Chinatowns in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens
On the last day in New York, and after my usual breakfast with a bagel and a small coffee, once checked out and dropped both my backpacks at the hostel’ storage, I took the 7 train from Queensboro Plaza (some meters away Queens Plaza) until the last stop of the line, Flushing Main Street, hectic centre of the biggest and most populated of the three Chinatowns in New York. There are around half a million Chinese within New York population, living in the three Chinatowns of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. The two I had the chance to visit while in the city were the last two of them. There is a basic difference between those two, which one may easily imagine. The one in Manhattan, as the Little Italy you have a few meters away, is more tourist than the one in Queens. I do not add much to the experience I had while crossing Chinatown’s main streets in Manhattan, as I was working with groups of students and did not have the chance to see much and have a full impression of the place.
However, Chinatown in Manhattan is still incredibly different from the other parts of Manhattan and it is not only totally touristic, there is of course a really high density of Chinese people, shops, restaurants, food stands selling particular fruits and vegetables you would not find anywhere else, stores selling fish and meat in all possible versions, Chinese versions of Central Park, where a few people stand and sing traditional Chinese songs, dance in ways to me totally unknown, sit and play traditional Chinese games, almost in the same way as people play chess in the middle of Central Park. But also, there you have a lot of souvenirs shops, something missing in Flushing Chinatown. And this is actually something quite funny, as I actually took the train to Flushing of course for curiosity – I had heard a lot of good stuff about it! – but also to go and buy some souvenirs, since I heard that also in New York Chinese shops would sell cheap souvenirs!
The Chinatown in Flushing, upper east Queens
My trip to Flushing took more or less half an hour, which surprised me a bit as I still did not relate well to distances in New York, and also overvalued the subway. Of course it is a great thing not to change means of transportation to cross half a city, but it does still take the time it needs! As you experience during every subway trip in New York, such as when three Mexicans get in the train playing a typical energetic melody, or a couple of young musicians plays and sings a two minute excerpt of The Beatles’ “Come Together”, the way to Flushing was a continuous introduction of a variety of people. Starting from a concentration of Spanish native speakers – probably many Colombians as I have been meeting quite many during my time in New York – the car I was traveling in started to get emptier meanwhile it was welcoming more and more people from the Far East. One door closing after the other I hear less and less English through my ears. A woman begs in Spanish to be later followed, during the same journey between a stop and the next one, by a man playing a melancholic melody sang in Spanish. Flushing is the next one. The few steps on the stairs out of the subway undergrounds always saw me with really low expectations and excitement about the new destination to explore. In Flushing I was welcomed by foreign languages, little English or better not any at all, delicacy smells, specific places where to send money to other countries, and people singing and shouting what was probably religious songs and others, and planes flying low while approaching either the really close La Guardia or the JFK airport in southern Queens
New stuff I learned about Chinatown(s) in New York
- 6 different Chinese newspapers are issued and read every day!
- Most of the shops, at least those in Flushing Chinatown, do not accept credit card
- Food is extremely cheap
- English is almost not spoken at all
As some of you may have noticed, I am a limitless crazy food lover, and give me a place where to taste traditional food from places I am not used to and where I know I will probably not go back in a close future, and it will be hard for me to actually find the willingness to leave that spot. I went around Chinatown checking out shops selling every possible thing one needs for daily life, passing by tens of shops selling fresh vegetables, bakeries showing beautiful colorful decorated cakes in the sop windows, people selling small paper or glass decorations by the sidewalks.
I firstly went into a cafeteria to realize everything was written in Chinese, and asking in English if they had dumplings and whether they accepted cards as payment, the answer to both was no.
I therefore went around a bit, to later come back and enter a place I had seen just directly after my exit from the subway, some minutes before. Nobody spoke English there, and when asking the same questions as in the previous place, I was sent by one of the ladies working there to another lady sitting by a table in front of the food showed for the guests. Our conversation was then made of me asking in English, this lady asking in Chinese to another woman about credit cards and cash withdrawal, to then being back to me with the answer, in very clean American English. At the door next to this traditional Chinese cafeteria, I took some cash and went back to order a soup and six dumplings, paid in total only $4,5. New tastes and a talk with a Colombian woman, in Spanish
I moved to another place, to attracted by all these locals getting in fast and buying even before saying what they wished to eat, unfolding their knowledge of the place and food served there, of trust for the deli’s owners. Prices were crazy cheap here as well. For what you see in the picture, I paid around 6 dollars. However, I met a woman from Colombia who sat in front of me at one of the tables placed in front of the cash and food desk. People from the area sat in silence one in front of the other while sitting and chewing their food, but someone from Italy and one from Colombia find it quite difficult to be quiet while sitting so close and eating a meal. So with not a few problems I started to exchange some words in Spanish, things got incredibly better – on a low scale from bad to a bit better – and we could actually get the conversation going on, and shared some of our food while talking. Something I decided to really do while I was struggling with my Spanish talk, unconsciously putting in some Swedish words in it, is to actually finally focus on the Spanish language. Probably not by chance I had bought the Spanish version of “Hundreds Years of Solitude” just before leaving to New York…will definitely have to dig in those pages as soon as I will be back in Malmö!
Later on I chose one of these many bakeries on the main street to have a final food break, or better what in Sweden they would call a “fika”, or better a coffee, accompanied by a sweet thing. However, for me it was rather something sweet, in this case a cheesecake in Japanese style, and a sweet coconut rice ball filled with mango pieces, with a coffee aside. Many sitting at a table by their own, reading a newspaper or just siping their coffee and making small pieces to be eaten out of the small sweet delicacy they had in front of them.
Almost rolling out of the store, but really happy for my innumerable and indescribable tastes of good and cheap food, as well as getting around in a very original place,
In the same way as it happened with New York, which I would never think to fall in love with so easily and deeply, Chinatown in Flushing, upper east side of the borough Queens, made me very fascinated by Asian culture, although I only spent a few hours through Flushing main street and only saw a little part of the all thing. However, it was a quite intense experience: