The Culture of Chinatown New York City

February 18, 2008 1 Comment »


chinatown new york city culture

My friends and I decided to go out of the country this weekend – and we took the Q train to do so.  The subways doors opened up and we stepped out into China – Chinatown New York City. One of the many things I love about New York City is it’s diversity.  But it’s not just diversity, it’s really a melting pot. You can walk from neighborhood to neighborhood in New York City and experience totally different cultures.

Today we were entering China planning to spend the day soaking up the unique and strong Asian culture in Chinatown.  You can easily spend a day in this vibrant, crowded neighborhood in the city and here’s some of the things I suggest you do to soak up that culture.  And it has nothing to do with shopping!

Dim Sun in Chinatown NYC

The Spanish call it tapas, the Greeks call it mezes, and the Chinese call it dim sum. We decided to head to Chinatown this Sunday for dim sum, a treat that I hadn’t had since I was last in Hong Kong! For those of you not familiar with dim sum, let me tell you what you are missing. Small plates and steamers of dumplings, pot stickers, steamed buns, fried things, noodles, sticky rice, and gelatinous desserts rolled by your table by a Chinese woman. You see something you like on that cart, you point to it, and it end up on your table immediately, more carts come by, you point to more things, and you have a leisurely lunch surrounded by Asian culture.

chinatown new york city dim sum

Actually – who am I kidding, it never happens like that – that would be way too civilized for China Town (I mean that last statement in the nicest way). In the hustle/bustle, no personal space of China towns around the world – dim sum is anything but civilized…it’s chaotic…and that’s what I love about it.

Normally the woman who rolls by the cart, states what is on her cart of goodies in broken English at best. She then tries to convince you to take a few plates, going as far as placing them on your table for you before you can really answer. Soon after the next cart lady rolls up and does the same.  Before you know it, you have a table full of small plates of items that you have never seen before, and are wondering what they are and a bit scared to ask.

Carts start to line up around your table like planes trying to land at Newark on a Friday night.  They all tryto talk you into choosing something from them – much like a true Asian market that I have come to love. As they place the small plates of noodle-y goodness on your table, they add it to your table bill in Chinese characters so that you really have no idea what you have purchased. Green tea flows and at some point you learn to be forceful with the cart ladies and say the words ‘no more’…your belly full of dumplings, sauce, and tea.

chinatown new york city dim sum

It just keeps piling up!

It’s a wonderful light lunch, if you can learn to say ‘no’ soon enough, else it can be rather filling! However, the beauty of dim sum in a ‘local’ restaurant in China Town is that it is cheap…super cheap. Halfway through the meal you start to get a bit worried that you have about 18 plates on your table (granted – there were 5 of us!) – then you get the bill and realize that it’s only $12 a piece…a bargain in NYC.

Travel to China Without a Passport

chinatown nycThe biggest benefit of the afternoon was the trip to China town itself – a chance to experience a new culture while staying put in America. Unbeknownst to us, this Sunday was the day that all of the businesses in China Town celebrated Chinese New Year with lion dances.

A lion dance is done inside or outside a business establishment in order to bring good luck and fortune to the business – and it puts some money in the dancers pocket as well. As we walked up to our Dim Sum restaurant on Mott street, a lion dancing team was emerging from the restaurant…good timing on our part! We were entering a restaurant full of good fortune. After dim sum, we walked around the area for a bit following a few lion dance teams watching all of the excitement and celebration. It’s a far cry from being in Asia for Chinese New Year, but it’s as close as you can get when you are stateside.

Chinatown Prices, the Cheapest in New York City

However a visit to China Town in NYC will not only transport you to another time, but another economy. I can’t go visit China Town without coming back with a bag full of fruit or fish that is half the cost of what I pay on the Upper West Side.

Plus, it’s the only place I can find the needed ingredients to make a proper Thai or Vietnamese meal. That’s where I can find green papayas for my favorite Thai salad. You can even find Vietnamese water spinach…I was stunned. About as stunned as the little shop owner was when I asked for it. They brought it out of a back room for me – I think it arrived form Vietnam just that morning!

Chinatown in NYC should probably be called Little Asia since it contains people and products from all over Asia; not just China. You’ll find some of the best Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese restaurants there, and even some ‘fusion restaurants’ such as the China Town Ice Cream Factory. The Ice Cream Factory mixes Western and Asian tastes into yummy little creations like green tea, lemon grass, or ginger ice cream.

chinatown tea houses nyc

Tea Houses in Chinatown

If you really want to feel like you are in Asia and getting a bargain – just be brave and wander into one of the local tea houses. You will find that you are surrounded by elderly Chinese people, sipping tea, gossiping, and eating pork buns. I stopped into my favorite tea house recently, Mei Lai Wah, (which pretty much used to resemble a greasy diner, but has now opened a newer store) and had 2 fresh pork buns, 3 pork dumplings and a cup of tea for a total of $4.50. The best part is that I even get to use some of my language skills. I found myself saying hello and thank you in both mandarin and Thai on my latest trip to China Town.

The Year of the Rat New York City Style

year of the rat chinatownMy friends and I ended our Chinese New Year day with a walk around the southern tip of NYC – a blustery day, but worth it to get out and really explore with my camera again. That’s when we saw the flattened rat, and I couldn’t pass it up since it is officially the year of the rat! Unfortunately this rat met it’s doom and didn’t even make it to it’s special Asian year. I thought about how much the Thai family that I stayed with in Northern Thailand would have loved this rat (maybe a little less flat) – they would have whipped up a wonderful dinner with it! Whether you are running from them, celebrating them, or eating them – rats are here to stay in NYC.

As I have integrated back into my home culture in NYC, I find that I gravitate to Chinatown now – and no, not for the fake purses or shopping! I feel more comfortable there than in many neighborhoods in NY. As I stroll around, it brings back fond memories of my travels, and my family living half way across the world.

Prior to my around the world travel, I had lived in NYC for 3 ½ years and I probably went to China town a total of 5 times – whenever visitors were in town and wanted to drag me down there. Since I’ve come back from my trip, I’ve been to China Town about once a week. It is my little escape from the US – and it’s only a cheap subway ride.

Sure – I’d rather be in Asia, but if you can’t – it’s the next best thing.

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