I take it all back. You can have a decent meal in tong yan gaai, New York’s Chinatown.
The other night I met up with Ping and we walked down Elizabeth Street together in the lovely warmth of early evening. It’s that perfect moment of not-quite-summer in New York now, just before the blistering heat kicks in. You can smell the fragrance of green things in the air at dusk. (New York really is a heung gong!) The light gets all golden and great, and even the most garbage heaped streets in Chinatown tweak your heartstrings, they seem to glow from inside. Okay, okay, I know I’m a little over the top here. But walking through Chinatown with Ping always makes me feel lyrical.
Ping grew up in Chinatown. He’s just turned 60, and he’s lived around the neighborhood most of his life. His mom and dad were Chinese opera stars who emigrated to New York from Hong Kong. There wasn’t much demand for daai hei luminaries in America in the 40s and 50s, so Ping’s parents opened a Chinese restaurant on Bayard Street. They named it “Fragrant Lotus” after Ping’s mom, Lin Heung–which by coincidence, happens to also be the name of one of the oldest and most famous Cantonese tea houses still standing in Central Hong Kong.
Walking around Chinatown with Ping is like wandering around Little Italy with Martin Scorsese. A walk around the ‘hood is a journey back to the Mean Streets of his youth. Ping’s stories are great. I always wish I had a tape recorder along, because I want to hold onto everything he says:
“You see this street? It used to be all Italian shops when I was growing up. Now it’s all Chinese. See that building?” (Ping points at a gloomy brown tenement apartment on Elizabeth near Bayard.) “The biggest Mafia thug in the neighborhood used to live right there. His name was Ralph. He was a real creep. One evening someone put 17 slugs in him while he was sitting at a restaurant.”
It wasn’t easy, being a Chinese kid in lower Manhattan in the 1950s, but Ping had some cool survival strategies. In school, when the non-Chinese kids started making fun of the sound of Cantonese, he’d wait until they quieted down, then he’d say. “Hey, man, do you want to learn some Chinese? Here’s how you say, ‘hello, how are you’. If you say this to the guy in the restaurant next time you go for noodles, maybe he’ll give you a treat. Listen carefully, and repeat after me…. Diu leih lou mouh.”
Ping and I end up eating in a place on Elizabeth Street called “Oriental Garden” in English and Fuk Lam Moon in Cantonese (福
門). As usual, the Chinese name is far more beautiful and evocative than the workaday English one. Fuk Lahm Moon means “Happiness/Arrives/Gate.” Joy comes knocking. (Check out the discussion of this restaurant in the reader comments below!)
To be on the safe side, we ordered simple dishes–steamed fish with ginger, chives and garlic, a classic Cantonese preparation. A dish of haam guk gaai. Some stir fried tung choi (this morphs into English on menus as “Chinese hollow vegetable”.
M’ cho. Fuk Lam Moon is not bad at all. The salt-baked chicken was particularly good, and it was served quite warm, which I liked. In Hong Kong, the usual practice is to bring roast, salt or soyed chicken to the table at room temperature or even colder. That’s the Cantonese preference. I’ve gotten used to a lot of Hong Kong tastes–for instance, I happily slurp the tasty fat and cartilage from goose feet. But everybody draws their own culinary line in the sand. And mine is chilly chicken.
Oh, I should mention that something very cool happened while we were eating. The headwaiter came over to Ping with a hearty: “Ngo sik leih!” He recognized Ping from when he was a Chinatown kid!
All in all, a rock-solid Cantonese home-style meal, about the same as a normal-regular night at Ngau Kee back in Hong Kong.
What I will remember most of all, though, is not the dinner, or Ping’s wonderful tales of his Chinatown childhood. I will remember dessert. Ping really loves Ji Ma Wu tong seui. Black Sesame sweet soup, one of the finest Cantonese contributions to world cuisine. I love all the Cantonese sweet soups, almost as much as I love Hong Kong style steamed milk custard.
