In Chinatowns, All Sojourners Can Feel Hua


There is no consistent name for “Chinatown” in Chinese. Newspapers use one name, popular speech uses others. At the Canal Street subway station on Broadway the chosen translation is delicately pixeled together from colorful tiles: “huabu.” Hua means “Chinese,” but with a sense that transcends geography, independent of the nation of China. Bu means “place” or “town.”

The characters were not there when I was growing up on the amorphous border between Harlem and Columbia University, when my family made regular pilgrimages to Chinatown by subway, later replaced by weekly trips to Flushing, Queens, by car. At the Kam Man grocery store on Canal Street, my parents would treat us to Haw Flakes, sweet tangy disks that tasted like bits of hard Fruit Rollups. The ingredients were listed as “haw” and “sugar,” which left a generation of Chinese-American children wondering what exactly haw was. (It is the fruit of the hawthorne.)

On Mott Street’s open storefronts, my parents would pick through the bins of live crabs, sluggish but still menacing to a wide-eyed girl. And Chinatown was our source for paraphernalia for the Lunar New Year, which always arrived in a frenzy of smoky firecracker pops and chiming gongs. The firecrackers planned for this Sunday, celebrating the Year of the Dog, have been centralized by the city government to a controlled ceremony.

For all our trips down there, I never knew Chinatown was known as huabu until I saw the characters appear after the station renovation. Hua is the distilled essence of being Chinese, free of fissures caused by wars and colonization. You can be hua even if you hold a passport from Singapore, the United States or Peru. You can be hua even if you have never set foot in China and don’t speak a word of Chinese.

Like many Asian professionals who came after the 1965 immigration reforms, my parents were liberated from the confines of working-class, Cantonese-speaking Chinatown by education and English. My family, like other Chinese who live abroad, are often called huaqiao, Chinese sojourners. The label sticks, as though one day we all might return, even generations later: pulled back by the tentacles of Chineseness.

In the meantime, huaqiaos seek and create Chinatowns. Manhattan’s Chinatown might not have been classy, but we got satisfaction in knowing we found better deals by braving the cramped streets. Haircuts were cheaper. The restaurants were yummier. Seamstresses were quicker. Chinatown was a bargain hunter’s dream, a word-of-mouth economy before online ratings guides democratized shoppers’ secrets. We went there for things you could get nowhere else in the city (like a white silk Chinese dress made for my sixth-grade graduation) as well as services that had no cultural basis, like film developing. My mom would hoard rolls of film and take them to a photo store at the base of Confucius Tower. Often spring or summer arrived before we saw pictures from Christmas.

American Chinatowns have been beacons since waves of anti-Chinese violence in the late 19th century drove Chinese workers out of California and into self-protective pockets across the country. Then, Chinatowns promised physical safety. Today they offer comfort for those who long for home. Fujianese restaurant workers who take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt to be smuggled to workplaces east of the Rocky Mountains flock to East Broadway on their days off. Suburban Chinese drive into Flushing for groceries. Homesick graduate students rent DVD’s by the boxful.

I knew it was only a matter of time before my Chinese friend, Charlene, who had begun studies at Syracuse University in the fall, would come. Charlene is originally from the Chinese city of Xian. We had been students together at Beijing University, where I decided that “Beryl” (she was given this English name by a middle-school teacher) was out of date, and renamed her.

She called to say a group of Chinese Syracuse students were coming to New York City in January. Her roommate wanted to get a haircut at a salon on Mott Street. The officers of the Chinese student association wanted to go to Flushing to buy food for the Lunar New Year banquet. One classmate wanted preserved plum and dried cuttlefish snacks, which she could buy at Aji Ichiban, the Hong Kong chain. Charlene wanted to eat real Chinese food, not General Tso’s chicken.

She was fixated on hotpot, a festive Chinese dining ritual where food is tossed into a pot of boiling water.

When we arrived at Canal Street, Charlene noticed the huabu markers on the station walls. I realized they were written in the traditional Chinese characters used in China before the Communists took over. New York’s Chinatown predates the Communist government, and even the one before that. When Chinese first settled in the crooked intersection of Doyers, Pell and Mott Streets, an emperor still ruled.

We browsed the cluttered vendors stalls on Canal Street. I found a hairclip I liked. “How much?” I asked. “Three dollars,” the vendor replied. As I reached for my money, Charlene smoothly stepped in. “Can’t you do a little better?” she asked. I blushed. When I lived in China, I would put up fervent fights over half a yuan, 6 cents. Here, I had grown soft. He offered two for $5. I took it.

Bargain hunters of all sorts still come to Chinatown: women looking for imitation designer handbags, lawyers and jurors from the nearby courthouses in search of a cheap, filling meal. One man asked us where he could get an ID. He had heard that this was the place to buy one.

Chinatown exudes density. It not only rivals Times Square as the most crowded pedestrian area in the city, but also is one of the most visually cluttered, greeting you with a jumble of fire escapes, colorful store signs and streams of tattered flags. Like many crowded Asian cities, Chinatown has mastered the art of the vertical, inspired by languages that can be written up and down, not just side to side.

“Why do Chinese like America?” Charlene asked, rhetorically, as we were swept along by the crowds on Canal. “Because you can drive and have a big house. But not in New York City. Here, it’s just like in China. Why bother living here?”

