American Chinatown


Personal Geography

Some people unpack when they first arrive in a city.
Me, I look for Chinatown.

It started, I suppose, with my grandparents. Traveling halfway around the world from Hong Kong, they settled in Manhattan’s Chinatown in 1960. Even after moving to another Chinese enclave in Flushing, Queens, they kept going back, like clockwork, to their old neighborhood. Every morning they took the Q26 bus and the No. 7 subway train to the 6 train to Canal Street, where my grandfather worked in a fortune-cookie factory and my grandmother was a seamstress. Every night they brought home fresh vegetables bought from street vendors they’d come to know. I picture a set of footprints marking a path from Queens down to Lower Manhattan, traceable on a map of the New York City transit system. When I come here today, I’m keenly aware that it’s their route I follow.

* * *

New York, 1977. I am born in Flushing. My family’s first apartment is a dingy affair with a leaky ceiling, and my brother is careful to pull me away from the drips. It’s around this time, at the end of the 1970s, that economically depressed Flushing starts to change, departing from its roots as an Italian and Greek neighborhood to become, eventually, its own Chinatown. I never get a chance to build loyalty for my first Chinatown; before we hit school age, our parents move us to Long Island, where good public schools are a selling point. But it’s not where we go to be Chinese — Manhattan’s Chinatown is. My personal history with Chinatowns begins here, where we have wedding banquets, christenings, grocery shopping, daily life with my extended family of aunts, cousins, great-uncles, fake-uncles. Everyone’s a relative, even when he’s not.

I don’t love coming here. At my height, the negatives are magnified: the filth of the streets, old takeout containers littering the gutters, sharply jostling knees. But at the child’s eye level of experience, there is fascination, too. We children stick together, sidestepping dark, smelly puddles and eyeing strangers warily, but eagerly poking fingers at tanks of lobsters or plastic kiddie pools of tiny turtles imported from Hong Kong. In the narrow aisled shops, open buckets of candied plums and orange peels beckon while the grocery ladies glare. Even so, when we sidle up to the displays, they bark assent and give us a taste.

The Chinatown of my childhood occupies the same cultural epoch as Roman Polanski’s eponymous film noir. I am wholly unaware of what the director has done, of his construct of some inexplicable “Forget it, Jake . . . it’s Chinatown” idea lurking beneath the surface that will dominate American cinema for decades. Still, because I’m not entirely of that place — I have, after all, one foot in the almost exclusively white Long Island suburbia of the early 1980s — I recognize the peculiarities, both small and large. Chicken feet at dim sum. A brusqueness of manner to outsiders, sizable extended families living under one roof, butting into each other’s business. Competitive noise.

The quirks hint at larger ideas, values, even then. Eating is about appreciating flavors and textures, whatever the vessel, and about the symbols behind them — “phoenix claws” being lucky — and is not to be limited by squeamish ideas of what is clean or dirty. A superiority is bred from thousands of years of culture established somewhere else, and not from mere snobbery or unfriendliness; investment in family protects against outsiders who threaten prejudice and misunderstanding, so that you are never alone, without a community. Finally, if you don’t speak up, no one will hear what you have to say. Dai seng di — “Make a bigger sound,” my mother says, pushing me forward into the world.

When I get my first job after college, I can walk to Chinatown for lunch every day. There is a complicated feeling inside me when I go. I’m here by choice, not dragged along for some family errand or event. What am I here for, now, on my own? I feel unobtrusive, invisible, a little nervous. My tongue is rough; I have to speak Cantonese. The sounds are like an envelope, and I put myself inside it. The street is still dirty, the people still loud, pushy. But I like it. Something here is bigger than me, a history, other people’s stories that are somehow my stories, anchoring me in this city. I belong in a way that is deeper than a job or mere geography.

A few years later, I move to the East Village, also a short walk from Chinatown. I make an effort to integrate Chinatown a little more into my regular life. For a year or two, I even visit Mr. Wen, an elderly teacher on Grand Street, a couple of times a week, to learn the workday vocabulary that I never heard in my house growing up. It will help with my travel and my writing, I tell the top editor at the magazine where I work, and he agrees. He pays for my lessons with Mr. Wen.

Family friends sent their kids to Chinese school when I was growing up — weekend classes in Chinatown that emphasized language and crafts and songs. It was the familiar effort to “stay Chinese” in a larger society that doesn’t make it easy to be different. Somehow, I had escaped the requirement, and in the lazy way of youth, I was grateful at the time. But it’s harder to learn now, even things I want to learn. It’s funny to find myself coming here voluntarily, after work, trudging up the subway steps at Grand Street station to Mr. Wen, my adult version of Chinese school.

Mr. Wen is crotchety, funny. He is the chief Cantonese-dialect instructor at a small Chinese-language school called Wossing, but he teaches Mandarin, too. All the kids learn Mandarin now — potungwa, the common dialect of all China — but I’m of that in-between generation, just after the last great wave of Cantonese immigrants, a born-in-America daughter who can still speak her parents’ language. Mr. Wen and I sit around chatting in a cramped classroom on the third floor of the school’s old tenement building. Or rather, I sit and he stands, even though it’s just the two of us. He’s smart, trained as a professor, but messy-looking. On a hot summer evening, he will sweat visibly through his button-down shirt, strands of thin gray hair glued to his forehead. He’s the age of my grandparents, and he’s from the same area, Toisan, located in southern China’s Guangdong Province. Guangdong was once called Canton, and most of the Chinese immigrants to American Chinatowns throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were Cantonese from Guangdong’s Pearl River Delta region — today a major manufacturing center of China that encompasses Hong Kong and Macau. On the other side of the world, they established communities of the same people, and many more followed them, finding safety in numbers. They were the trendsetters of their time.

Mr. Wen is nothing like my gung-gung, my mother’s father, but I think of the two of them together anyway. Mr. Wen talks a lot more than my grandfather, who is quiet and stoic. Translucent, my father calls him, referring to his pale skin, threaded delicately with thin blue veins. But he could have been talking about the impression my gung-gung leaves, which is often faint, hard to discern, an effort to pin down. I never know what my gung-gung is thinking.

Perhaps that’s why I feel such affection for Mr. Wen, who is the opposite. Oration is his gift. He steamrolls on, trying to get me to write Chinese. Why don’t you want to learn characters? he asks me, drawing on the board. It makes it easier to learn new words. I’m too old for that, I say. I just want to talk more, get my mouth in shape. Learn some travel vocabulary so I can ask questions about the Chinese destinations I profile. His method of teaching is unlike that of any other language teacher I’ve known. It’s circuitous, capricious, winging around the world from hotels and airports to cities and professions. Often, his topics have nothing to do with any of the things I’ve asked to learn about. He teaches me whatever occurs to him. He teaches me what he thinks I should know.

Eventually, somewhat reluctant to leave New York but in need of a change of pace, I move across the country. I am surprised to find unfamiliarity in its oldest Chinatown, in San Francisco. Its main street feels empty the first time I visit, in the middle of the day. Shops seem to be closed, and I can’t find a steamed bun to save my life. A couple of Chinese grandmothers come toward me. As they pass, I realize that they are speaking English, and their accents born-and- bred American, not Chinese.

And I wonder: What makes a Chinatown?


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