Graffiti-dappled brick and chopsticks probing like violin bows. This is New York City’s Chinatown. It is brown, grey, and crowded with pudgy pigeons, and is also where I spent some of the summer of 2010. Despite the fact my family and I visited Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, and West Point, my time in Chinatown was the most memorable; although raucous and chaotic, it was captivating in its own way.
The hotel was not a hotel. It was closer to a three story prison, with thin iron balconies and a pathetic rusted gate. The erector had hastily rammed it in between several grim apartments of different sizes, and left it there to pity itself. The rooms themselves were not much better off. We had a bathroom and two rooms, each of which enclosed a bed, a broken TV, and several folding chairs. We also had a stunning view of the basement stairs.
NYC is a strange city. The place I was staying in was Yi Song Ting Hotel on 41st Avenue, which was in an area called Flushing, which is part of Queens, in NYC, and in the state of New York. 41st Avenue was quiet compared to the busy streets in the heart of the Chinatown. On the streets cars honked at pedestrians who walked straight into the traffic. Like bulls about to charge, they waited impatiently, parting just enough to let cars skim by and surging across half a second before the green light. The shops that lined the street were almost all restaurants, displaying dishes from many regions in China. They looked shabby enough, many stories of tiny store stacked upon store. Every surface was sprayed with graffiti or covered in faded advertisements and shop names. Despite the ‘no loitering’ signs, loud crowds gathered to enjoy the delicious aromas outside. Even the chef himself sometimes came out to share a few laughs when customers were scarce.
Here, in these filthy streets, was China’s pride. Although cluttered and chaotic on the outside, the restaurants offered clean tables and beautiful decorations. Every wall was adorned with Chinese calligraphy, lanterns, and ink paintings. Long menus were typed in both Chinese and English and displayed the most savory dishes. There was crab cake, dim sum, chicken claws, and black bean congee. The waiters were raucous and often customers had to call them from groups laughing in the corner. Sometimes they forgot to get someone water, or extra tea, but it quickly lay forgotten when the dishes came sizzling from the back room.
It was even more beautiful here at night. Faded advertisements flashed into life, sharp colors straining to catch my eye. Shops closed or lit their red lanterns. Cats slithered in the narrow alleys. Like old dolls, patched up and frayed, picked up and thrown down too many times. Old wrinkled faces looked up from the gray sidewalk where displays of bags and Chinese trinkets were laid out. A couple passed a lone figure nearby. He was playing a bamboo flute, trilling out delicate tunes into the night air. It was beautiful, but I ended up hurried away by my parents into another spectacle.
This cluttered maze of aromas and luminosity was the closest there was to the far shores of China. In the deepest corner of steaming restaurants, under layers of graffiti and stained brick, behind this filthy disguise, was the true color of China. Here was my heritage, in the marrow of the United States’ New York City. I was home in China again.
Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.