The best way to see New York is on foot. My boyfriend and I would pick a couple of neighbourhoods for the day and I’d jot down a few addresses of any bars or attractions I wanted to see in the area. Sometimes we made it to those places, other times we didn’t and it didn’t matter. We just wandered around, seeing and hearing (and sometimes smelling) different parts of the city. Chinatown in Manhattan is a perfect neighbourhood for wandering.
We arrived in Chinatown via the Financial District. Gleaming stone and marble civic buildings gave way to colourful tenement buildings with more signs in Cantonese than in English. Manhattan’s Chinatown is one of nine Chinatown neighbourhoods in New York City, home to the largest Chinese population in the western hemisphere.
Whiskey Tavern, Chinatown
We found a bar wedged between the myriad Bail Bonds shops on Baxter St. Whiskey Tavern is my idea of the quintessential American bar, from the baseball playing on every TV to the bowl o’ bacon on the menu.
We ordered a couple of drinks and started chatting to the chilled out bartender, who was one of the friendliest we met in New York. His jaw nearly hit the floor when I asked what tater tots were, so we ordered a $5 bowl. I had a feeling they were potato gems, which is one of my favourite junk foods, so when our serving turned out to be a huge basket there were no complaints from me!
When my boyfriend ordered a whiskey on the rocks, the glass was full to the brim with straight whiskey. Ridiculous value, if not more than he bargained for. No complaints from him!
Whiskey Tavern is one of those places you could hang out all afternoon, and we nearly did. We wanted to come back on another weekend with friends and had Chinatown been a little easier to get to from Hell’s Kitchen, we probably would have. Next time I’m in the area, I’ll definitely pop in for a drink (and mountains of tater tots).
Columbus Park, Chinatown
We wandered into Columbus Park, the only park in Chinatown. It was buzzing with activity, as crowds gathered around to watch games of mahjong. Classical Chinese banhu music played gently from somewhere in the background. In the 19th century, Columbus Park was the centre of the notorious Five Points slum. It’s hard to believe that this peaceful place was once the grounds of the most dangerous ghetto in New York.
A bit of Chinatown history
Like so many of New York’s neighbourhoods, Chinatown has a fascinating history. The first known Chinese immigrant to the area was Ah Ken, who began as a cigar peddler in the area. He set up a boarding house, where he rented out rooms to other Chinese immigrants. He used the extra cash to open a successful cigar shop on Park Row, around which Chinatown grew.
Despite the Statue of Liberty being unveiled and Ellis Island becoming an immigration centre in the 1880s, New York was not welcoming all immigrants with open arms. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 brought Chinese immigration to New York to a halt. Of the 9000 Chinese living in New York in 1900, less than 200 were women. The act was repealed in 1942, but a strict quota stalled growth and Chinatown was described as a bachelor society until the mid-1960s.
As more immigration reforms passed in the 1960s, Chinatown’s population swelled and the neighbourhood expanded north into Little Italy. Rent skyrocketed and many Chinese opted to move to the developing Chinatowns in Flushing, Queens and Sunset Park, Brooklyn, both of which have outgrown the original Chinatown in Manhattan. Chinatown in Manhattan may not be the biggest in the city anymore but its character and many layers of history make it – and New York City – so fascinating.
Have you been to Chinatown? What neighbourhoods near you have an interesting history?