The Manhattan Story

His face etched by age, the man in front of Big Wong stood with a faraway look in his face, his hands busy stuffing golden tobacco into the thin stem that stuck out from the side of a wooden bong. That’s not the bongo which would imply an antelope, or on the other end of the spectrum, a drum. But since you can spot our man in the featured photograph with the bong in his hand (behind the potbellied man in the blue tee), you could safely cross out both antelope and drum-shaped possibilities. Instead, you can probably figure out that the bong is a pipe with a filtration device that allows you to smoke anything from tobacco to cannabis. His white apron flecked extensively by red sauce, the man then continued to puff away at the pipe and release curls of smoke as he nodded vigorously to emphasise that he was not partial to getting clicked. Why he was out for a break from his overwrought job of churning out noodles and sauce-laden dishes.

With the clucking of his tongue and the shake of his head, he might as well have mouthed out, ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than shooting photographs, so really Horatio, go eat some’.

We did eat a whole lot right after. Steamy bowls of soup with pork dumplings floating in them, a massive plate of noodles topped up with greens and strips of chicken and then the ubiquitous American Chinese dish called General Tso’s Chicken (that often surfaces on pinterest) appeared within minutes of our sitting at the table. All in big portions. We had forgotten the monumental portions of food served up in America. Surrounded by Chinese families going about their bowls with chopsticks and speaking in rapid Chinese, we slurped away.

This was Manhattan. Chinatown, New York. But I could have been easily in an eatery on the streets of Chinatown in Calcutta where the Chinese folks around us would been chattering in Bengali. The common factor was the intensely flavourful food, because that is what makes Chinese such a Friday night comfort food, isn’t it?

Do you put on your PJs after a long day at the end of the week and unwind with delicious Chinese and a frightfully scary movie? I look forward to such evenings when I rustle up Indochinese fare (typically it is about Schezwan dishes concocted with garlic and dried red chillies, moreish Manchurian dishes and chilli dishes which are typically batter fried chicken/fish/ veggies tossed up in spicy sauces). It is a version of Chinese food bequeathed to every Indian by the Han/Hakka community who made their way to Calcutta as far back as the mid 1800s when a businessman called Tong Achi established a sugar mill there.

The migrant Hakka people who belong to the provincial Hakka-speaking provinces of China started working in the sugar mill. In time they turned their skills to work in the tanneries (the stench of which can and will send you into a dead faint) to churn out fashionable and high quality leather goods in British India (working on leather was looked down upon by upper-caste Hindus) and some even operated opium dens. There are faded sepia photographs of rake-thin Chinese men with pipes of opium and punkahs (hand-held bamboo fans) alongside, staring at the lenses with glazed eyes, a sense of detachment from the squalor of their den. I wonder about stories from another era that the Manhattan Chinese have to tell too.

At the same time that some were making their inroads into British India, others chose to make the considerably longer journey to America, lured by stories of the gold rush of the 1840s.

Now New York to Calcutta spells a gigantic leap, but the common thread that runs through them is woven with the warp and weft of stories. Of migration, of immense determination to make it work despite abject circumstances and then these migrants’ renditions of Chinese food that was inevitably tempered by the environment that they found themselves in.

My jaunts have taken me to the Chinatowns in London, Kuala Lumpur, Seattle, Bangkok, Singapore, Port Louis in Mauritius to name some but the way of life of the Manhattan Chinese and the Calcutta Chinese have seeped into the very fabric of their surroundings.

Bringing you back to the streets of Lower Manhattan, the older generation of Chinese turn out to be sticklers for their customs, language and stern expressions. Far removed from the glitziness of the nearby Financial District of New York City, it is a world peopled by old Chinese men and women, bent double with age over walking sticks as they hobble across pavements, stopping once in a while to look askew at passers-by, cordial young bankers sitting inside their chambers and talking about their love for everything modern and coming across as the quintessential New Yorker living in their microcosm, younger store workers with colourful dragon tattoos splayed across their arms and then the antique shop owner with five generations of antiquing in the blood. The streets of Lower Manhattan are entrancing.

This was how we were introduced to the well-known and oft talked about grand American dream – that if you put in hard work why you shall reap the rewards –  all tucked in comfortably within the streets of Chinatown.

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The Georgian-style Roman Catholic Church of the Transfiguration does stand out in its very obviously Chinese surroundings.
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Sunday masses at the church are held in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.

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Chinatown Starbucks
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Heritage and modernity join hands in Starbucks, Chinatown.
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 Colours of Chinatown in Lower Manhattan
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The oldest store in Chinatown, Manhattan, is this antique store called Wing On Wo & Co. Generations of Chinese have been selling porcelain here since the 1920s.
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Those fire escapes fascinated me. Here you see them on Mott Street, which is the nerve centre of Chinatown.
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A Cantonese businessman was the first to arrive in Lower Manhattan and start the process of slowly and surely changing the nature of these streets.
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At Big Wong, we let go. Pork dumplings.
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Noodles laden with pak choi and chicken
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General Tso’s Chicken. A piquant affair.
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Fire escapes and dimsum palaces
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Chinatown leads you into Little Italy. A neighbourhood where once immigrants from Naples and Sicily arrived in the 1800s.
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I was taken in by those fire escapes as you can see.
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Italy nostalgia. 
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A typical NYC sight
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Red chequered table cloths, cannoli, espresso, pizzas, pastas…a feast awaits you in Little Italy. I cannot wait to get back and tuck into some Italian fare.
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We might have started with Chinatown but I leave you here with Little Italy, which goes to show that here is a city that belongs to everybody, and at first glance, seems to be made up of a million dreams and desires. 

