On my last trip to New York, which was way too long ago, a change in plans for my friend meant I wound up spending Sunday night solo. I didn’t get theatre tickets or anything because, being New York, I thought someone wonderful would reveal itself to me. I was so right.
Plan A was to grab some noodles and pick up a gift for my friend who was petsitting for me. I wandered through a few of the Chinatown “malls,” which are narrow rows of shops that go on forever, each only a few square metres, selling precisely the sort of goods you would expect to find there. Upon finding a gift for my friend, the salesperson said, “If you want, I can put a [designer who definitely did not produce the bag] name plate on it for you.” Uh, no thanks.
We were both distracted, however, by an escalating series of shrieks heading our way. The source of the terror was a mouse running the length of the mall. Not to brag, but it was nothing for me, my office building has mice and I’ve gotten very used to looking down and seeing a little brown mouse staring up at me, waiting for his next assignment.
Recovering from the drama, I started my tour on Doyers St, known for being the only street in New York with a 90-degree angle. Current versions of the story suggest it’s to confuse ghosts, but history suggests it was used for defensive reasons in gang fights during Chinatown’s earlier, rougher days.
One of my favourite travel things to do is visit food markets to see what’s in season and to take pictures of piles of food. Fresh fruit and vegetable markets had plenty of lychees and cherries that day. I’m not normally a cherry eater, but I picked up a small bag for a snack and they were delightful.
I’ve been to other Chinatowns, so I knew the fare would be beyond regular Canadian supermarket offerings. I was not, however, expecting to be able to buy live frogs from a plastic barrel in a seafood market on Mott Street. For $3.50/lb.
It was lovely and warm this particular evening, so I continued down to the southern border of Chinatown, Columbus Park. Prepare yourself by reading this Yelp review for the definitive summary of what to expect. I had no idea what I was in for and was blown away by the slice of life unfolding in Cantonese around me.
Men piled around tables watching others play checkers, shouting their support. Little kids tearing around. Some elderly folks possibly gambling. The pièce de résistance, however, was the opera singers and the funky old man band perfoming one of the most indescribable things I have ever seen.
The video of the band performing is pretty wonderful. Not only is it a slice of the strange beauty of Chinese opera, but it quickly becomes absurdist perfection when two dudes playfight their way into the frame.
There are lots of ways to experience New York. Do not miss Chinatown.
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