Lunar New Year’s Eve

Some topical things:

Beijing made firecrackers legal again.

NY Times’ Jennifer 8. Lee writes on the memories of NYC Chinatown(s):

There is no consistent name for “Chinatown” in Chinese. Newspapers use one name, popular speech uses others. At the Canal Street subway station on Broadway the chosen translation is delicately pixeled together from colorful tiles: “huabu.” Hua means “Chinese,” but with a sense that transcends geography, independent of the nation of China. Bu means “place” or “town.”

The characters were not there when I was growing up on the amorphous border between Harlem and Columbia University, when my family made regular pilgrimages to Chinatown by subway, later replaced by weekly trips to Flushing, Queens, by car. At the Kam Man grocery store on Canal Street, my parents would treat us to Haw Flakes, sweet tangy disks that tasted like bits of hard Fruit Rollups. The ingredients were listed as “haw” and “sugar,” which left a generation of Chinese-American children wondering what exactly haw was. (It is the fruit of the hawthorne.)

On Mott Street’s open storefronts, my parents would pick through the bins of live crabs, sluggish but still menacing to a wide-eyed girl. And Chinatown was our source for paraphernalia for the Lunar New Year, which always arrived in a frenzy of smoky firecracker pops and chiming gongs. The firecrackers planned for this Sunday, celebrating the Year of the Dog, have been centralized by the city government to a controlled ceremony.

For all our trips down there, I never knew Chinatown was known as huabu until I saw the characters appear after the station renovation. Hua is the distilled essence of being Chinese, free of fissures caused by wars and colonization. You can be hua even if you hold a passport from Singapore, the United States or Peru. You can be hua even if you have never set foot in China and don’t speak a word of Chinese.

Like many Asian professionals who came after the 1965 immigration reforms, my parents were liberated from the confines of working-class, Cantonese-speaking Chinatown by education and English. My family, like other Chinese who live abroad, are often called huaqiao, Chinese sojourners. The label sticks, as though one day we all might return, even generations later: pulled back by the tentacles of Chineseness.

In the meantime, huaqiaos seek and create Chinatowns. Manhattan’s Chinatown might not have been classy, but we got satisfaction in knowing we found better deals by braving the cramped streets. Haircuts were cheaper. The restaurants were yummier. Seamstresses were quicker. Chinatown was a bargain hunter’s dream, a word-of-mouth economy before online ratings guides democratized shoppers’ secrets. We went there for things you could get nowhere else in the city (like a white silk Chinese dress made for my sixth-grade graduation) as well as services that had no cultural basis, like film developing. My mom would hoard rolls of film and take them to a photo store at the base of Confucius Tower. Often spring or summer arrived before we saw pictures from Christmas.

American Chinatowns have been beacons since waves of anti-Chinese violence in the late 19th century drove Chinese workers out of California and into self-protective pockets across the country. Then, Chinatowns promised physical safety. Today they offer comfort for those who long for home. [....]

Chinatown exudes density. It not only rivals Times Square as the most crowded pedestrian area in the city, but also is one of the most visually cluttered, greeting you with a jumble of fire escapes, colorful store signs and streams of tattered flags. Like many crowded Asian cities, Chinatown has mastered the art of the vertical, inspired by languages that can be written up and down, not just side to side.

“Why do Chinese like America?” Charlene [Lee's Chinese grad student friend] asked, rhetorically, as we were swept along by the crowds on Canal. “Because you can drive and have a big house. But not in New York City. Here, it’s just like in China. Why bother living here?”

Chinatowns, she said, had a bad reputation in China: dirty. They are not the face that a rising China wants to present to the world. Having explored many Chinatowns, I am amused to report that perhaps only Japan, in Yokohama, had the discipline to create one that is both clean and expensive.

But I take pride in the vibrancy of New York City’s immigrant communities. You can spot a dying Chinatown: vestigial restaurants, but no doctors’ offices, no barbershops, no funeral parlors, no businesses required by daily living. Outside New York and San Francisco, many urban Chinatowns have dwindled to Chinastreets, or even Chinablocks, as the population centers have shifted to the suburbs. Washington’s Chinatown is superficially preserved: the storefronts, including Starbucks and Subway, must display Chinese names. The Hooters sign says “Owl Restaurant” in Chinese.

In contrast, New York now has three Chinatowns — one each for Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, though only the original can claim the name. In 1946, a small group of United Nations delegation members from the Nationalist Chinese government settled in Flushing, in what was then a largely white middle-class community. Since the 1980′s, the neighborhood has flourished as the Chinatown for Mandarin speakers from Taiwan, Shanghai and northern China. More recently, Manhattan’s working-class Chinese population has been squeezed down the N subway line, emerging on Eighth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and in other satellite clusters farther out.

Manhattan’s Chinatown has fought off the forces of urban decline. It has even grown, with a churn of immigrants that provides both fresh customers and new entrepreneurs. Starting in the late 1960′s, Chinatown expanded as Little Italy and the Jewish community of the Lower East Side receded. Small reminders of the Italian presence peek out on the southern part of Mulberry Street. Chinatown’s only park, where the elderly can be spotted doing tai chi or playing Chinese chess, is named after Columbus. The Antica Roma restaurant, renamed Asian Roma, offers dumplings along with spaghetti to the courthouse crowd.

Today Chinatown is large enough to have two main arteries: Canal Street, the tourist-friendly thoroughfare that is still predominantly Cantonese, and East Broadway, which has become Main Street for Fujianese immigrants. East Broadway, Charlene agreed, looks like China — from the stripped-down restaurants with folding tables to the vendors selling piles of snacks for long bus rides, to the signs unapologetically free of English. The center of Chinatown has shifted east, engulfing the Grand Street subway station. Perhaps one day it will get a huabu sign as well. [....]

And, of course, the little differences between and among the Chinatowns of NYC:

For this rising class of Chinese-American professionals, Chinatown can be an uncomfortable echo of a time when Chinese immigrants were almost exclusively male laborers.

The geographic and class divides are visible. Flushing has many more Chinese bookstores and more men in suits. It is home to the World Journal, a national Chinese-language paper owned by a Taiwan media company, and to the Taiwan government’s cultural offices. When I was a bridesmaid for a Chinese-American friend who was a medical student at Columbia, she hired a white limo to take us from her Washington Heights dorm room to the Flushing Mall to get our hair and makeup done before the wedding.

Where Chinatown is shrouded in history, Flushing is bright and contemporary. The broad, flat cityscape of Queens is spiced up with the shiny metal-and-mirror aesthetic popular in industrial East Asia. “In Chinatown, everything is right in front of you,” Charlene said, putting her hand right in front of her face. “In Flushing, you can breathe.”

The street food is more northern and western Chinese. We bought Xinjiang-styled lamb kabobs on Main Street for $1. Charlene, raised in a city with a Muslim influence, quickly devoured them. “Do you like America?” we asked the vendor, who had come from the western Chinese city of Urumqi on the Silk Road. “I like American money,” he said. But he would never raise his kids here — he doesn’t like the values. Charlene, too, wants to return to China after graduate school. With its roaring expansion, the opportunities are better for her there, she said — a philosophy opposite that of my parents, who had arrived a generation before. [....]

Interesting article. Stuff I can say that I share. And, really, I never realized haw flakes were made from hawthorne fruit.