I have often wondered if there is one major city in the world which does not have a Chinatown. Probably yes, many in fact. But somehow, the presence of a Chinatown adds another badge on the proud chest of a city. Somehow making it bigger. Adding that one mysterious facet to it.
Chinatowns have always fascinated me in more ways than one. One of them being the story of intense resilience that they tell. I came down hunting for the “best” Chinatowns in the world – the most dazzling ones, the most shocking ones. As far as culture shock goes, the ones that came up on the list were all from South East Asia. But I guess, you really can’t call it a Chinatown if it is so close to China!
The one with the Opium Wars – San Francisco
No matter how one gets acquainted with SFO’s Chinatown – through the grand entrance, the rather dramatic portal at Grant Avenue and Bush Street, or maybe a chance stumble on one of those wanderings around San Francisco, this is one sight that never fails to surprise.
Walking down its slim streets and lanes, eyes fall on the exotic ingredients being hawked, those famed silks and jade sold and displayed, and hundreds of colorful mementos and lamps all over the place.
The 1800s brought the first Chinese here, and as laborers. Before half a century was over, about 25,000 more moved in. They fled famine and the Opium Wars, and they came seeking all that the “Gold Mountain” of California had to offer – to one day make a fortune and head back to China. For most, the Great American Dream turned out to be nothing more than bare sustenance.
The little men from the east went on from the gold rush to the train era, making railroads, and then to some other age. All the while, Chinatown ghetto thrived and extended its borders. Prejudice took over one fine day in 1882 when the “Chinese Exclusion Act” was passed, banning all Chinese immigration for ten years. But ten years became almost a century until in 1943 the act was repealed. The ghetto did not grow much in boundaries during the time. But still it lived.
Today, San Francisco’s Chinatown is a world of its own. A neighborhood which has the highest concentration of the nationality in the States – about 80,000 people. Some have moved to nearby nooks of Richmond and Sunset. What sets this place a little apart from the other Chinatowns is that it thrives not on tourism. It does so by being what it was a century ago – a community of Chinese immigrants living out a life on polar ends with the people just on the next street.
Tradition runs so deep here that it is difficult to figure out if we are still in the west, or did we just cross over to Shanghai. Through an open window, a woman can be heard shuffling mah-jongg tiles. An old man (funny how he reminds me of Ip Man) sits patiently, unmoving. There’s something about them; perhaps it is the time, perhaps the displacement that make them so eerily patient with everything.
The Waverly Place has been redecorated and instead of the black soot that once lined the endless restaurants’ common walls, now there are celebratory splashes of red, yellow, and green. At Norras on number. 109, silence is sacred – one of the three temples here.
The main shopping street remains lined with grocers, tea-shops, herbal stores, noodle parlors, and many other little stores selling unpronounceables.
The one with the Red Egg – New York, New York
Manhattan is both new and old. While fashion changes with every season, somewhere between every other spanking new boutique, there is an old store selling second hand books while the house cat curls around the customer’s feet. Take for instance that little part of Manhattan that has retained a little bit of China – all safe and secure.
Does not mean nothing has changed. Apotheke is new. And it is a non-Chinese intruder. It sits right at Bloody Angle (remember those God Father inspirations and the bloody gang killings of the 1900s?) and charms with its décor, dim lighting, and pretty imaginative cocktails. The Deal Closer is a curious mix of cucumber, diced mint, vodka, a dash of lime, and vanilla. Comes along with the Chinatown aphrodisiacs.
Here is also Red Egg – a place which, according to some, gives “quasi-performance”. There’s a quite lively dance floor, instead of the usual fish balls. The establishment is on a street that gets rather quiet after dark. Inside however, dim red and purpule lighting reminds of a particularly murky Chinese novella. Not a place where you’d expect a lively mosh-pit. But it does happen. Oh every once in a while!
Chinatown NYC has lighter shades, no doubt. Not too far away, but in a dramatically brighter neighborhood, is the “Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory“. But almost completely hidden by the mighty Häagen-Dazs – your local neighborhood competition. But the Original keeps as busy as it were. Perhaps because you get scoops full of green tea, some ginger, the popular passion fruit and and the local favorite, the lychee sorbet. Might as well call it Original’s every flavored ice-creams. If that’s not good enough for a peek, there are those yellow T-shirts with printed dragons to buy.
I always found Chinese tea a tad uninteresting. They look like boiled water and herbs. Perhaps because they are just that. But for serious drinkers, there’s always Sun’s Organic Garden. An astounding array of jars full of herbs home-grown in the east and shipped over, make up the walls. Ti Kuan Yin, a variety that is roasted in-house, has a potent fragrance. And fragrance is important here. You will find men and women with the same patience as the bloke in SFO, selecting their fruits, after a very careful fragrance-scrutiny.
Culture is known to enthrall. Has always been that way. And it gets even more stunning when two of an unlike kind mingle. Chinatowns, perhaps, are the best examples of this.