The first time I visited NY Chinatown, I was appalled: it was dirty, noisy and smelly. I felt like I’d been transported into a Chinese village in the '80s.
As I settled in the city, I started following countless food guides to the Chinatown restaurants. I was amazed at how authentic the dishes were. Slowly, I caught myself wandering around the streets of Chinatown when I felt lonely or anxious. The street noises calmed me. I caught myself observing the Chinese grandmas and grandpas. I was subsumed in their bartering and bantering in Cantonese, and the occasional sound of mahjong tiles here and there. I caught myself dreaming of home- missing my aging grandparents who raised me back in China.
At the same time, I started studying the history of Chinese immigrants in graduate school. I went to talks and tours in Chinatown, encountered pictures of the same busy streets in archives. I finally understood that here on the same land, waves of Chinese immigrants had felt the same loneliness, the same dreams of home. Here they sweated, fought, and sacrificed so much to claim a new home in a hostile environment. This place might be too noisy and dirty for some, but it is rich in history, culture and activism. And it is home.
Here is a list of my three favorite cultural places in NYC Chinatown. It is not an ethnic enclave stuck in time. It is a neighborhood constantly being reinvigorated. Here, the old doesn’t stop evolving, and the new never forgets its roots. The next time you visit New York’s Chinatown, make sure to check out these places!
1 Wing on Wo & Co
Operating since 1890, Wing on Wo is a porcelainware boutique. It is also the longest continuously-run family business in NY Chinatown. Like many old stores, the porcelain shop was almost forced out of business by gentrification. Fortunately, its 5th-generation store owner Mei Lum turned it into a hotspot of community-organizing.
Yes, Wing on Wo is now also home to the W.O.W. Project - a “community-based initiative that reinvents Chinatown’s creative culture and history through arts, culture and activism.” The project hosts talks, tours, artist residencies, and a book club. It is a welcoming space for artists, community members and activists alike.
Wing on Wo is truly a living testament to the rich history, endurance and innovation of the Chinese American community in New York.
2 Museum of Chinese America (MOCA)
Founded in 1980, MOCA is dedicated to preserving and sharing the history and culture of Chinese Americans. Its permanent collection traces Chinese American history, from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the present day. It also has a rich archive for researchers, as well as events for anyone interested in Chinatown!
MOCA also presents temporary collections year-round. Make sure to visit the new exhibit on Chinese workers and the Transcontinental Railroad before it closes on March 2020!
3 Doyers Street
How cool is it to sip cocktails on a street where Chinese mafia members used to fight?
In the early 20th century, Doyers Street was once notorious for the tong wars - Chinese mafia fights. Now it is the prime location for some of New York’s best bars and restaurants.
Come have some dim sum at Nom Wah Tea Parlor. It is the oldest still-operating dim sum restaurant in New York - they’ve been open since 1920! If you’re into trendier restaurants, check out Chinese Tuxedo next door. Its obscure entrance leads into a beautiful sunken dining room, converted from a former Chinese opera house.
Want a drink? The tiny, one-block Doyers Street offers three famous speakeasies: Apotheke with their creative cocktails, the underground Pulqueria boasting mezcal and pulque, and Peachy’s, famous for their cute drinks in Buddha-shaped mugs.
Besides these three places, Chinatown is filled with galleries, cheap vendors, and trendy marketplaces like the Canal Street Market. If you’re tired of the busy streets, go to Columbus Park right around the corner and catch a mahjong game if you’re lucky. Don’t get too bummed by the noise and the trash on the streets, Chinatown has so much to offer.