It started, I suppose, with my grandparents. Travelling 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 neighbourhood. Every morning they took a bus to a subway train, then to another 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 purchased 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.
I write this from my office in San Francisco, where I live now. San Francisco, of course, has its own famous and historic Chinatown – America’s oldest, born in the Gold Rush years of mid-19th century. I have spent plenty of time climbing up and down the hills of this Chinatown. I have deep affection for the neighbourhood and its residents, and admiration for the longevity of the ever-evolving community.
But my Chinatown is New York’s Chinatown. It’s through this gateway that my family first stepped into their new American life nearly six decades ago. During my childhood, it’s where we went to be Chinese.
I’m 40 years old now, with two young children of my own. But when I cross Canal Street heading south on Mott Street and enter the slipstream of the sidewalk crowds, I’m seven years old again, dancing over suspicious puddles on the pavement, grasping my mother’s hand tightly, pinching my nose as I giggle at the sharp smells of the street alongside my brother and cousins.
What did we come here for? Everything, really. Life events: christenings, weddings, funerals. Everyday things: grocery shopping, for Chinese vegetables and ingredients my mother and aunts and grandparents could not get elsewhere. We visited a neighbourhood bakery for egg tarts and fragrant buns with a sweet butter filling. We came to be immersed in the language: Taishanese and Cantonese, the dialects of my family’s native southern China. Even today, in their 90s, my grandparents do not speak English. Living in Chinatown, they never had to.
When I was a 25-year-old New York writer crammed into a tiny room in a mouse-infested apartment with three other flatmates on the Lower East Side, I set myself free by walking down here. I began to negotiate my relationship to Chinatown as a place to stay in touch with who I understood myself to be, but also to make my own decisions about my heritage. I bought lotus seed buns from the bakery of my youth, but I had my own trusted sidewalk vendor from whom to buy gai lan vegetables. I used my utilitarian Cantonese in the shops but I also took language classes once a week from Mr Wen, who taught me words for topics like professions and politics.
I visited Hong Kong and mainland China for the first time. I got to know the different regions of China and, back home in the US, their corresponding mirrors. In recent decades, the Fujianese colonised East Broadway in New York’s Chinatown. I thought about Chinese communities all over the world, and how they came to be. It led me to write a book, American Chinatown, about five of the most significant Chinatowns in the United States: San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu and Las Vegas. The last, in Las Vegas, began as a mall.
New York’s Chinatown has hosted successive waves of immigration since the 19th century. These days, just like the rest of Manhattan, it faces intense gentrification and real estate pressures. But still the visitors come: for the vibrant crowds, the still-excellent markets, a sense of constant renewal that is grounded in longstanding heritage and history.
Back in California, I can buy gai lan from the corner market. I can order char siu for delivery in 30 minutes. A few times a year, I fly across the country to visit my family in New York, to practise my Cantonese with my grandparents and eat the food that feels like home. And I go down to Chinatown, sometimes, to visit who I used to be.
Bonnie Tsui is the author of American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods
Cathay Pacific flies to New York from Hong Kong 35 times a week