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.