A Kaleidoscope of Manhattans
As the express train inches towards
Canal Street, I am contemplating the sounds, sights, and aroma of
Chinatown. Another beautiful Saturday morning with the sun casting
its golden rays of light and the birds high up in the trees chirping
away with each other. As we get close to the Chinatown station, the
conductors mantra is heard, "The next stop is Canal Street-Chinatown.
Transfer for the J, M, N, R, W, and 6 trains. Also connection is available
for the shuttle bus to Grand Street." When the Manhattan Bridge
was closed to construction, it was a nightmare for many residents
figuring how to get to and from Chinatown. At least the service notices
are in Chinese so it helps a little.
As we pass one station before Chinatown,
the motorman slows down the train as the pneumatic air brakes are
activated. Peering through the window of the first car, I can see
the track signal is set for green over yellow. This means the motorman
will be taking the train over a switch to another track. The train
veers to the right and I know that we will be getting off at the farther
end of Canal Street and Broadway. As I prepare to leave the train,
there is a noticeable amount of people standing over selected passengers.
When I say selected meaning people of Asian descent. The standing
individuals are anticipating that those seated people will be getting
off at Chinatown. This would allow those hopeful people to grab a
seat before the other people board the train at Canal Street.
As I climb up the flight of stairs,
I meet the smell of barbeque meats. The masters of their craft wake
up early in the morning and prepare their kitchen duties. The craftsman
roasts an eclectic variety of meats including roast pork, pig, and
duck. Some of these people have learned their art in Hong Kong or
southern China. I walk pass the Vietnamese owned stores, selling numerous
tourist items as well as watches and bags. On the corner, from the
subway station, is a building that formerly housed a bank that is
now occupied by a community health clinic. The health clinic serves
the health care needs of the community as well as providing educational
awareness on health related issues. A crisp and cool June wind blows
past me, as I sail through the street. A rarity and even privileged
in the smog and clog filled traffic on Canal.
As I near the corner of Canal and Centre
Street, a bustling of activity is simultaneously occurring. From the
row of newsstands, a few people are purchasing the major Chinese daily
newspapers. Each newspaper emphasizing coverage of news in either
China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan depending on their home base as well as
local news in the community. Several people are off to meet their
families or friends to yum cha, or drink tea, accompanied with dim
sum. The major Chinatown restaurants cater to a massive crowd with
a significant selection of appetizers and main course dishes. The
variety of food available has certainly improved compared to the 1970s.
Others are off to the local parks with their Tai Chi swords and bags
in hand. A smell of fresh fish fills the air as the trucks from Seaport
and elsewhere load numerous boxes of seafood to the vendors. You can
always find people shopping at the fish markets on Canal, Mott, Bayard,
and Grand Streets (forgive me if I left out other streets).
Its early in the morning so Canal
Street is still relatively subdued. As the late morning nears, navigating
Canal Street and other streets in the heart of Chinatown requires
patience, skill, and tactic. One must learn to anticipate, react,
and maneuver to sudden stopping by people in front of you as well
as other obstacles around you. I arrive at the intersection of Baxter
Street, where two streets diverge. This usually leaves the tourist
or an unsuspecting individual confused as they attempt to find out
where Canal Street continues. Hopefully, a friendly New York samaritan
will point them in the right direction.
The tour groups havent arrived
on Mott Street. No problem coasting through the street filled with
gift shops, a major bank, bakeries, herbal shops, and other eateries.
A major association is situated in the center of the block. The president
of the association serves as the unofficial mayor of Chinatown. The
association used to serve a significant function for the community
as it collected taxes from the people and performed other community
related services. The presence in the community still exists as several
occasions have been hosted at the association, including an appearance
by a major Hollywood actor and press conferences held by police officials.
There are several associations found in the community with the original
idea of forming support networks to help immigrants adjust to life
in a new country and offer other essential services.
Round the corner on Bayard Street, passing
by the former elementary school building on Mulberry Street. The former
school building now houses several groups including a museum dedicated
to Chinese in the Americas and a community senior citizens center.
There will be a reunion gathering for alumni from the school in the
fall. One of the biggest parks in the area, Columbus Park, is situated
on Mulberry Street. Columbus Park was actually a body of water where
Native Americans used the Lower East Side area as a summer hunting
ground. It amazes me that the park actually covered a body of water
used for fishing. Pass by the elderly people huddling together to
play mahjong and other forms of gambling.
Walk through the open soccer field used
by people of all ages and ethnic groups in the morning to practice
different forms of martial arts including Tai Chi and Gung Fu. The
controlled movements and breathing help the body with increased circulation,
balance, and reduces stress. In one area are people practicing the
self-defense aspect of Tai Chi using an exercise known as Push Hands.
The goal is for two people to touch each others arms and feel
the momentum coming towards the person. As the force is felt, the
practitioner uses their body and arms to defuse the power and redirect
it back to the partner. It is like each group has their designated
area in the field where they practice every day. Another interesting
thing to watch are two people practicing an esoteric but practical
art, Dragon Style Gung Fu. I can see their techniques performed with
technical precision as well as power emanating from their waist.
As the sun rises along with the temperature,
people gradually trickle on to the streets. The businesses prepare
to open as you hear the metal gates being pulled up with a loud bang.
The trucks with their loads of delivery make their way into the narrow
streets of Chinatown. Early visitors come to vie for the precious
parking spaces, a luxury not a commodity. Children are off to school
learning to play musical instruments, academic tutoring, and learning
the Chinese language. This is another day in Chinatown where the community
is striving to better their lives and the tourists coming to Chinatown
to take in the unique culture of the largest Chinatown outside Asia
and in the United States.
- End -
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