Chinatown

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Wah Kee had a runaway success with his store, and before long he was known as one of the richest Chinese in the eastern United States. Almost overnight other Chinese businesses sprang up on Mott Street in the little block between Pell and Chatham Square: a couple of basement boardinghouses, a grocer, a tailor, and, in a real landmark development, New York’s first bona fide Chinese restaurant. It was a no-nonsense affair, with tall stools clustered around small tables to serve the neighborhood’s solitary Chinese bachelors, who tossed their bones over their shoulders. Before long adventurous white men began sniffing out the wonders of stir-fry, and an American obsession was born.

Another landmark development in the neighborhood would also change the face of New York for decades to come: the first Chinese laundry, just across Chatham Square at the corner of Catherine Street and East Broadway. A giant steam laundry in Belleville, New Jersey, had imported some seventy Chinese laborers from San Francisco, and the brother of one of them decided to strike out on his own in Manhattan. That was in 1870. By 1885 there were more than a thousand Chinese laundries in New York.

Walking next door to 32 Mott Street, I can really see into the past. As Chinatown grew and Chinese businesses filled Mott between Pell and Chatham Square, they swallowed up tiny Park (now Mosco) Street and took over Pell and little, crooked Doyers. Uptown tourists began to discover the neighborhood as well, and the local businesses reflected that in the luster of their decoration. Chinatown’s buildings were bedecked with balconies covered with elaborate ironand woodwork and painted in dazzling reds, golds, and greens, the colors of prosperity and good luck. The signs hanging in a jumble from the stores were a rich ocher; festive tasseled lanterns shone a brilliant red; long, colorful silk banners proclaimed a new year in the emperor’s reign or celebrations like the Autumn Moon Festival.

Splendiferous restaurants like the Chinese Delmonico’s and the Oriental and the Port Arthur, upstairs at 7-9 Mott, dazzled white customers with their mother-of-pearl-inlaid ebony furniture, gilded dragons, and giant painted-glass lanterns. And then there was the food—succulent ducks, seemingly roasted whole yet actually just shells of skin stuffed with shredded meat and fried rice; lobsters dripping in black-bean sauce; roasted crabs; steamed sea bass; bird’s-nest soup; dumplings filled with shrimp, or pork, or beef—all of it lost on the average tourist who wanted one thing and one thing only. “There are times when the gnawing hunger for chop suey, and for nothing else, draws him to dingy Chinatown,” someone wrote in 1898. Of course, the fact that chop suey was invented by a West Coast cook combining kitchen scraps to appease drunken miners who had pushed their way into his restaurant after hours (the phrase may mean “leftovers”) did not bother hungry sightseers. It was chop suey they wanted and chop suey they got.

But I have digressed. Number 32 Mott is the Quong Yuen Shing & Company general store. It has been here since 1899 and was in business across the street before that. Quong Yuen Shing sold herbs, fancy groceries, laundry and restaurant supplies, and, at the right-hand counter, beautiful silk brocade to be made into magnificent clothes for men and women to wear at New Year’s, or weddings, or the celebration of the birth of somebody’s first son. Quong Yuen Shing is the place my elders always pointed out to me as an example of my great-grandfather’s handiwork, and the walls are still lined with the wooden shelves he cut, dark with stain and age. There are his venerable counters and the old wooden ceiling fan whirling above. The ticking schoolhouse clock occupies the same place it did when the store was new, as do rows of portraits of delicate Chinese ladies, painted when there was still an emperor on the Peacock Throne. Against the back wall is a counter that once served as a dispensary for myriad medicinal herbs stored in distinctive square drawers. And over that counter is what should be the pride and joy of Chinatown—an arch, fantastically carved with flowering trees, and peacocks, and lucky bats, its surfaces still tinted with red and gold, the colors of wealth. These were once common in stores and restaurants, but Quong Yuen Shing’s is the only carved arch to have survived whole in a public place in Chinatown, as younger generations have felt that Formica and glass put people in a better mood to buy. Far from being merely decorative, these arches were strategically placed to ward off evil spirits; the tangle of carvings would confuse them in their inexorably straight path toward mischief within. My elders told me my great-grandfather actually carved this arch, and we would always troop in and ooh-and-ah and take pictures—until I discovered the Chinese signature and address of the actual carver in the lower corners of the piece. So Great-Grandfather had merely installed the fancy woodwork the store’s owner imported from Hong Kong. Nevertheless, you can still feel his presence.