As a Baruch student, I can easily hop on the 6 train straight to Canal Street whenever I crave a cheap bite to eat in Chinatown. However, the station itself can use some work. The low ceilings, long walkways, and odorously cramped platforms, packed with pushy passengers could surely use some improvement but it’s the destination that counts, right?
If you’re not near the 6 train, Chinatown is also accessible at Canal Street on the N, R, Q, and Grand Street on the D and B train.
The second picture is normally the first view I get of Chinatown, getting off the 6 train. Nothing much has changed profoundly over time except nowadays, there are more cars and better signage. The “Welcome to Chinatown” sign is actually something that has been added recently.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that the corner of Canal Street is where the most “business” is done, as you can see in the third picture. As a (somewhat) native of Chinatown, I’ve come to know of several underground businesses in Chinatown, counterfeiting being one of them. Many of the bags are hidden in the back walls of the shop fronts but ever since police crackdowns, much of their inventory have been shifted to vans. It never ceases to amuse me how oblivious this is to police officers and tourists but I guess that’s something you develop with ample time spent in Chinatown.
The fourth slide shows one of Chinatown’s many street vendors. Chinatown is also known for their numerous street vendors where you can purchase anything from tropical fruits to yams to my personal favorite, coconuts. Although these vendors have legitimate licenses, I’ve come to learn about some troubles these New York City street vendors face: police harassment, unfair fines, and unjustified bans. In response to this, the Street Vendor Project was born to help these small businesses make ends meet.
The faint sweet smell you come across every so often emanates from the mini cake carts that have been around for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I was always fascinated with the process as they pour the batter and tilt the pan back and forth. These cakes are made right in front of you with this unique griddle in only a matter of minutes. Even now, you can get 15 pieces for only $1. One of the crowd favorites is the sweet mini cakes from Ling’s Sweet Mini Cakes, as portrayed in the fifth picture.
Slide six is an example of the commercial side of Chinatown. What many stores have been increasingly starting to sell are little trinkets of Asian culture ranging from puppet dragons to lucky red tassels, I presume as a response to the increased tourism rate. During holidays such as Lunar New Year as explained in previous blog post, Millennial Perspectives: Some Asian Traditions Explained, I usually see an increase in the sale of red envelopes, paper lanterns, bamboo, and lucky candy, in preparation for the celebration.
When I was younger and still too short to reach the windows, I would see glimmering ornaments in the reflection of the jewelry shop on my way to school. Within the last two decades, there’s been an explosion of jewelry shops in Chinatown as you can see in slide seven. Today, there’s at least one jewelry store that sells these tiny gold figurines on the corner of almost every block. Having a figurine in the form of your zodiac is considered to be lucky, as well as a sign of wealth. I’ve also seen them given as gifts during weddings. This year happens to be the year of the horse, as you can see reflected in this picture.
My favorite restaurant happens to be on Elizabeth Street but earlier this year, the street was also renamed Private Danny Chen Way, in memory of Private Danny Chen, as you can see here in picture eight. The unveiling of this street was made possible by the OCA Asian American Advocates, which you can read more about in my previous article. Danny Chen was a soldier for the US Army who committed suicide after being harassment while serving in the military. New York Magazine did a feature on Pvt. Danny Chen who passed away in 2011. According to Ivy Teng Lei, a member of OCA, “the whole community came together on that day [the unveiling of Private Danny Chen Way] to memorialize Danny Chen and show their support. It was great to see that.”
On a different note, this is the Chinatown Arcade in slide nine. As deceiving as the name may be, the Chinatown Arcade is simply a tunnel of restaurants which provides a shortcut from one street to another. Many of the restaurants have been there for a long time but they’re slowly being shut down due to lack of business. It’s a bittersweet moment when the places you used to eat at as a kid close down—it almost feels as if a part of your childhood disappears.
In comparison to the Chinatown Arcade, this is one of the newer streets in Chinatown. Slide ten is what I tend to call it the “Bubble Tea Alley,” because four bubble tea shops popped up on the same street, around the same time. In essence, this is a reflection of a younger, trending, and more urbanized Chinatown.
Before I head back to the train station, there’s one last picture of a place worth mentioning. This is the notorious Chinatown Ice Cream Factory beside Xi’an’s Famous Foods, both partnered with the Museum of Chinese in America in their MOCAEats partnership which you can read more about in my article about the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA). The Chinatown Ice Cream Factory has been around for over 28 years, and has grown into a popular tourist destination of exotic ice cream flavors.
As of right now, there’s still a good mix of old Chinatown with the newer, trendier Chinatown, but at some point, I anticipate that half of these small businesses will eventually close because of the sheer competition.
What do you think of when you walk through Chinatown?