When I first visited Chinatown 30 years ago, I was blown away. It wasn’t just the cramped streets lined with crooked, pagoda-trimmed tenements or the tea shops that lured in customers with burnished ducks hanging in the windows—it was the urban pulse of the place, the streets jam-packed with pedestrians—some in tradtional garb—scurrying to avoid hand-wheeled carts and thronging around displays of fruit and vegetables spilling helter-skelter into the streets. Every stroll down its narrow back alleys entailed a feeling of adventure, the air filled with the pungent smells of ginger and stir-fried meat, every glimpse around the corner providing what was to me a fresh and exotic vista.
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Chinatown was then mainly confined to the same six streets centering on Mott that had defined it for more than a century. Around that time, as the low Chinese-immigration quotas (in place since FDR’s time) were repealed, the floodgates opened, and by the turn of the 21st century, the population of Chinatown had ballooned to ten times its former size, with new immigrants for whom a taste of home was no longer the Cantonese-American fare the neighborhood had featured for decades.
The neighborhood began around 1850 as a small enclave of Chinese men, many former sailors. By 1900, it had transformed into a popular nightclub district, with sprawling musical theaters and dance halls that served Cantonese food reconstructed for what were then rather bland American tastes, making dishes such as egg foo yong and beef chow mein familiar to Gothamites for the first time.
Though the Chinatown I once knew is largely a thing of the past, partly replaced by a bubble-tea-soaked, Hong Kong vision of itself, you can still feel the Old Chinatown on Mott Street’s southernmost stretch between Pell Street and Chatham Square, anchored by the 1827 Church of the Transfiguration. Follow the curving street past the antediluvian art store Wing On Wo & Co.(26 Mott St between Chatham Sq and Pell St, 212-962-3577), advertising “Oriental Gifts” that run to ornate vases and playful porcelain figurines displayed in dusty wooden premises and illuminated by motes of sunlight.
One of the oldest existing restaurants is Wo Hop(17 Mott St at Pell St, 212-962-8617), founded in 1938 and the first place I ever ate in the neighborhood. At this walk-down space, a line of customers often eagerly waits for a taste of old-fashioned Chinese-American food. Open till 7am, even today it’s one of Chinatown’s few late-night spots, recalling the area’s nightclubs of yore. Just steps north lies its competitor Hop Kee(21 Mott St between Chatham Sq and Pell St, 212-964-8365). Both basement eateries (the obscure real estate may have contributed to their longevity) offer a similar menu of chop suey, chow mein, wonton soup, lo mein and sweet-and-sour pork, fusty dishes that even decades ago delighted me with their antique quality.
Stop at one of the curio shops in the vicinity, which still feature paper fans, Chinese pajamas, back scratchers and carved chopsticks—tourist souvenirs already popular a century ago—and work your way eastward on Pell over to Doyers Street, a tiny alleyway that’s home to the oldest restaurant in Chinatown, Nom Wah Tea Parlor(13 Doyers St between Bowery and Pell St, 212-962-6047), founded in 1920. Nowadays, it’s a hipster dim sum parlor, but much of the ancient atmosphere has been retained, including the red leather banquettes and gleaming stainless-steel tea urns.
Just south of Nom Wah, where Doyers curves, is a place with no commemorative plaque, once known as the Bloody Angle. Here, late-19th- and early-20th-century members of the tongs—Chinese gangs with names like On Leong and Hip Sing—would wait in full regalia (which astonishingly included medieval chain mail) for their intended murder victims to pass by. They would hatchet the poor souls to oblivion and then escape down a secret passageway that went underground and ended on Mott Street. Thus the term “hatchet man” was coined for any criminal assassin.
Pass by this bend some evening in the dark if you dare, and a chill is certain to go up your spine. Try to find the spot where the ancient secret passageway started. And if this sort of crime-scene investigation makes you hungry, go around the corner to Great N.Y. Noodletown(28 Bowery at Bayard St, 212-349-0923), a typical duck shop from a previous era, famous for having been praised by Ruth Reichl in the ’90s and every bit as good today. Enjoy a bowl of roasted-pork-decorated wonton soup or a selection of Chinese charcuterie over rice. As narrowly focused regional Chinese food has become more prevalent in this neighborhood, this sort of commonplace Cantonese fare is getting harder to find. But what better way to celebrate a great old-timey neighborhood than with its earliest food?