What do most New Yorkers know about Chinatown? There’s the food, of course, along with foreign languages, and the pervasive smell of fish. Tourists associate the neighborhood with bargain-couture. But on a deeper, cultural level: how much do we really know? We don’t even know how many people live there, not with any degree of accuracy. The neighborhood’s visual extremes – doughy dim sum, buckets of live frogs, touristy trinkets, overcrowded tenements, Buddhist temples, Baptist churches – all exist within a quarter mile of City Hall, the luxury lofts of TriBeCa, SoHo, the Lower East Side, and other revitalized neighborhoods, while Chinatown retains its storied, complex cultural heritage.
My interest in the neighborhood dates back to 2010, when I worked for the U.S. Census Bureau. There in our Fulton Street office, I once witnessed a Chinese-speaking coworker count more than seventy residents at a single address in Chinatown. It happened over the phone. The original field-worker had counted fifteen residents at the unit. Our job, with the follow up call, was to confirm the accuracy of the work. The owner of the apartment – a fifth-floor unit on Baxter Street – apparently rented bunks by the hour, stacked four beds high in a ten by ten foot room, so at any particular time of day as many as twenty or thirty men were “living” in the unit.
Of course, not all apartments in Chinatown were like this. But this particular incident revealed some of neighborhood’s fascinating idiosyncrasies: its contradictory transience and resistance to change, its constant influx of immigrants, its byzantine architecture fraught with overcrowding and frequent disregard for firecode. By varying the times of her calls, my coworker at the Census Bureau managed to expand the list of men who claimed the Baxter Street unit as their residence. She would introduce herself in Cantonese, explain that she was a Census employee, and ask, “Do you live here?” If the respondent said, “Yes,” she would ask him to spell his name, give his age, and then hand the phone to someone else who lived there. I kept thinking, as the number of residents increased, that we were only approximating a formal tally. We’d never know for sure, not really. These physical extremes of Chinatown didn’t interest me nearly as much as what they represented: a limitation in our knowledge of the City. We kept calling, and more men kept answering. Different men. New men. At once constant and impermanent, the contradictions in the neighborhood were everywhere I looked.
This past autumn – two years after the Census – whenever I found myself walking around the city, with no particular destination in mind, I’d end up wandering into Chinatown. Its unknowable nature appeals to the intellect: Chinatown is a riddle asking to be solved. So, one night, while having a drink at Apotheke, a nouveau speakeasy hidden at the elbow of Doyers Street, I thought of trying to find a place in Chinatown where I might sit and watch the neighborhood work. A painter and photographer, friends of mine, liked the idea and agreed to help. Like Georges Perec and his famous literary experiment in Paris, we set out to observe and record a specific place in Chinatown to know the neighborhood. If the people are innumerable, the impressions can contribute to our portraiture, we thought, in words, pictures, and paintings. Opinions differ on the exact boundaries of Chinatown, so we chose Columbus Park, the neighborhood’s southern anchor, from which the neighborhood spreads roughly north of Worth Street and east of Baxter Street. My intent in the text that follows is to convey the sensation of experiencing Chinatown and by extension, New York City, at a specific place, at specific time.
Date: October 21
Time: Around 2:28 p.m.
Location: Columbus Park, sitting in the northern half.
Weather: Agreeably warm, sunny, cool wind.
Background: After eating dim sum and dumplings at Asia Shanghai Manor, we bought coffee and tea at Cha Chan Tang and entered the corner of Columbus Park, where the first day of observations began. Dictations of all three participants intended specifically for the recording, along with ambient noises, were captured in the “Dictation” entries.
Transcript of observed events:
Writer: “We should impose some artificial rules on the project.” [Writer, Artist, and Photographer walking southeast, slowly, into the park.]
Artist: “Let’s do it.”
Photographer: “If we stay within the confines of Columbus Park, we can move around a little bit.”
Artist: “As long as the plaza is within sight.”
Photographer: “Is it the park overall? Or is it something in your view? Some central point?”
Artist: “Other things.”
Writer: “Those things are peripheral to the park, but affecting the park.”
