Tuesday, May 24, 2016


Photo by Hu Totya
You exit the subway on Canal Street to immediate noise – car engines, diesel engines, honking, screeching, sirens, yelling, talking, and the general din of New York.   Canal Street leads to the Manhattan Bridge (the Brooklyn Bridge knockoff that carries the subways out of and into Brooklyn as well as cars and busses) so there's loads of traffic.  Chinatown may not have more people crowding the sidewalks than other parts of Manhattan, but it feels like it because the sidewalks and streets off Canal Street are narrower than uptown tourist places like Times Square and Rockefeller Center.  Those narrow streets add a sense of mystery and romance, most particularly after sunset when the neon lights and colored bulbs come on highlighting all the signs in Chinese script.  You could be somewhere far away.

Unless you live there, Chinatown is two-square miles of shopping, eating, and getting a cheap massage.  The most visible shopping spills out onto the sidewalks of Canal Street between Baxter and East Broadway.  Purses, backpacks, cheap jewelry, and sunglasses (umbrellas as soon as it starts to rain) sit on tables or hang from racks.  As you walk past these hole-in-the-wall stores whose doors roll up like garage doors, the hawkers invite you to buy and to bargain for a price.  These stores all sell basically the same merchandise that changes out every few weeks.

Canal Street in Chinatown is also where you can get a knockoff designer purse, wallet, watch, keychain, shoes, etc.  If you’re interested in that, just stand on any street corner and within a few seconds, someone will whisper, “Handbag? Handbag?  Watch?” and show you a wrinkled photographic menu of designer items.  If you get hooked, you follow someone to the back of a shop, or to a van parked on The Bowery, or down an alleyway to a door.  You’ll have a variety of Louis Vuitton, Coach, Chanel, or other famous brand goods to choose from – in the expensive versions ($hundreds) with genuine leather and brass trim or cheaper ($less and hundreds) which have polyurethane trim that doesn’t wrinkled or stain, but looks obviously fake and ends up in a thrift store instead of on eBay.  You can choose Rolex, Patek Philippe, and other watch brands as well.  Then you can brag that you have a genuine fake something or other.

The designers have boutique stores or have their goods for sale in high-end stores uptown, and they deeply frown at this illicit activity in Chinatown.  The police watch for it and I’ve seen people scatter when a police van arrived.  At one time, the entire block of stores from Baxter to Centre Street were shuttered and padlocked – for months.  It was quite a message. 

Purses and watches are not the only counterfeit items moving through Chinatown.  There’s also a lot of counterfeit money.  I remember once there was a 3-card-Monty game under a construction “shed” (what New York calls covered scaffolding).  I played that scam the first time I visited New York.  I broke even because there was a police car nearby and and I got him to come over and tell the man to return the money he’d cheated from me.  But I digress.  There was a game going on under the scaffolding on lower Broadway near Canal Street.  A tourist had been suckered into playing, but oddly, he was winning.  The crooks running the game were paying out.  It was fascinating and I stood there until I figured it out.  They were giving him counterfeit money.  Two counterfeit $20 bills for a real one.  They wouldn’t get caught passing counterfeit money, the tourist would have that wonderful experience.  I walked over to the Chinatown police precinct and suggested they send someone to play 3-card-Monty on lower Broadway.  This is a floating game all over midtown as well.  Anywhere there are crowds of tourist,s there is a Monty game.

Back to the good stuff.

There are a lot of massage places in Chinatown where you can get a very inexpensive one-hour reflexology session.  That was my weekly event.

I also did grocery shopping in Chinatown.  Along Canal from Baxter to Mulberry I chose from various tiny fresh vegetable and fruit stands at the edge of the sidewalk.  There were two fish markets side by side near Baxter Street.  And, one 3-floor general store that sold maybe 100 types of tea – loose tea in huge glass jars, loose tea in packages, and boxes of teabags.  They sold over 100 types of candy as well as cookies, spices, canned food, etc. 

There was at one time a terrific store on Lower Broadway called Pearl River.  It carried Chinese silk clothing, household products, beauty products all sorts of wonders on two floors creaky wooden floors.  There was plenty of space for wandering around, and it was a flow-through, meaning you could enter on Broadway and exit at the other end of the store onto Mercer Street.  Unfortunately, the rent was raised on this 30,000 square foot store from $100,000 per month to $500,000 per month (yes, that’s right, per month), and they closed down.  You can find Pearl River online though:  http://pearlriver.com/v3/index.asp

There used to be a lot of unique shops on lower Broadway – art dealers selling prints, boutiques owned by the designers who sold their own clothes there, music stores, rare book stores, and even a holographic “museum.”  All gone now because of high rents.  The chain stores have moved in – The Gap, American Apparel, Starbucks.  You could be at a mall in Kansas.

After shopping, comes hunger.  Sometimes I cruised south of Canal looking for a restaurant – there are many, but my favorite restaurant was actually Vietnamese – on Centre Street just south of Walker Street.  It was always crowded at lunchtime, so I tried to get there in the afternoon when there was a lull.  I liked to sit at a two-top table near the cash register and have a Vietnamese coffee (espresso dripped into condensed milk).  

And, more often than not, before going home, I stopped into Pearl Paint.  This is a multi-story art store on Canal Street near Broadway.  It has old wide-plank floors that creak, every kind of art supply you can imagine, and quite possibly the rudest staff you can find in New York.  Overcoming that, I went there to buy gel pens because they had a selection of 100s of colors and I used them up quickly.

More to come on Chinatown

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