couldn’t understand most of them. Including the dialect of Shanghai. It sounds slightly weird.

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