It was a grand plan, to say the least, but unfortunately it seems that the Chinatown Mega Tour is not going to be coming into fruition anytime in the near future. This is in part because of a lack of time, but also just because it wasn’t going to be the cheapest endeavor. I have not given up on the idea, though, and at some point, or perhaps over many points, would like to visit the various Chinatowns in the United States. For now, though, here is a bit from one of my more recent trip to the Chinatown in downtown New York City.
Holding status as the largest congregation of Chinese outside of mainland China (Revised: My Mistake, New York Chinatown is not the largest Congregation outside mainland China, rather one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere), the New York City Chinatown is quite a thing to behold. Most people who have visited (or believe they have visited) this region tend to speak of Canal Street and a few of the smaller areas south of Canal and west of the Bowery. Though this area does comprise a significant chunk of Chinatown, it is not necessarily the best representation of the region as a whole. This section has a much higher tourist traffic than some of the other areas, and as a result many of the restaurants and shops cater to such needs. This is particularly the case on Mott and Pell streets, where you can still find any number of crap trinket shops that line Canal. Despite such touristy tendencies, this southwest corner of Chinatown also represents some of the oldest territory, with a rich history.
Chinese started to move into this areas west of the Five Points region as early as the middle of the 19th century, but it was not until about 1900 that the population truly boomed. These early immigrants primarily held jobs selling hand rolled (and reportedly gross) cigars, as well as the more common Chinese hand-laundries. Up until 1965, the population was severely limited and controlled by the Chinese Exclusion Act, but once this was lifted there was a large exodus from the Chinese province of Guangdong (Canton) as well as Hong Kong. Both of these regions speak Cantonese, and as such this was the predominant language within Chinatown until the 90s, when a large influx of illegal immigrants began to appear from Fujian province, on the coast north of Hong Kong.
Pell Street, of which I spoke earlier on, has the look and feel that I believe many tourists want to see when they visit Chinatown. It is a smaller street adorned with a large number of banners and signs, and looks very much like the depictions of southern China seen in the movies. This street is frequently referred to as “Hair Street”, as it contains one of the largest grouping of hair cutting salons anywhere in the city. On the downtown side of Pell, just after you have turned off of Mott Street, you can find the First Chinese Baptist Church, a great old landmark from New York’s older days.
At its halfway point, Pell street is intersected by a small and mysterious street called Doyers, featured in several movies that require a “China” scene. Looking unlike anything else in the city, Doyers is immediately recognizable, as it is one of the rare curved streets within Manhattan proper. Not just a curve, but a full 90 degrees, making it impossible to see around the corner. This street stems back all the way to the days of the Five Points, and was known as the Bloody Angle due to its being the frequent location of violent battles between the Chinese Tongs, gang-like crime organizations that controlled Chinatown and its population for a hundred plus years. If you look in the picture below, you can see a large, copper green building in the far background, just left of the middle. This is the old opera house. I particularly like this building as it is said to be the original connection point for the rumored Chinatown tunnel system.
During the heaviest days of fighting during the Tong wars, it was convenient to have a tunnel by which to escape a fight. At present, you are able to enter a through a small doorway to the left of the old opera house, head down several flights of stairs and find yourself within what appears to be a piece of these old tunnels. You can walk all the way from Doyers street to Wing Fat Mansion on the Bowery. This tunnel has given me the creeps in the past, so users be warned. Doyers has a long history of violence, slave trade, indentured servitude as well as opium dens. Simply dripping with history and culture, a must-see if you travel to Chinatown.
Now if you want to have a more ‘authentic’ experience, I suggest heading above Canal Street. This section has traditionally been little Italy, and in the past it was a well known fact that members of either nationality put themselves at great risk by crossing the Canal Street border. In more recent years, however, Chinatown has grown significantly, and a block or so north of Canal (from Baxter Street all the way to the Bowery) contains some of the finest and most interesting markets that you will observe. This is especially the case, as most tourists do not head in this direction. I will note that you should sometimes use discretion if taking pictures. This area can get quite congested with shoppers and deliveries to the markets, and store owners are not always that receptive toward camera toting gawkers. While I was traveling through this area, I got to witness a large group of people from the Midwest being led around by an exceptionally brazen tour-guide.
“this is the best place to see some really odd stuff. If you head to the back of any number of these shops, you can find tanks of eels and even turtles”
True enough, but despite the attraction that some of these oddities can provide, if you aren’t buying, store owners don’t like you blocking the path of those who are.
The final of the less travelled portions of Chinatown exists to the east side of the Bowery, just north and south of the Manhattan Bridge. This region is home to a number of smaller restaurants, large residential areas and any number of fruit stands. Travelling in this area is quite an adventure, but more of a hike than may be worth it for most people. I recommend this area to those who just have to see it all.
Some good sites for those interested in making the trip:
If you are interested in getting to any of these areas, transportation is pretty easy. My favorite method is to take the N, R, or Q or any of the myriad of subways that arrive at the station on Canal and Broadway. From here, simply head east on Canal. Once you arrive at Mott Street, follow your heart’s desire!