Dazzling lights and sounds of Time Square and Broadway! Art-Deco glamour and pre-Depression architecture at the Chrysler Building! “Dirty-water” hot dogs with kraut and diced onion at 42nd and ‘Lex’! The stately and inspiring Statue of Liberty! Beaux-Arts styled Grand Central Station! 5th Avenue shopping! Ray’s Pizza on 6th Avenue @ 11th in the Village! And you’ve already visited New York so frequently that with your affection (affliction?) of the productions on the Great White Way, you’ve seen over half of the Broadway shows with the orchestra being conducted by your favorite and talented Patrick Vaccariello .
With these choices available to visitors of New York City, even an overwhelmed Peggy Lee might have asked, “Is that all there is?”
No! It’s not!. New York City is more than flashy glitz and glitter, though many tourists miss the basic attributes of New York that make it what it is.
New York City’s Chinatown provides abundant opportunity for good value and memorable experiences during your Big Apple vacation. There may be no better way in the USA for a family to expose inquisitive, impressionable children to another culture, another pace-of-life, and distinctively different fast-food options other than McDonald’s.
What’s more, 150,000 residents make Chinatown the largest Chinese-Asian community in the Western Hemisphere.
Consider planning your trip around a seasonal festival: Chinese New Year and its accompanying Lantern Festival, the Ghost Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, and the Chung Yang or “Double Yang” Festival. These events are scheduled according to the Chinese calendar, so they do not occur on the same dates every year. But if your vacation time does not encompass a local festival. there is a constant display of local color that will amuse, entertain and educate.
A visit to Chinatown provides an opportunity to steep yourself in Asian cultures without traveling 14,000 miles. Today’s “Chinatown” is comprised of immigrants from all over China and Southeast Asia, and the various languages are spoken everywhere.
Tucked into lower “SoHo-Manhattan”, south of Little Italy, Chinatown is located in the area of the Five Points (of Gangs of New York movie fame) where many ethnic groups first settled when emigrating to America. In those days the neighborhood was a rough-neck part of town; every man for himself. All that has changed, and New York’s Chinatown is a vibrant, foreign city within THE city.
Beginning roughly at the corners of Grand and Mott Streets and spreading southward across Canal Street, Chinatown explodes with dynamic, boisterous activity. Historically and today, several streets remain associated with specific types of business- Mulberry (next to Columbus Park ) has its funeral parlors, Pell Street has its barber shops and hair salons, and Mott (between Canal Street and Park Row) is home to food emporiums and restaurants.
Scents of mysteriously pungent spices waft from local grocery stores. At open-air markets, the crackling cacophony of Chinese voices eagerly hawking fresh fish, meats, fruits and vegetables (many unknown to most Americans) pierces the air.
As I meandered through various Chinatown streets my mouth watered at the sight of lacquered duck hanging from a spit in the “deli” windows at Mott and Bayard Streets.
In one grocery store sat plastic boxes filled with live green frogs.
Purveyors of fine teas like Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng Company sell elegant, even rare teas that delight our senses of smell and taste – and comfort our soul or perhaps heal the body. Here, your hostess Miu Lui performs a ceremonial tea service and teaches you the traditional art and etiquette of serving fine tea.
Shoppers in Chinatown will enjoy an array of fine jewelry and contemporary American clothing as well as unique Chinese influenced designs.
Like a scene from Harry Potter, before your eyes, herbal pharmacies like the Lin Sister Herb Shop blend ancient Chinese medicines from boxes of traditional herbs. For the home chef, Chinatown markets may be the only place in Manhattan where you will find uniquely Chinese spices and ingredients. Or for your tired feet, visit a foot massage therapist.
For most Chinatown tourists, eating at a Chinese restaurant is at the top of the must-do list. Over 200 restaurant choices include China’s Cantonese, Shanghainese and Szechuan cuisines as well as those from Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, Malaysia, Japan and Indonesia.
Several 1950′s American diner-like establishments such as Dim Sum Go Go are frequently packed with neighborhood residents – always a good sign.
Silk Road Mocha and other small tea houses are excellent places to experience the youthful energy of contemporary Chinatown. Relax with a pot of hot Chinese tea, or enjoy one of various hip tea drinks recently introduced to America from China, bubble tea – a frothy, milky concoction with fruit flavors, tea and oversized, gummy pearls of tapioca. So you don’t miss the colorful chewy pearls, this is drunk through an oversized straw.
The upscale Peking Duck House is not as ‘typical’ as most dining options that thrive on the narrow streets of Chinatown, but their whole Peking duck (with wraps) carved tableside, and the Grand Marnier jumbo prawns with a few glasses of sauvignon blanc was the perfect Chinese meal for three famished American travelers.
Chinatown’s energetic college students (NYU) and young professionals can be found at Nyonya’s Malaysian Cuisine. Nyonya’s menu selection is extraordinary, and the quality and prices are excellent. What’s amusing (hopefully not intimidating) is that in addition to familiar choices of red snapper, satay, or Indian mee goreng, some of the menu options like chicken feet with mushrooms include these words: “Please ask server for advice before you order!”
Americans are known for eating on the run – never enough time. Chinatown will not leave you snack-less. The Ice Cream Factory features delicious flavors such my favorite, green tea. For the adventurous traveler, check out the Chinese snacks at Aji Ichiban. Founded in 1891, this is the oldest shop in Chinatown. Sample unusual dried fruits and seafood snacks or stick along with better known chocolates and candies.
The Museum of Chinese in the Americas has been called an American treasure by the Smithsonian. To enjoy this unusual museum, climb the stairs of this 100 year old former neighborhood school at 70 Mulberry Street. (Note the railings at two heights to accommodate younger and older children on the same staircase.) Allow about 30 minutes for your visit.
The Five Points Open Mic provides evening entertainment. Nightlife in bars and clubs is a new to the Chinatown culture. Five Points was packed (its not that big) the Friday we arrived at 9:30 pm. A mix of Latino, African-American and Asian aspiring artists presented slam poetry, stand-up comedy and music. Performances at both clubs are in English. Caution: This is New York City, folks, and performers’ language of the street is not for the faint-of-ear.
For accommodations, there are several hotels near-by to Chinatown. The SoLita SoHo provides luxury. The rooms are cozy and suitable for two guests max. Other choices are the Holiday Inn on Lafayette and the Tribeca Grand on 7th Avenue. Off SoHo Suites and the SoHotel are perfect for budget conscious travelers.
For tourists who prefer to see “the bigger” picture of their visited destinations rather than immerse themselves for days in one neighborhood, visitors to Chinatown will be please to know that New York’s Little Italy and the artsy area with all its galleries, SoHo border onto Chinatown. In fact, Little Italy is shrinking as the Italian immigrants have become ‘mainstreamed’ into American society and the new Asian immigrants absorb much of what was once an Italian neighborhood. The New York Asian population is growing at such a pace that a new Chinatown has grown up in Queens and there is scheduled bus service from the original Chinatown and Flushing, Queen near La Guardia Airport.
The most convenient method of getting into Chinatown NYC is to fly into Newark Liberty International Airport (just across the Hudson River in ‘Jersey). To avoid the traffic jams of the Holland Tunnel, I recommend that you take the train directly from the airport to NY’s Pennsylvania Station (about $12.50 one way and that includes the airport connection train). From there, unless you are familiar with the NY subway, take a taxi (appx. $10-15) to your hotel. The train is easy and dependable. Use the time saved to see more of Chinatown! (You need to show your train ticket twice, so keep it readily available!)