This post is written by FAB Intern Lena Hegemann.
I got out the subway station Canal Street on a sunny Thursday morning. The weather was gorgeous: with a clear blue sky I strolled towards the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) on Centre Street, a short walk away from SoHo and Wall Street. From there our tour guide, Wilson, led us to our first stop at Kam Hing Coffee Shop and enjoyed MOCA’s favorite local sponge cake (and my first sponge cake ever).
As someone from Germany, though I’ve been to New York several times, I’ve only had tangential relation to Chinese culture — the walking tour was interesting, captivating, and packed with information I would never have encountered otherwise! It leads you through more than just pit stops in a guidebook, bringing you to places, people, stories, history, and culture of this vibrant neighborhood.
A little history lesson: geographically, Chinatown sits on Native American land, on a village called the Werpoes Hill, before the first colonies settled. In the mid-19th century the area started to change once again, this time due to the immigration wave from China, and over time, the neighborhood transformed into the Chinatown – now spanning over 40 blocks – we know today. Back in the day, the big immigration wave started with “paper sons”. Paper sons or paper daughters was a term that used to refer to Chinese people born in China who illegally immigrated to the United States by purchasing fraudulent documentation/identity papers. The identity papers were established by American citizens of Chinese descent who left the US to travel back to China. They stated that the Chinese immigrants were blood relatives to Chinese Americans who had citizenships in the United States.
Moving across Canal Street, we see tourists wandering around, Chinese vendors on the streets and that oh so delicious smell of fresh dumplings on every street corner. You then head towards Columbus Park, one of the few green community spaces in Chinatown. Columbus Park’s alternative names (Mulberry Bend Park, Five Points Park, and Paradise Park) is owed to the fact that it sits in the Five Points neighborhood as well as the area known as Mulberry Bend. In the mid-19th century, this was considered the most dangerous ghetto area, portrayed in the book and film Gangs of New York. Today, the park serves as a gathering place for the local Chinese community, where the neighborhood meets up to play mahjong, play traditional Chinese music, engage in Chinese chess, and practice tai chi in the early mornings.
Moving further downtown, we meet traditional Chinese family-owned businesses like Wing on Wo & Co which has been there since 5 generations and right next to them, the growing arts scene and new galleries in the neighborhood. During the tour, we pause in front of historic buildings where Wilson shows us pictures of how present-day storefronts, theaters or restaurants used to look like hundreds of years ago. One of them, the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, didn’t change since 1920, and continues to be a famous dim sum spot. Right next to it lives a Chinese theater which, in one photo, displays a sign in the early 20th century that read: Seats reserved only for Americans!
Finally, another topic I found interesting was that of Chinese Bachelors who were both not allowed to bring Chinese women when they emigrated nor allowed to marry an American woman. To me, this did not make sense because that essentially means they were not allowed to have a family at all!
You probably noticed that I liked my little trip out of the office and enjoyed this tour to the fullest! Whether you’re interested in Chinese American history in New York, or you’re seeking to develop a more nuanced understanding of the culture and history of this city, this tour is a pleasure. Jump on the 6 to Canal Street and start your morning in Chinatown! Groups are usually small (2-10 people max). This one-hour tour starts every morning at 10:30am, except Mondays and takes about an hour. An advance reservation is required and you can purchase your tickets online ($25 adults/$15 students & seniors/$5 for MOCA members, free for children). http://www.mocanyc.org/visit/tours/walking_tours
Featured image from: http://freshnyc.com/blog/chinatown-new-york-city-manhattan-brooklyn-and-flushing-queens
Lena is a college student from Germany who is our intern for the summer and fall. She loves to travel and discover different cultures and new places. She is passionate about dancing, art and meeting new and interesting people. Her goal is to work internationally and travel the world.