We met in Hong Kong and have fond memories of the place, always telling the little red-haired girl that we’ll take her back there someday. We’d also always talked about going to New York City as well, but with only two weeks’ holiday, Hong Kong is quite a stretch.
So in booking a hotel for New York, we combined the two: The Hotel 91, at 91 East Broadway, is right in the middle of what some say is the biggest Chinese community outside of Shanghai. Turn left out the door and cross the lane, you’re in a Chinese supermarket right under the Manhattan Bridge. Turn right and you’re in the middle of a scaled-down version of Hong Kong’s old Wan Chai wet market, with a variety of fresh fish, live eels, huge, fist-sized sea snails, razor clams oozing soft, white flesh, live lobster, and what I came to fall in love with: the Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab.
I’d never seen blue crab before stopping to watch a fishmonger along East Broadway. He had no fewer than 30 wooden buckets of them stacked up tightly along the kerb when I went out to fetch croissants for the three of us one morning, and when we went back later, shoppers were lined up to buy them. They’re such a gorgeous blue, gradually giving way at the extremities to a deep red-orange.
He’d thrust a pair of tongs into the buckets, shoving what he could gather into a large paper bag. Sometimes the customer would complain and say – I suppose – that one of them was too small, so he’d root around in the bag and haul it out again with the tongs. Because he worked fast and handled them roughly, he’d shear off a limb or two, their remains scattered in the buckets and on the surrounding pavement.
Standing amid the passing traffic, getting jostled by the constant stream of pedestrians crowding the sidewalk, you’d hear above the loud Cantonese the blast of subway trains as they rumbled by overhead on the Manhattan Bridge. They came every two minutes, blotting out all possibility of conversation. But like living near an airport, after a while the noise was just part of the background.
I often had the feeling we really were back in our old colonial home in what is now China. In the manner of emigrants everywhere, the people seem to have held on so hard to the life they left behind, it remains frozen in time, while the home country has moved on. The old-fashioned herbal remedy stores look and smell exactly as I remember them. Cakes, preserves, meats, paper products – all stacked in a disarray along sidewalks with barely a border between one store and the next. And everywhere the crush of bodies.
A playground lies on the other side of the bridge adjacent to the brick supermarket. I lingered and observed the families watching their children play, the old men smoking, the young women chatting in groups, the kids so wrapped up in enjoying the moment. It was tiny, very crowded, and noisy: just like everywhere in Hong Kong.