In the 1980’s, my dad lived in a loft in Chinatown. He and his friends used to call their neighborhood, RitoCa (Right on top of Canal) because not only was their building on Canal Street, but the streets were so noisy that they always heard what was going on in the neighborhood below them. From the way he describes it sounds like a really dreamy experience ---his room was set in a former elevator shaft of the commercial building that preceded him and along his walls there were giant cogs left over from the elevator. But back then, Chinatown wasn't exactly considered "trendy" or whatever.
My family doesn't have many steadfast traditions, but going to Chinatown is one that we still uphold. Some of my fondest memories from childhood involve weekend trips there with my family. Although the primary function of the trips were always to buy things like bok choy and squid (which at the time felt really foreign), it always turned into a larger adventure where I’d unravel a bit of the mystery into the world below The Bowery. Some of this mystery debunking was done by way of eating: eating lychee candies, going out for dim sum, and going to Kam Man a local Chinatown supermarket.
New York City’s Chinatown is one of the largest in the United States. The neighborhood has been growing rapidly since the mid-1800s, and yet today, it still manages to remain largely unchanged. Although you’ll still find smarmy men on the street trying to sell you $500 dollar counterfeit bags in their “back rooms,” today in Chinatown, closet-sized outposts of chic boutiques rub shoulders with century old electronics and hardware stores. My hope is that in reading this post you’ll realize that there is so much more to them than I <3 NY t-shirts and fish markets. Maybe we can even start a thread here to share some favorite Chinatown places. The following are just a few that have meant a lot to me over the years, or places that I just generally think are worth checking out.
My idea for this blog post come about a few days ago, when I realized that I hadn’t been to Chinatown in quite some time. Although Chinatown can sometimes feel more congested than Times Square on New Year’s Eve, it still manages to retain its magic after all these years. So my friend Brett and I decided to do some exploring.
I’ve always loved the Taoist philosophy behind the yin yang symbol. I incorporate so many yin yangs into my artwork, and wear quite a few of them too. At one of the vendors on Lafayette Street that Brett and I stopped at, we found lots of yin yangs and even some historical context. The shopkeeper told us that the tin circles in the photo above have zodiac symbols on them that are meant to be hung up in the home to ward off ancient evil spirits. To its right are cherry red hand-painted yin yang balls, which he said were part of an age-old practice in China used to keep the circulation in your fingers going.
Kam Man; 200 Canal St (at Mulberry Street), New York, NY; 212-571-0330.After we did lots of shopping, (did you know there is a fancy chopsticks boutique in Chinatown?) we went to Kam Man, which in my opinion is basically the Mother Superior of all Asian supermarkets. Kam Man sells everything from $1 boxes of ginger tea, sweet and sour sauces, and Aloe Vera juice, to dried seaweed and every flavor mochi imaginable. My favorite part of Kam Man though has always been the array candies I have never heard of. Like a lot of things in Chinatown, it’s a game of roulette; even though, I can’t read the labels on many of the items, I find all of the packaging really appealing and usually base my purchases off of the cartoon pictures. I’ve ended up discovering lots really good things through this method, like taro lavender cookies and strawberry butterscotch candies. But the magic of Kam Man doesn’t only extend to food products. The entire upstairs contains Sanrio beauty and school supplies, while the downstairs has cheap porcelain bowls for sale.
In the upstairs of Kam Man Supermarket
Brett Endorsing Ling's Sweet Mini Cakes
Ling’s Fresh Made Sweet Mini Cakes cart is located somewhere between a man selling cherries and a telephone booth at the intersection of Mott and Lafayette streets. She doesn’t have a Twitter page to tell you where her cart is going to be, because, like the rest of Chinatown, she lives in a mini-city within in a city where many ancient practices supersede modern conveniences. But regardless, she doesn’t need one, because her cart is always situated in the same spot. Ling is the best, not only because she sells 15 little cakes that taste like bite-sized waffles in a baggy for $1, but because they’re just plain addictive.
New Golden Fung Wong Bakery; 41 Mott Street (Between Pell and Bayard Streets); 212-267-4037.
Wo Hop Restaurant; 17 Mott Street, New York, NY 10002; 212-962-8617.Later, Brett and I had lunch and Wo Hop, basically the Cantonese-version of iHop. Sitting for communal dining at restaurants is never not awkward, but I love how in Chinese restaurants you get loads and loads of free tea which makes this infinitely better.
2012 is The Year of The Dragon in the Chinese calendar.
Aji Ichiban Candy; 37 Mott Street (at Pell Street), New York, NY 10002; 212-571-3755.
Aji Ichiban is the most well-known candy store in Chinatown. Although it’s a chain store exclusive to the neighborhood, it still has unusual things like pickled plums and dried crab legs, which, of course, my dad always feels the compunction to purchase. I tend to trend more towards their candied grapefruit and gummy eggs.
Ten Ren Tea House; 79 Mott Street; 212-732-7178.
It is essential when going to Chinatown to drink bubble tea at some point. Brett and I finished the day at Ten Ren, a place that I've gone to since I was little for bubble tea. It's as mod as it gets in Chinatown, with all of the bright white wall lighting units, but then is juxtaposed with golden tea canisters all around the space. A couple doors down from their tea house, they have a tea store where you can sample and purchase authentic Chinese teas. In terms of bubble tea, I prefer the slushy ones (above I'm drinking their green apple flavor) over the teas made with milk, but whichever I get its important to coordinate the color of my drink with the straw. Pinkies up!
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