As Sylvia’s childhood becomes a gentrified neighborhood, there remains some favorite local addresses.
My high school, located within the Financial District, is a 20-minute walk away from Chinatown, so late afternoons of my adolescence were frequently spent in bubble tea shops, loitering in Elizabeth Center as my friends and I perused gift shop paraphernalia but bought nothing. There was the egg waffle stand (the original, opened long before egg waffles had become trendy) at the corner of Canal and Mott that sold a bagful for a dollar; the jewelry store in which my friend’s aunt, who runs the place, gave me my first piercings with a mere piercing gun and rubbing alcohol; the Cha Chan Tang whose food and service were absolutely lackluster but we kept going back to for the prices. We were working our first part-time jobs then, had student MetroCards with three (entire!) transfers, our curfews adjusted to ten in the evening. We felt as though we could conquer the city. But we were teenagers, too, still, intimidated by the Financial District, Midtown, and Upper Manhattan, so Chinatown—unassuming, unadorned, dirt cheap—was a toe in the deep end of the pool.
Chinatown, though, is certainly chaotic—ongoing congestion, questionable smells and sanitation—but it wouldn’t be Chinatown if it weren’t so. Masochistic, maybe, of me to say, but it certainly grows to become endearing, the little souvenir shops and fruit and fish markets. Old ladies asking me whether I want to buy a handbag. Vendors selling coconut water on the street side. During Chinese New Year there’d be dragon dances, firecrackers, sparks, and bangs, confetti all over. As I return to Chinatown these days, it feels a little smaller than it did when I was fourteen and unfamiliar; long-time stores have closed, gentrification continues to make its rounds as new, hip stops open each year, but some do remain (and hopefully, stay).
Among the many old grocery stores in Chinatown New Kam Man is my particular favorite; it’s got three floors—the bottommost for houseware; the main floor food, drinks, and a mini-restaurant in the back (go for the char siu!); the uppermost stationery, cute merchandise (plush toys, paper for folding stars, and the like), and skincare. In high school, and still now, I like to stroll through the bottom floor and look at the little porcelain bowls, especially the ones with the cats on them, and dream about a future apartment in which the cabinets would be filled with them. I also browse through the face masks, notebooks, and the sticker sets, wondering if it’s going to be a splurge that day. What’s great is that I can get some groceries done, replenish my makeup supply, and have a quick meal all in one place. And it’s right by the train station!
Another long-standing establishment is Kam Hing Coffee Shop, which has seen enough success in recent years to expand to three locations: two in Manhattan, one in Brooklyn. They’re particularly known for their sponge cakes, which are very moist, fluffy, and airy, and come in a variety of flavors: matcha, strawberry, pumpkin spice, mint chocolate chip, butterscotch, among others. I’ve been enough times to have tried a good amount, if not all of them, but nothing gets better than the original (though they’re all wonderful), along with some Thai iced tea. It’s a memorable take on the Chinese bakery sponge cake. Sometimes I’ll drop in for a quick snack, other times I’ll buy a bunch to bring to a friend or my family, and have one myself on the train ride back.
Those who visit Chinatown don’t often venture too deeply into it—in the direction of East River waterfront—myself included; much of the bustle is centered by the Grand and Canal Street stations and their surrounding areas. The past summer, however, as I began taking weekly kickboxing classes closer to the river, I would walk south-eastward, passing through Essex Street and then East Broadway, where it became a little quieter, more residential. The neighborhood, Two Bridges, located at the southern end of the Lower East Side, offers a view of the East River, of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. It’s quite serene. In the summertime, the neighborhood children—a blend of the largely Chinese and Latinx populations—would run about, playing with the outdoor exercise equipment (pull-up bars, bikes, and then some) and their water guns, with such light laughter. It was at that time that I would listen to the sound of childhood, as I walked along the water.