Board the N train at the Canal Street subway station and after rumbling over the Manhattan Bridge and swaying through underground tunnels, get off at 8th Avenue, in Brooklyn.
You’ve arrived at New York City’s lesser-known Chinatown.
Territorially-speaking, it’s the smallest Chinese enclave, after Manhattan’s and Queens’, but it’s by no means any less Chinese. Locked between 62nd and 48th streets, this 16-block bustling stretch is predominantly populated by the Cantonese community.
No quarter in this teeming metropolis of over 8 million is ever quite quiet. This is no exception to that rule. But its structure, unlike that of Manhattan’s labyrinthine Chinatown, is puzzlingly simple.
There isn’t a warren of constricted alleyways and bylanes for pedestrian traffic to get lost in. Prominent local businesses extend linearly like a row of bricks down 8th Avenue, divided evenly along both sides of the thoroughfare.
It’s this urban design, which gives it the illusion of space. Ironically however, this is what also, perhaps, takes away from it the aura of a glitzy, gypsy bazaar, which is the hallmark of its more famous cousin, on the other side of the Hudson. Boxy, store-top apartments lend the landscape a dirty-brown tint.
But this isn’t an impression created solely by its uncomplicated layout. The businesses themselves contribute to that effect.
This Chinatown is as Chinese as it gets. Unsurprisingly, it’s also very cheap.
The “Made in China” label has a ring of special authenticity to it. While Manhattan’s Chinatown is a carnival of counterfeit Cartier and Channel, Brooklyn’s celebrates genuine, everyday household goods from buckets to brooms to brackets.
Flashy, but fake, designer bags and watches aren’t to be found here. Rather, one’s likely to run into a one-size-fits-all bathroom slipper in a “99 Cent” store. This is the prime reason for this Chinatown’s relative obscurity and its failure to attract throngs of tourists.
A row of eateries, mom-and-pop grocery stores, hairdressers, Buddhist temples, Internet cafés, and offices of community organizations, flank the two-way boulevard. At any time of the day, the smell of stir-fry wafts out of greasy dumpling houses. Bakeries selling bean-filled pastries, steamed breads, and buns, punctuate every block.
Every few steps, there’s a Chinese or a Vietnamese restaurant. Most offer daring dishes (daring, to those unused to authentic Chinese cuisine, that is.) Embedded in their regular menus of an assortment of soups, fried rice, and lo-mien are preparations of pig’s ears, fried frog’s legs, spicy chicken claws, ox-tongues, and fish head, among others.
But these aren’t magnets for the savvy shopper, who’re on the lookout for a $50 knockoff of a Louis Vuitton suitcase, a $15 Christian Dior bracelet, or even a $25 bottle of (real) Hugo Boss perfume.
The sights here, humdrum as they may be, offer a window into the lives of the average East-Asian immigrant, earning by the sweat of their brows.
By the curb, a double-parked car idles, as its driver awaits the return of its passenger. On a lunch break, a knot of Chinese chefs, huddle around a sidewalk cellar and eat noodles out of foam boxes. In a hurry to get to his destination, a porter in a soiled uniform rattles down the street with his delivery trolley, mindful of the passing traffic.
A mother, pushing a baby’s stroller, delicately negotiates the crowd as she balances her plastic shopping bags on its handles. An elderly woman, with a face deeply wrinkled with age, stands at a curb-cut, handing out Falun Gong flyers to passersby.
Small groups of teens with silky, spiked hair, streaked with blonde or auburn, are the only folks in this neighborhood usually seen to saunter without any obvious baggage.
If the Chinatown on Canal Street is defined by its bling factor, the one on 8th Avenue is identifiable by its cornucopia of Asian groceries.
Bok choy, lotus roots, mung-bean sprouts, Chinese cabbage, bamboo shoots, are sold fresh on makeshift wooden stands on the pavements. Fish-mongers strut out their wide varieties of exotic seafood in water-filled plastic tubs.
If one doesn’t mind watching out for the occasional crab, scurrying sideways across a lettuce-splattered footpath, shopping for fish can be a joy in Brooklyn’s Chinatown. A pound of fresh pink salmon goes for as little as $5.99. A couple of whole porgy cost under $7. Fresh-off-the-boat crabs sell for well under $10.
No worthy Chinese locality is complete without a Hong Kong Supermarket. The Chinese equivalent of the American Safeway, this chain store specializes in East-Asian foodstuff—everything from Japanese nori (seaweed) to bottled kimchi (hot and spicy Korean coleslaw) to a sack of sticky rice.
At the junction of 8th Avenue and 53rd Street is “Dumpling House.” Opened in the summer of 2009, it’s the area’s newest snack place and hence, possibly, also it’s cleanest. Its top picks are chicken, pork, shrimp, and veggie dumplings, served either as pot stickers (pan-fried on one side and steamed on the other) or fully steamed.
It’s owned and run by 28-year-old Ying Zhao, who moved to the U.S. eight years ago from the southeastern province of Fujian.
Zhao has difficulty speaking English, but understands it just enough to be able to take orders from non-Chinese speaking customers. While she handles the front end, her father whips up the dumplings. An aunt pitches in with small chores.
At 4823 8th Avenue, stands a little shop called T-Baar, which doesn’t vibrate with the hiss and the whoosh of commercial coffee-making. Home-use blenders, kitchen knives, and shakers, take the place of industrial espresso machines, cappuccino makers, and milk frothers.
It’s one among the dozen places in the area that serves “bubble tea.” Even without the artificial chill of air-conditioning, it exudes an innate coolness that coffee shops simply don’t.
Maybe this is why exclusive tea varieties have been described colorfully, often, with the adjective “soothing.” (think: the classic British expression, “how about a nice cup of tea?”) Coffee blends, on the other hand, have been associated with the word “strong.”
The Chinese have been drinking tea for 5,000 years. That they should be ace innovators of this drink, is therefore, hardly surprising. In the 1980s, a tea-stand owner in Taiwan, brewed a concoction that took the global East-Asian beverage market by storm.
Bubble tea was the liquid tempest that took. Today, it’s a hip favorite among East-Asians as well as the geeks, the chic, and the thirsty of all other ethnicities.
It’s a sweet and serene non-alcoholic tea drink that gets its name from the translucent tapioca globules that tend to bob at the bottom of the glass. Soft and chewy, they impart it a certain friskiness and freshness. Not saccharine (unless, of course, by choice), it’s pleasantly sweetened by sugar syrup or honey.
It’s available in many exciting flavors (watermelon, papaya, honeydew, banana, strawberry, almond, taro, coconut), the flavorings created by powdered flavors or crushed fresh fruits. Bubble tea can be had with or without milk, with green, black, or jasmine tea.
Except during the daily evening rush hour, which begins around 4:00 p.m. and peters off by 8:00 p.m., there’s satisfactory elbow room on the sidewalk for walkers, a luxury seldom enjoyed in the bigger Chinatown.
On certain weeknights, Chinese bus companies can be seen to drop off its load of the elderly at designated stops along 8th Avenue. Some return home from a gambling excursion and some from an out-of-town business trip. Well past midnight, a drunk staggers out of a bar, yelling obscenities.
I can’t tell if it’s in Mandarin or Foochowese.