Chinatowns, she said, had a bad reputation in China: dirty. They are not the face that a rising China wants to present to the world. Having explored many Chinatowns, I am amused to report that perhaps only Japan, in Yokohama, had the discipline to create one that is both clean and expensive.

But I take pride in the vibrancy of New York City’s immigrant communities. You can spot a dying Chinatown: vestigial restaurants, but no doctors’ offices, no barbershops, no funeral parlors, no businesses required by daily living. Outside New York and San Francisco, many urban Chinatowns have dwindled to Chinastreets, or even Chinablocks, as the population centers have shifted to the suburbs. Washington’s Chinatown is superficially preserved: the storefronts, including Starbucks and Subway, must display Chinese names. The Hooters sign says “Owl Restaurant” in Chinese.

In contrast, New York now has three Chinatowns — one each for Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, though only the original can claim the name. In 1946, a small group of United Nations delegation members from the Nationalist Chinese government settled in Flushing, in what was then a largely white middle-class community. Since the 1980’s, the neighborhood has flourished as the Chinatown for Mandarin speakers from Taiwan, Shanghai and northern China. More recently, Manhattan’s working-class Chinese population has been squeezed down the N subway line, emerging on Eighth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and in other satellite clusters farther out.

Manhattan’s Chinatown has fought off the forces of urban decline. It has even grown, with a churn of immigrants that provides both fresh customers and new entrepreneurs. Starting in the late 1960’s, Chinatown expanded as Little Italy and the Jewish community of the Lower East Side receded. Small reminders of the Italian presence peek out on the southern part of Mulberry Street. Chinatown’s only park, where the elderly can be spotted doing tai chi or playing Chinese chess, is named after Columbus. The Antica Roma restaurant, renamed Asian Roma, offers dumplings along with spaghetti to the courthouse crowd.

Today Chinatown is large enough to have two main arteries: Canal Street, the tourist-friendly thoroughfare that is still predominantly Cantonese, and East Broadway, which has become Main Street for Fujianese immigrants. East Broadway, Charlene agreed, looks like China — from the stripped-down restaurants with folding tables to the vendors selling piles of snacks for long bus rides, to the signs unapologetically free of English. The center of Chinatown has shifted east, engulfing the Grand Street subway station. Perhaps one day it will get a huabu sign as well.

Charlene, raised in the north, didn’t want the southern Chinese food all around us. We could do better. She wanted hotpot. So after we bought some dried fungus and preserved fruit, we hopped on a small shuttle bus to Flushing. The buses, which charge $2.50 for a ride, don’t run on a fixed schedule. They wait at the base of the Confucius Tower on Division Street and leave when they are full.

My parents chauffeured me to Flushing every Sunday for folk dance lessons, martial arts and Chinese chorus; it’s where I learned to twirl silk ribbons and sing “Doe, a deer” in Mandarin. Equipped with widely available parking and easy highway access, it draws the professional Chinese who live in the suburbs. This was the Chinatown that Charlene and her friends had heard of, where they could shop in boutiques carrying stylish clothing and stop in at bubble tea cafes on the side streets. Her Syracuse classmates were even staying in Flushing. Instead of paying for a hotel, they bunked in one of the $60 rooms in private residences that are advertised in Chinese newspapers — bed and breakfasts without the breakfast.

For this rising class of Chinese-American professionals, Chinatown can be an uncomfortable echo of a time when Chinese immigrants were almost exclusively male laborers.

The geographic and class divides are visible. Flushing has many more Chinese bookstores and more men in suits. It is home to the World Journal, a national Chinese-language paper owned by a Taiwan media company, and to the Taiwan government’s cultural offices. When I was a bridesmaid for a Chinese-American friend who was a medical student at Columbia, she hired a white limo to take us from her Washington Heights dorm room to the Flushing Mall to get our hair and makeup done before the wedding.

Where Chinatown is shrouded in history, Flushing is bright and contemporary. The broad, flat cityscape of Queens is spiced up with the shiny metal-and-mirror aesthetic popular in industrial East Asia. “In Chinatown, everything is right in front of you,” Charlene said, putting her hand right in front of her face. “In Flushing, you can breathe.”

The street food is more northern and western Chinese. We bought Xinjiang-styled lamb kabobs on Main Street for $1. Charlene, raised in a city with a Muslim influence, quickly devoured them. “Do you like America?” we asked the vendor, who had come from the western Chinese city of Urumqi on the Silk Road. “I like American money,” he said. But he would never raise his kids here — he doesn’t like the values. Charlene, too, wants to return to China after graduate school. With its roaring expansion, the opportunities are better for her there, she said — a philosophy opposite that of my parents, who had arrived a generation before.

We trudged to Minni’s Shabu Shabu, a hotpot restaurant off Main Street that is one of my mother’s favorites for family occasions. Charlene ordered the thin slices of lamb, which she flash-cooked in the hot water; I ordered fish balls. It was definitely hotpot as an American experience, she observed. In China, everyone would use one big boiling pot, mixing their food together. Not here. “Each person has their own hotpot,” she said. She had been lectured on American individualism in college and smiled at this simple example.

Even so, the hotpot tasted authentic. It was the meal she had been waiting for for five months since coming to Syracuse. For both of us, it was a taste of home.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company


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