All That Chinatown Has To Offer To A Native New Yorker

For all Chinatown has to offer, I can never understand why its inhabitants and visitors leave it so unkempt.

Chinatown nyc
PHOTO BECKY CHAO

As a Chinese-American born and raised in New York City, I’m entirely grateful to Chinatown for providing me a way to explore my cultural heritage.  From a young age, I was used to subway rides on Saturdays for Chinese School where I learned to read and write in my parents’ native tongue. I was used to the early morning car rides to meet my parents, aunts, uncles, friends and colleagues for tea and dim sum. It was an activity that lasted for two hours, at least, and would always result in a fight over who gets to pay the bill.

Then there are the bakeries that offer sweet, delicious buns for under a dollar. Little buns baked to a golden yellow, filled with pineapple custard come three for a dollar. My favorites are perhaps the fried butterfly cookies of French origin known as palmiers, elephant ears, but here, they are literally called butterfly cookies. These inexpensive treats can’t be good for you, but for their price, they’re certainly worth it. The best part is, when Mid-Autumn Festival comes along and you can stop by for a box of fresh-out-of-the-oven moon cakes: original lotus paste, red bean, mixed nuts, they’ve got it all.

CHINATOWN NYC
PHOTO BECKY CHAO

Street vendors with their carts overflowing with such fruits as durian, lychee, and longan fruit, also have vegetables like taro, bok choy, and choy sum. It is a quick exchange. A close scrutiny of the product takes place. There is maybe even some tapping involved before the selection, at which point the product is handed over to the vendor who weighs it and bags it in a matter of seconds. You hand him a few crumbly old bills and leave with tonight’s dinner/dessert in hand.

But try all I might, I’ve never grown immune to the sight of the variety of raw fish, slapped against crushed ice stored in old, deteriorating Styrofoam boxes that release a steady flow of water onto the sidewalk. It is this dirty fish-soiled water that makes me cringe and slow my brisk gait whenever I wear open-toed shoes.

CHINATOWN NYC
PHOTO BECKY CHAO

For all Chinatown has to offer, I can never understand why its inhabitants and visitors leave it so unkempt. Trash litters the streets, and muggy water almost always gathers next to the sidewalk, even when there are drains leading to the sewage system. Restaurants here rarely receive a Health Inspection score of an “A”; “B”s and even “C”s are much more common. It puzzles me why such a culturally rich place would be so neglected.

It’s a widespread, recognized problem; the Chinatown Youth Initiative has even begun an annual Chinatown Beautification Day as a counteraction. However, its success is in doubt. I myself have participated in this event, only to be told by a Chinese woman in a business suit that we should head over to Mott Street, because that’s especially dirty. To this day, I find myself in Chinatown, I am amazed yet disgusted by its uncleanly state.

CHINATOWN NYC
PHOTO BECKY CHAO

Becky Chao

A graduate from Duke University, Becky lived in Venice for several months. She traveled throughout Italy, Barcelona and other countries in Europe.

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