Artist: “What you’re taking in with all your senses, you’re restricting your vision to a certain area—”
Writer: “No way to document what that smell was—”
Artist: “We could definitely ask people questions in Mandarin.” [Brief explanation about the Artist’s time spent living in China, his studies of Chinese history, his workable knowledge of Mandarin.]
Writer: “That would be so cool.”
Artist: “. . . fortune reading based on—”
Photographer: “I could be your subject, always.”
Dictation: Loud Chinese voices, classical street music [loud voices through a microphone] elderly Chinese men in suits and leather jackets playing different instruments, poker, checkers.
[Writer, Artist, Photographer sit down on a bench in the central area.]
Dictation: It’s 2:37 p.m. on October 20th. Sitting in Columbus plaza, 100 yards from New York City jail, a quarter mile from City Hall, within sight of Confucius.
Artist: “Not Confucius.”
Dictation: flags for New York City parks, state, and POW. Chinese man singing through a portable microphone.
Artist: “Su Yat Sen.”
Writer: “Who’s that?”
Artist: “He was like the President of China between the dynasty and the take over of the nationalists.”
Photographer: “All under heaven are equal.”
Dictation: Spilled coffee. Give up on digital word-creator, use digital recorder instead, take pictures when we feel the need.
Photographer: “I love the sounds we’re hearing.”
Artist: “They’re rehearsing a Beijing Opera; the ones here [gestures] are doing something similar.”
Photographer: “I love to see the tourists as they wander through. There are a few people like us, New Yorkers, but most of them are culturally Chinese.”
Artist: “Most are from China, since they’re speaking Chinese.”
Photographer: “Can you tell what you’re hearing?”
Artist: “Mandarin, not Cantonese.”
Photographer: “What’s the difference?”
Artist: “Hong Kong and Gyuan Dong Province, used to be called Canton, where all the factories are now. Beijing quay is Mandarin. When government moved to Beijing as center of the state, they declared Beijing dialect the universal form of Chinese, imposing language on the rest.”
Writer: “Like Brits imposing English on the Irish.”
Dictation: Pigeons flying everywhere. Leaves turning yellow. Eucalyptus tree?
Artist: “Paper bark.”
Writer: “Oak tree? Maple tree?”
Photographer: “Trying to think of what kind of tree—”
Dictation: Set up rocks mimicking a Chinese way of doing things, artificial landscapes, miniature versions of mountain ranges, full game of soccer being played behind us, mostly white people playing, tourists, white guy with a camera, pretty wife with a leather bag, rolled up jean pants, black guy watching soccer game with two tennis rackets in his bag
Artist: “They’re playing mahjong, 20 people all older men, one kid.”
Photographer: “Two women, clearly European tourists, watching.”
Dictation: Slight breeze, mostly clear sky, 60 degrees, clanging of bells, drums. NYC street sign with Bayard Street and Zoe Zack Zing under Bayard Street, with characters in Chinese ZZZ way. Lots of sneakers, New Balance, Nikes, Sketchers, more Nikes, most of the Chinese men wearing sneakers, not leather shoes, 50 percent of the men have baseball caps on, incessant clanging of bell.
Photographer: “How can you do tai chi with the clanging bell?”
Dictation: White people and Chinese people performing Tai Chi. Tenement style apartments visible through patio, verandah, pavilion, young college student. Clouds pass over 10 or 15 minutes in. Red grocery bags with oranges in them, smell of oranges in the air
Photographer: “I’ve developed a super-sniffer.”
Dictation: Old man looking like Yoda, carrying an umbrella.
Artist: “There is no try, only do.” [Laughter.]
Writer: “The force is powerful with this one.” [Laughter].
Dictation: European family of four, German looking, extremely tall sons, shorter dad with backpack, taking pictures of mahjong players. Taking a picture every five minutes of what’s directly in sight. African-American man large overcoat, too warm for the weather. Cantonese argument behind us.
Artist: “You can tell because it’s more twangy sounding. Like in Wayne’s World. Nee how lang.”
Writer: “Twang like country music connotes a southern dialect, Northeaster has a clip.”
Artist: “Same as China.”
Dictation: Southerners of all countries regarded as peasants. Except in England.
Artist: “What’s it like in Australia? Northeast is Sydney, right?”
