No matter how broke I am, or how miserable the subway or weather or checkout lines have been that day, or how despondent I am about yet another romance (fling) slipping through my fingers, there exists one place in New York where I can always go and turn that frown upside down: Zhōngguóchéng, aka Chinatown.
As Petula Clark put it, “When you’re alone and life is making you lonely, You can always go”…well you know the rest. Chinatown for me is like free therapy. As soon as I lock up my bike or exit the D-line subway I’m immediately drawn into the chaos, chaos that normally I’d abhor, but in Chinatown, sweeps me away to another place altogether.
Tea is what initially spurred my forays into Chinatown.
After an economic downturn (OK, total financial ruin) in 2005, I began going to places around the city where I knew you could find cheap items. Instead of drinking bottled water or juice I started making big jugs of chilled tea, but the price of teabag boxes is ludicrous. I then recalled once seeing inexpensive tea in a store near the Grand Harmony dim sum palace on Mott and Canal.
Click on images to launch Chinatown slideshow:
During my first search for tea I guardedly entered very alien-seeming Chinese stores. After going into a few tiny shops, I hit the jackpot: 1,000 grams of Temple of Heaven “gunpowder”-form green tea, $3.50.
In time I started branching out and trying different teas — licorice root (refreshingly sweet), bitterfruit (funky but in a good way) and anything that cost $1.25 or less. Upon opening one bag completely void of English, I discovered branches and leaves. Not being one to waste, I boiled it all up and let it simmer for 45-minutes. It tasted like licking the forest floor, but I liked it.
I then started buying groceries during my Chinatown tea runs.
On the corner of corner of Grand and Chrystie, a merchant sells produce for a dollar a bag. I discovered bok choy that way (fry it in sesame seed oil then douse with soy sauce). I experimented with other new foods. Fish balls (love them, though, like wieners, I have no idea what’s exactly in them), pig neck (I stewed the chunks with orzo and mushrooms and ended up with a pot of loose vertebrae shards) and a pouch with five frozen fish for $2 (never again — how could fish expect to evolve with so many bones?)
Finally, as anyone who’s done jury duty at New York County Courthouse at 60 Centre Street knows, the dumpling places in Chinatown are exceptionally cheap and filling. Chinatown is one of the last havens in Manhattan for dive-y restaurants. In those little dives — Sweet Spring Restaurant on the corner of Catherine and Henry, for instance — you can strike up unexpected conversations with the locals who are not too shy to join you at the free chairs around your table.
I enjoyed a chat I once had with a Chinese gal who told me about her church and invited me to come if I were ever in the neighborhood. While I prefer to remain outside organized religion, I left my devoured bowl of wonton soup and plate of fried pork and cabbage dumplings with a lilt in my step and a smile stretched ear to ear.
The day I go to Chinatown and don’t feel my pulse quicken with joy is the day I call it quits.
Photojournalist Ken Paprocki was born on the barren Plains of Nebraska sometime between the Kennedy and Carter administrations. Stories that appeal to him most are those about everyday people and their struggles, be it in developing countries, such as Haiti and Afhanistan, or in his own backyard, wherever that may be at the time (usually in New York City). “I try to find hope, redemption, poignancy in my stories. There are enough people out there covering the negative stuff, ” says Ken, whose work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, The New York Times and United Nations publications.