Usually, a good restaurant will bring out a free sweet soup for everyone at the table when the meal is over (often, though, you have to ask as they clear the dinner plates. For those of you non-Cantonese speakers, the key phrase is: “M’goi! Yauh mouh tong seui a?”) Restaurants generally have only one kind of sweet soup on offer, so if you want to try a lot of different flavors, you should head out after dinner to a place that specializes in dessert. In Hong Kong, there are hundreds, including famous chains like Heui Lauh San.
In New York’s Chinatown, though, the pickings are slim and getting slimmer. Ping’s and my usual sweet soup haunt, the old reliable “Sweet and Tart” recently closed down.
“Have you ever been to Yan Yan?”, Ping asks me? “It’s a very old place, it was here when I was a kid. They have lots of soup, even snake soup.”
I’d heard about this place from Muna. When she’s feeling a cold coming on, she gets her medicinal soup from the restaurant whose sign, in roman script, reads “Yuen Yuen”, but whose characters in Cantonese are
“Everybody”, in this case, means “Everybody who can read and speak Chinese.” Yan Yan is one of those now-rare Chinatown holdouts where the menu’s all in Chinese. Oh, well, there’s a board next to the door of this tiny, narrow storefront that lists a few things in English, old-school American-Canto dishes like “Chop Suey”. But the bulk of Yan Yan’s offerings are posted inside on the walls, in beautiful, old-fashioned, hand-painted characters. Column after column of special soups, and rice dishes and bou jai faan casseroles, most cheaper than $4.
In New York there’s always been this urban legend about Chinatown–that the best restaurants have only Chinese customers, and a “secret” all-Chinese menu with better food, and cheaper prices, than the English menu. One of the things that originally motivated me to study Chinese characters was the idea that I could crack the secret menu code. But what I discovered is that the majority of today’s Chinese restaurants in NYC are pretty gwailo-friendly. The text in English more or less matches the Chinese, in most places. Oh, maybe there will be some Chinese-only specials posted on the wall. But often these, too, are translated into English. Chinatown’s restaurant proprietors have figured out there are now lots of adventurous foodie New Yorkers who really do want to order the pig stomach.
Also, just because a restaurant has mainly Chinese customers doesn’t necessarily mean it is good. Often, it just means that it is okay and cheap. A lot of workers in Chinatown are stretching a tight budget. If you gotta choose between a $1.50 or a $2 dumpling soup joint, you’re going to head to the less expensive one, even if its dumplings aren’t as tasty.
So much for myth. But Yan Yan is a throwback, almost like an archeological find. Ping’s stories send me back in my imagination to a Chinatown past. When you walk through Yan Yan’s glass doors and sit down at one of their little formica tables, that past becomes real again. It’s like magic: a food time-warp. Even the beautiful laminated menu on the table, with each Chinese character hand painted with a tiny calligraphy brush, is a linguistic artifact. The character for “pin”, that means fillet or flat piece, usually appears on contemporary HK Cantonese menus written like this:
But “pin” is written by Yan Yan’s owner the way Ping’s parents put it on their Chinese menus in the 1950s, like this:
Many years ago, a friend of mine who’d immigrated to New York from a Caribbean island told me his interesting theory. He believes that immigrant communities are like archival photographs of a culture. That they preserve, for decades, the life, habits, language and ways that existed in a place at the moment the immigrant left.
Yan Yan, with its ancient wooden-framed mirrors, old-fashioned Cantonese characters and the most beautiful Chinese menu on Bayard Street, is a snapshot of Hong Kong, circa 1962
And I wonder, as I slurp my hung dao tong seui: Which Chinatown of the future will I have to visit when I crave a taste my beloved, too quickly vanishing, Hong Kong of 2007?
BLOGGERS NOTE: That pesky photograph…
Those of you with slower internet connections may notice that this homepage is now loading in a flash. Yes, after five months I’ve finally fixed the banner photograph. Or, to be more precise, my dear friend (whose multi-talents include web design) Wendy fixed it for me.
This is, without a doubt, a do jeh situation. Gracious thanks to Wendy.
I wish it were as easy to fix the Hong Kong Urban Development Authority’s insane plan to destroy the subject of the photograph, Hong Kong’s oldest open-air food market….