Chinatown

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Turning the corner onto Mosco Street, I step down the hill, just beyond the church wall, to a tiny little shop at Number 104, and remember my grandfather. My grandfather the bookie. Everyone called him “Hock Shop.” His Chinese name was Pun, pronounced “pawn,” hence pawnshop and then … well, it suited. Today I can go up to just about anyone over a certain age who has lived in Chinatown for a long time and say, “You might have known my grandfather. He was called Hock Shop,” and the person will laugh and say, “Ooh, Hock Shop! I lost a lot of money in his store!” He was Chinatown’s favorite bookmaker from the 1930s to the 1970s and could always be found at his shop or his favorite restaurant, figuring the odds over pots of “tea that burns” (scotch). He cut quite a figure in his sharp suits and fedoras, roaring down Mott Street in his 1938 LaSalle convertible, which he could barely wrestle around the corner to park in front of his store.

Grandfather inherited a certain position with the On Leong Tong from his father, which was all he got from him, since my great-grandfather left all his money to the son of his number one wife back in China. He tried a number of legitimate careers, such as government interpreter (rejected because of his suspected long connections) and life insurance salesman (rejected by the Chinese man in the street, who would recoil, saying, “You just want to make money off my death!”). But gambling was my grandfather’s first love.

He did end up as a legitimate businessman in a way, as the front of 104 Park Street was the most minuscule flower shop that you could imagine, which always confused me as a child, since all my WASPy mother would say about Grandfather’s profession was that he “made book,” which made me expect to see fine leather bindings instead of gaudy floral displays. The flowers were sold to the local funeral parlors, but in the back room sat my great-uncle Fong with a stack of money and a telephone, busily taking bets on horseraces across the country. My grandfather was always meticulous about doling out handsome presents of cash at Christmastime to his best customers, which meant his biggest losers. “Never gamble!” he would tell my father. “You never win!” Maybe that’s why Father became a chemical engineer.

When Hock Shop died, in 1973, his funeral was handled by one of the funeral homes around the corner on Mulberry Street to which he had sold flowers for so many years. It seemed as though all Chinatown turned out—old tong soldiers, poker buddies, little old ladies who liked to bet on the ponies—to bow three times before his coffin, light a stick of incense, and suck on a piece of candy provided to “wash away the bitterness.” Our family demurred at having the traditional brass band and professional mourners accompany the funeral procession, but it was grand enough anyway, with some thirty cars snaking their way around all the spots in Chinatown that had been important to the departed man’s life. His birthplace, his school, the place where his children were born on the kitchen table: At each location the procession would halt and the chief mourners climb out of their limousines to bow three times before the open hearse as the funeral director clapped her hands to alert my grandfather’s drowsy spirit that he should look around one more time. It was exactly one century after my great-grandfather had arrived on the Gold Mountain, looking for his share. “Old” Chinatown had seemed to come and go during those hundred years.

Of course, Chinatown is still Chinatown, but, like anywhere else, it is changing. The new immigrants swelling its ranks—its population is now estimated at 250,000, compared with 30,000 in 1960—are mostly from Fujian Province, just up the coast from Cantonese Toishan, but they have their own dialect and customs. East Broadway, on the other side of Chatham Square, is now called Little Fuzhou, and it is the Fujianese power brokers who are courted by New York’s politicians while the Toi-shan old guard from the CCBA goes largely ignored. The tongs still battle, only now they use teenage gangs with names like the Flying Dragons and Ghost Shadows as their proxy warriors. Banquets still happen, only now they are in garish restaurants so huge that the hostesses use walkie-talkies to seat you. Even the New Year’s celebration has been watered down, for while the lion dancers still prance through the streets collecting money and good luck, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has banned firecrackers for the last two years, leaving the normally raucous holiday bloodless and lame. He just doesn’t realize that lion dancers alone won’t frighten away all those evil spirits hovering in the air.

Chinatown is yielding to modern realities, which I suppose is inevitable. But when I go there now, all I can do is try to remember the sound of fireworks, the smell of gunpowder, the brilliant dazzle of the buildings, which now look just a little too much as if they could be anywhere. Still, I suppose there is some other gawky teenager in bellbottoms (they’re back in style, remember?) being dragged in from the suburbs. His family pauses at some personal landmark, shops in some favorite shop, and then goes on to a twelve-course banquet in a shiny new restaurant complete with a gold plastic dragon with electric light-up eyes, which seems pretty splendid to someone who doesn’t know anything else. So to him, I suppose, this Chinatown is as eternal as any that I ever knew. I just hope he knows where to find a window to the past, so he can see some of the splendor that once was.