Writer: “Perth on west, Sydney on east, Melbourne and Canberra on the west side? More wild on the west, true of America, too, wild out west, still slightly true—”
Photographer: “Two different operas happening.”
Writer: “Chinese rehearsal of opera. But what is Opera? Etymology of Opera? Operatic, From Latin. Operation. Operate. Operate something is to do something, to perform a function—”
Artist: “Operas were considered more country entertainment, like vaudeville or bawdy—”
Dictation: Middle aged man with silver moon jacket, purple pants, and fashionable leather shoes.
Artist: “He’s amazing! More important than anything I have to say.”
Dictation: More red shopping bags. Sneeze. Fewer Chinese people smoking. Allowed to smoke in the park? It has been outlawed. No smoking in the park, on sign on lamppost without a lamp. The word keening comes to mind. Keening was read in The Yellow Birds. Group of old ladies all wearing covered hats, clear gender distinction between the tables. Young black man with a Mohawk with two tennis rackets, wearing Nikes, returns to mahjong table. Moon jacket guy is smoking, holding cigarette behind his band, with front of cigarette tucked into his palm. Recognition of two acquaintances, one wearing leather shoes, one wearing Adidas Sambas.
Photographer “Most of the Tai Chi people not Asian?
Writer: “Practiced combat, Asian.”
Dictation: Flagpole like a ship’s. Wing Cheyn. Lots of sweeping movements, circular forms, take the motion of your opponent and bring it with you, and sharply turn it around. The Captain a head taller than everyone else, the alpha of the group, coffee, cig ashes from his hand without him even moving, hardcore to not smoke but be so wrapped up in the game, takes a drag, purple pants man aka The Captain leans from one foot to the other. Do they have money at stake? Must be gambling, very anxious to see who will win. Tourists with Hollister bags, speaking German wondering if they found this place in the tour book. To Chinatown from Financial District, you would walk this way. You can see north side of City Hall, construction in FiDi, iPhone as a Chinese product, assembled in China. Glam-rocker (the Captain), his pants are definitely different, purple jeans.
Writer: “Why do these people look like New Yorkers as opposed to anyone else?”
Artist: “Not carrying anything makes you look more like a New Yorker.”
Photographer: “Why is the music more dissonant?”
Dictation: No melody, all dissonance, drums, clanging symbols, minor chords.
Artist: “Don’t know how music works, different scale than western music, more about Indian music.”
Photographer: “More minor chords.”
Dictation: Karate moves, black guy in the jacket, doing a bunch of crazy things. Poker game: lots of cigarettes. White guy with Star Wars t-shirt and cargo shorts, girlfriend with camouflage shorts carrying red bags with loads of Chinese tea.
Photographer: “Making observations, we resort to stereotypes, short-hand, maybe they came from Jersey or Queens?”
Writer: “You can speculate on where they came from based on how they dressed for weather.”
Artist: “Anyone with reef sandals is from the West Coast.”
Dictaton: 30 people around the Mahjong table. Sneeze.
Artist: “Would you like some scotch?
Dictation: Flask is from China, has some Scotch inside, good. Ambassador. First snort of the day. Pour some scotch in the coffee. Some spectators have switched to poker table, competition has died down, crowd has blended, yellow sweater vest. Chinese New Yorkers who are not native to this Chinatown, walking around like tourists, Asian.
Artist: “Only Japanese people have that kind of style; he looked Japanese.”
Dictation: Not capable of discerning between ethnicities visually
Writer: “Scotch warms my belly on a Sunday afternoon.”
Dictation: Signs. Please do not litter. Por favor no ensucie. Do not feed the pigeons. Sun gets low enough to cause shadows, 30 minutes in. Three is a crowd, four is a party. Common Chinese stance: hands behind your back, holding one hand with your wrist. New Jersey Marathon 2007 t-shirt. More commentary about moon jacket guy. Very small Chinese guy digging for a Chinese newspaper [we would see this man twice more], sounds fading as we stand up to move. Backpack full of mahjong boards rolled up in his bag. Lots of smoking, no one seems to care. Very strong smell of oranges, eating the orange without peeling the orange. Someone filming the opera (also wearing purple pants), same kind of pants. The Captain has moved away but lit a new cigarette.
(This is part one of a nine-part essay. To read the Second Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Chinatown click here.)