 

77 thoughts on “The Manhattan Story

      1. I will be there soon! I’m even more excited for the kids as they’ve never been. I love just watching people and all of their variety. NYC is definitely a great place to do that.

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  1. great post, I visited NY a few years ago, but was crunched for time to visit all other tourist spots in the short time and missed out on these places, hope to cover these the next time! Have fun !

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    1. Thank you Nisha. There is always a next time and maybe you can do all of these justice with some more time on your hands 🙂 We walked in to open up a bank account that day because all the other branches were shut and for us the nearest one was in Chinatown. It worked pretty well for our first day in the city!

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  2. Sounds like New York has welcomed you with open arms. I love the diversity of NYC, I didn’t know Chinatown linked to Little Italy, that’s neat! I can’t wait to hear more about your adventures in your new home 😀

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    1. It has been interesting. I wonder if there is anyone here who is not from somewhere else. It is the veritable melting pot of cultures it seems and that is a wonderful thing in itself. I am looking forward to discover it too Angela 🙂 xx

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  3. Don’t you just love being in a city with people from different backgrounds, from all around the world. That’s one of the things I miss about Canada. That said, I think you will have a lot of delicious food to discover in New York as well.

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  4. I expect New Yorkers don’t even see those fire escapes anymore! It’s amazing what you first notice when you see a place for the first time. I was right there with you and those dumplings…..yum. Whenever we are up in Londonwe always head to China Town for dumplings as I can only dream of them in Wiltshire. Was the food different to English Chinese? Love it. Thanks for the post. X

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  5. You really capture the spirit of the city that never sleeps. And there is some fascinating factual stuff in there too. I’m delighted you are back in the groove. You are a favourite of mine! Xx

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    1. Thanks Osyth! Those are the sweetest words. I am trying to get to know the city. London, Paris, Rome, Vienna…they incited love so very effortlessly, but with New York, I think I have to lend some patience xx

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      1. It’s a shock, I think. When I moved to Boston I struggled for quite a while – then my eldest daughter said ‘it’s a whole nother continent mummy, what do you expect’ … that reset my head and I found it so much easier after that. New York is a bout 50 steps up the ladder from Boston in terms of it’s personality. You will get there xx

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      2. My own wisdom is to find the value in the way things are …. sometimes it takes a little while but when you get there, it gets SO much easier xx

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  6. I’m new here, so I hope you’ll forgive what might be an overly familiar comment, but your writing is brilliant, the photography immersive (although the food shots are not going to be good for my diet).
    It’s been decades since I’ve lost myself in Chinatown, but your post brought me right back. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Gabe. Such a lovely comment shall not be scoffed at, that I can solemnly vow. If this post is bringing you back into the folds of Chinatown’s plates of bliss, why I shall take a bow and consider my work done.

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      1. Tee hee. I am not Japanese but I believe I can do a fairly good job of it. As long as my posts do not make you hangry, all is well. And if they do, well, I accept only large-ish cupcakes (chucked at me).

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    1. Hah, I appear as a silhouette in the gold-framed glass door in the last post 😉 I shall make sure I put up some soon. The explorations are interesting. So is meeting the quintessential New Yorker. I am going about it slowly but surely xx

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  7. You are off to a good start in New York, my friend. I am green with envy, as I love NYC, and could do with a long walk through the colorful streets of Chinatown. And let’s be honest, I would only be walking for the sake of burning off all of the delicious food 😉

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    1. You are welcome to visit us! Yes an invite 🙂 Any time you want to come and go noshing about the streets of NYC. It is slowly growing upon me. Yesterday I quite enjoyed walking its streets and gaping at the buildings. How ridiculously high are they!

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      1. Oh my word, they are so tall. And it is strange coming from a small town–it is like a different planet. And thank you for the invite. If I can ever find decent airfare, I may make you live to regret it 😉 😛

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  8. Ok, I got up a short while ago and am hungry. =) Love the history! Had no idea…Calcutta’s Chinatown. Makes sense, though, the path they paved down from China, the spices they exchanged, also. So interesting how the Chinese made inroads into other cultures with their food. Koreans build churches on foreign soil, not restaurants. I was at the Wing…Co. back then on that trip with then fiance. And yes, I meant the Little Italy next door. I grew up with and on the fire escape. They’re part and parcel of NYC. Beautiful photos, wonderful job with the history.

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    1. Thank you Diana. That was my first day in Manhattan! And I love the memory of it already. I will always miss it too. What are the chances that we ate at the same eatery! You and I, only years apart. Not to know that we would meet each other e’en though virtually and talk about the Wong Co.! Life 🙂

      The Chinese changed cuisine for the world at large and who does not love a good Chinese meal? It is my comfort food. If you ever have Calcutta Chinese referred to as Indo Chinese, you will want to kiss their fingertips. I met one of the community in Leicester, UK, after we moved there and I was gung-ho. A bit too much I think now on hindsight.

      I wanted to go behind the counter and hug the old man. Then I proceeded to ask him if I could write a piece on him for the leading Calcutta daily – but he seemed alarmed. I had never had such a reaction before to prospective interviews and it amused me. Made me wonder about legality and other issues or maybe he simply did not want to be featured. His restaurant used to be quite expensive. Yet we were there every weekend with precision.

      One day after we moved to Northampton from Leicester, we found that the restaurant had shut shop because there was a fire. It was akin to the end of an era for us.

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