Living in a small town on the Big Island for over four years has dulled my appetite for hectic urban experiences. But people in hell want ice water, so here I am in New York City for a week with my daughter, once again looking at colleges (ones we didn’t visit last year). And where are we staying? Exotic, sensory-overloading Chinatown (population, 100,000)! Or maybe it only seemed that way after no sleep on the overnight flight and a time-zone shift of five hours.
The hotel didn’t have a room ready for us at 8 am, so we decided to explore. Lots of stores were already open, even on a Sunday. Shop-keepers were just putting the finishing touches on their outdoor displays of what to our eyes were eclectic groupings of wares. Do they not worry about stuff getting stolen? After all, this is not Honoka‘a.
We both love shopping in the small Chinese grocery stores with their bounty of exotic canned goods, candies, and packaged goods, with the aisles crowded with boxes, and dark corners filled with strange colorful things and labels we can’t decipher. The first thing we noticed walking into the store was a bag of large-crystal monosodium glutamate. I could almost feel a migraine starting just looking at the bag. My daughter gravitated to the milk candy and the canned rambutans. I reminded her that we didn’t have a can opener along, but I suppose we could have bought one at any of the general stores.
It was cold, in the mid-30’s, and I wondered about the fruits and vegetables displayed everywhere outside. Don’t they get damaged by the cold? We spotted avocados, so of course, we had to check the price: three for $4.50. Not as cheap as back home, but better than other mainland prices I’ve seen. I also see a bucket of 2-3 inch pieces of what looks like moldy leather. I ask what that is, but the merchant doesn’t speak English.
We noticed a tiny stand jutting out on the sidewalk, with two men sitting behind the counter, wedged into the small space. “Good Morning,” they greet us.
“Ni hao,” I replied cheerfully. I hope they stay warm in there. Can you really make a living with a retail space this small? Maybe it’s their Western Union business that helps them thrive.
We overheard one merchant shouting with a customer who wanted a cheaper price on something. (Was it just my jet-lagged morning ears or was everyone shouting?) Then the merchant offered to pay the tax. That sealed the deal.
The shoppers were just as interesting as the merchants. Most rolled the ubiquitous bags on wheels for their shopping treasures. I fell in love with them while visiting Chinatown in Honolulu and bought one there. Every once in a while I drag it out of the closet and wheel it to Malama Market. It is clearly much more useful in this urban environment. Other folk use the time-tested methods of their ancestors, with packages balancing each other across a pole on the shoulders.
And then there was the row of shopping carts from different stores individually chained to a fence. Obviously people were making use of them for large hauls. Whether it’s the local Chinese or the local homeless people is not clear.
The people we pass are not shy about staring, and my Chinese daughter and I get more than our share, as people try to figure out what this teen is doing with this white woman who could be her grandmother. It’s only going to get worse as we both age. Let them wonder.
Later in the day, we returned to Chinatown for supper. We had planned to eat at Prosperity Dumpling, but found it closed. No matter, there were five other restaurants lined up next to it. We chose one that featured Fuzhou-style cooking because we never had it before. (It turns out that the east side of Chinatown where we are staying was populated by people from Fuzhou in the 1980’s and 90’s, and is called Little Fuzhou. You can learn so much from Wikipedia.)
It was clear from the menu that this was the real deal: water melon with fish stomach soup, clam with frog soup, fish head casserole, conch with goose web, sautéed lamb bellies with hot pepper, goose intestine with celery, hot and spicy duck’s tongue, stir fried pig stomach, and more. There was even a whole section of items on the menu that were not translated; all were S.P. (special price).
I like to experiment but this was a bit much, so I had Fuzhou dumpling soup and Fuzhou-style duck over rice with a Tsingtao beer. The waiter asked, “Only one?” which puzzled me until I noticed the trio of guys across the room with two six-packs of beer on their table. “Yes, only one.”
On the way back to the hotel we pass the local fire station: the Chinatown Dragon Fighters. Love it!
For more posts related to this trip, see also:
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