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English Publications

Short Stories

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A Kaleidoscope of Manhattan’s Chinatown

Jeffrey Yip

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 conductor’s 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).

It’s 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 haven’t 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 other’s 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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