Chinatown: a way of life

I took the day off yesterday and wandered around Chinatown, attempting to support as many local businesses that I could (which means, as much as I could carry in my reusable cloth bags). I visited a third generation tofu, grass jelly, and rice cake shop, a bakery that specializes in Portuguese-style egg tarts, another that has three locations and is famous for their cha siu bao (Chinese barbecued pork buns, baked), coconut buns, and pineapple buns. The location I go to has temporarily closed during COVID-19, so I went across to the more “real” side of Chinatown to their second location that was still open. I usually like to get their taro bun with a pineapple top, but alas, they are not making them at this time. I purchased vegetables from my usual Hong Kong Supermarket and also from a corner street vendor at Grand and Chrystie. And while exiting the train to start my wandering, I happened to run into the zongzi / joong lady, the one I’d read about online: she was famous for making multiple times of steamed Chinese tamales, from the Cantonese kind I grew up with to Tainan style in Taiwan, using pork belly and mushrooms, to the sweet ones further north in China. I purchased two Cantonese style and two Tainan style to store in my freezer for future eating; I was going home with a LOT of stuff to eat for the next few days.

Chris likes to make fun of me about literally everything, but he especially loves to make fun of me for my love of Asian food and goods, of my excitement whenever we visit Chinatown, whether that’s in Manhattan, Flushing, or anywhere else. It’s not really a novelty for me because I grew up eating a lot of these things, but I still love to explore flavors and styles outside of the Cantonese stuff I grew up with. China is a big-ass country; there’s no way I’d be familiar with everything food-wise that existed.

But that’s the thing: shopping in Chinatown or buying Asian foods and goods is just a way of life for so many people in this city and around the world. It’s not a novelty like it is for so many non-Asians. These businesses need us to frequent their businesses, buy their goods, and tip them so that they can survive. During the last five months, I’ve been worried about what Chinatown will be like after quarantine has officially ended. Chinatown was seeking a decline in clientele about six weeks before the shutdown officially took place in New York City due to anti-Asian, “China virus,” “kung flu” racist sentiment. People have been worried about the restaurant / hospitality business in general; frankly, I am more worried about local, family-run Asian businesses because most of these places in Chinatown run on razor thin margins and count on high volume; their prices are relatively cheap, which means they really don’t take much home (unlike more Western businesses, ahem). A lot of businesses have already closed permanently. The original rice noodle/tofu place I used to go to has closed forever, so I had to find a new one. But what if one day, these businesses are all shut down and all I can find in Chinatown are hipster matcha places or Asian-fusion noodles?

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