Ten days in New York’s Chinatown

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.

11 Responses to “Ten days in New York’s Chinatown”

  1. October 26, 2010 at 8:55 am

    Are you still in NYC, Ian? If so, drop me a line. I might have a little suggestion for you…

  2. October 26, 2010 at 10:35 am

    That Chesapeake Bay blue crab looks a little radioactive on my screen. Is that its natural colour? Anyway, great to see NYC through your eyes a bit more. Enjoy the rest of your trip.

    • October 26, 2010 at 4:22 pm

      Those crabs are the real thing. I couldn’t stop looking at them, they’re so beautiful.

      @headbang8, been back for more than a week now, just getting settled again. What did I miss?🙂

  3. 4 Jen
    October 26, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    I once lived in Maryland for a few years and those blue crabs are beautiful and, well, tasty. Wonderfully written story – I felt I was right there in that neighborhood.🙂

  4. October 26, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    I would have introduced you at my shabby-genteel gentleman’s club. http://www.theplayersnyc.org

    The little red-haired girl would have loved the spooky melodrama of the place

  5. October 26, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    Ooops…not really shabby, in case any members are reading!

  6. October 26, 2010 at 10:20 pm

    I love Chinatown in NYC. Hope to be going back there next July

  7. October 28, 2010 at 12:07 am

    New York was my first “real city” experience, and I spent days and days just wandering the neighborhoods. I used to think I’d like to live there – but that was in my younger days. What I saw as energy-giving activity then is energy-draining pandemonium now.😉

    But those crabs – yes. We have blue crabs down here on the Gulf, but they can’t compare to those!

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