Seeing another world street by street

Email|Print| Text size + By George Oxford Miller
Globe Correspondent / October 9, 2005

NEW YORK -- Standing on the corner of Chatham and Bowery in New York, I feel more as if I am sandwiched between chapters in a history book than stuck on a busy intersection in Chinatown.

Chatham Square was named after William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, who was twice Britain's prime minister but was also an opponent of the Stamp Act imposed on the American colonists in 1765. Across the street is the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in the nation, First Shearith Israel, dating to 1683. Down the block, Columbus Park was named after the explorer when the neighborhood was Italian.

Through the centuries, the residents of this area have spoken the King's English, Yiddish, Gaelic, and Italian. Now Chatham Square has a memorial to Chinese-American war veterans and stands in the heart of the largest Chinatown outside Asia.

To explore it, my wife and I wanted more than guidebook notes to the maze of streets and shops. We joined Jami Gong's ChinatownNYC walking tour for an insider's view that combines history, anecdotes, and a few tasty treats.

''New York City actually has five Chinatowns," Gong says as we walk down Bowery Street. ''Brooklyn and Queens each have two. The Manhattan Chinatown covers 15 to 20 square blocks and has about 200,000 people. We're a world within a world."

Besides guiding tours, Gong is past president of the New York chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, and he also founded TakeOut Comedy, a club that features Asian-American comedians.

''Did you see the movie, 'Gangs of New York?' " Gong says. ''This corner was called Five Points in the 1860s. It was the site of the historic battle between the Irish and American gangs shown in the movie. The five-street intersection disappeared 100 years ago when bulldozers reshaped the area for Columbus Park."

In the ever-changing evolution of New York neighborhoods, ethnic groups come and go. The immigrants who founded Chinatown arrived in the decades following completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Thousands of Chinese rail workers left California and the West in search of a safer community and economic opportunities. Instead, they found the worst slum in New York.

Gong's cultural insights and grasp of history add a living dimension to the narrow streets and bustling corners. He tells us about the buildings and stores, their owners and families.

''Good Fortune Gifts is the oldest store in Chinatown," he says in front of an ornate storefront at 32 Mott St. ''Paul Lee's grandfather opened it in 1891. Newcomers who didn't have an address used the store's. At one time, the Post Office listed more than 1,000 people for the six-story building."

The store closed after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and reopened recently with a new owner.

''Chinatown lost a lot of business after 9/11 because of all the street closures and checkpoints," Gong says. ''I had to show my ID three times just to get to my apartment. Paul's store lost so much business he couldn't pay the rent."

Our group of eight follows Gong through the crowds. People spill off the sidewalks into the street. Tables set up by merchants display an array of food items. Neat rows of fish gaze up from beds of shaved ice. The selection of root vegetables, greens, and exotic fruit offers a lesson in plant biodiversity. A butcher shop sells fried duck feet, honeycomb tripe, beef tendons, and pork intestines.

Along the way, we stop at a bakery and Gong buys warm pastries filled with pork or coconut. Chinatown has more than 200 bakeries, teahouses, cafes, and restaurants that serve food from 10 distinct Asian cultures. We pass Cantonese, Mandarin, Szechuan, Thai, Korean, and Taiwanese eateries. Gong brags about the Fried Dumpling, a little restaurant on the block-long Moscow Street that you won't find in the guidebooks.

''I love it," he says. ''They serve dumplings five for a dollar."

We walk past a cluster of sidewalk fortunetellers at the edge of Columbus Park, along a block of funeral parlors, and later down the block-long Doyers Street, which has three curves.

''Chinese tradition says ghosts can only hop in straight lines, so they can't come down this street," Gong says.

An unassuming restaurant squeezed between the barber shops that line both sides of the street has an unusual claim to fame. ''The Nom Wah Tea Parlor opened in 1920," Gong tells us. ''It served the first dim sum in Chinatown."

Eating dim sum is one of the signature experiences of a visit to Chinatown. Before our afternoon tour, we ate lunch at the Golden Unicorn. Many restaurants serve dim sum, but the larger ones offer the widest selection. Waitresses circulate with carts stacked high with steamed dishes. We feasted on dumplings stuffed with shrimp, meat, and veggies, on spring rolls, chicken satay, pork buns, and fried shrimp. Each plate serves two and costs a couple of dollars, depending on portion size.

Stores on Mott Street, the business center of Chinatown, crowd the sidewalks with tables and displays. The frenetic pace captures the atmosphere of street markets in Beijing or Hong Kong. Flower and drugstores squeeze between gift stores cluttered with paper dragons and red lanterns. Storefront tables are filled with toys, bras, shoes, and shirts. Want a tea set, CDs, good-luck charms, gag fortune cookies, or seven T-shirts for $10? This is the place.

We end the tour at the Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng Co. for a tea demonstration. A photo of former President Bush tipping the cup with proprietor Ellen Lii hangs on the wall. Lii greets us with a cup of sweet plum tea, then leads us to a table in the back of the store.

To brew Chinese tea properly, we learn, warm the teapot with hot water, then ''wake up" the leaves with a quick bath in hot water. ''Never use boiling water to brew tea or steep the leaves too long," Lii instructs. ''It makes the tea bitter."

Metal canisters with various types and grades of tea line the shelves in the narrow store. King's Tea fetches as much as $144 a pound and the most popular seller, jasmine, goes for $100 per pound.

George Allen works downtown, but visits Ten Ren regularly.

''It's worth the trip to Chinatown to get high-quality green tea," he says.

Another regular, Rong Fu, works for a bank in Chinatown. She stopped in for green tea-flavored dried plums.

''I've lived in Chinatown four years and I'm still discovering new stores and restaurants," she says.

With Gong's native-son interpretation, the streets of Chinatown read more like pages in a pop-culture comic than a history book. New chapters of the never-ending story are added every day.

''Chinatown's been growing for 150 years and isn't slowing down," Gong says. ''Now, it surrounds Little Italy." Then he adds with a chuckle, ''Someday, Chinatown will take over Manhattan."

I'm not sure whether the part-time comedian is joking.

Contact George Oxford Miller, a freelance writer in New Jersey, at

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