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When friends and acquaintances find out that I was born and raised in Manhattan’s Chinatown and that I still live here, they always ask, “What would you recommend in Chinatown?” (First, always, to not block the sidewalk, as Chinatown streets are busy and narrow!) As a local, I waver on giving my actual recommendation, for fear of people packing my favorite hole-in-the-wall. But there are too many good things in Chinatown for me to keep my favorite places a secret. This guide to NYC’s Chinatown includes insider tips for visiting Chinatown, must-knows, and my favorite places to eat in Chinatown.
- A brief history of Chinatown
- The best places to visit in Chinatown
- Insider tips on where to eat in Chinatown
- Keeping alive new and old traditions in Chinatown
A Brief History of my Chinatown
In the mid-1800s, Chinese immigrants flooded into what is now Manhattan’s Chinatown. The Chinese population grew up until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which effectively ended the immigration of Chinese people to Chinatown. Chinatown became a bachelor society in Chinatown due to miscegenation laws where Chinese people were not allowed to interracially marry. The repeal of the act in 1943 and a 1965 immigration act changed immigration patterns, and subsequently, a steady flood of Chinese immigrants moved to New York, spreading primarily to Flushing, Queens, Sunset Park in Brooklyn, and to my Manhattan Chinatown.
Up until the 1990s, the predominant Chinese people immigrating to Manhattan’s Chinatown were of southern Chinese descent and speaking Cantonese and Toisan dialects. My family followed in that immigration pattern when they moved from the southern Guangdong province of China to New York in the 1980s. The 1990s on saw a wider variety of people from different parts of China and the world immigrating to New York, meaning the makeup, food, and culture of Chinatown has shifted, and often very quickly.
Chinatown changed drastically after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. For months, Chinatown became a “frozen zone,” cutting off foot traffic to business and tourism; many businesses folded or struggled to recover. From 2000 to 2010, a tenth of the Chinatown population had moved from Chinatown, and former residential, business, and industrial sites lay empty. Chinatown is still rebuilding from 9/11, with an influx of new businesses, residents, and landmarks that will shape Chinatown for decades to come.
The best places to visit in Chinatown
I grew up in Chinatown during the 1990s and 2000s, and my schools in Chinatown were 96% Asian in population. My family could walk through the streets of Chinatown only speaking Cantonese or Toisan, our Chinese dialects. We would often walk through food stalls to get the freshest produce in town. My mom might get a still-alive fish being descaled right in front of me, or ask me to pick out ripe navel oranges. While there are less outdoor food stalls there now, Mott Street still has packed indoor markets like New York Mart, Deluxe Food Mart, Kam Man and Hong Kong Supermarket, where you can buy Asian foods, drinks, and household items.
My parents immigrated and knew no English, so as a child I needed to learn the English language and about American culture. My local New York Public Libraries were essential: Chatham Square Library and Seward Park Library. The two libraries are always packed with locals reading their newspapers or doing work, and the children’s sections are always friendly. Both libraries have some classes for kids, teens, and adults, occasional events, screenings of movies, and Seward Park recently started a karaoke hour!
Chinatown has two main parks where you can see seniors gathering to play card games, practice tai chi or their dance moves. If you want to play some pickup ball or just watch some NYC-style handball, check out Sara Delano Roosevelt Park and watch the action while chilling on surrounding benches. On the south side of the park is the Hester Street Playground, which was rebuilt in 2010 thanks to collaboration from the community. The playground is a beautiful, kid-friendly park with Asian themes throughout, a ground xylophone, a sand pit, swings, rope spider web, and more. A trip to Columbus Park on the other side of Chinatown is also great, with the seniors playing card games and mahjongg at the north side of the park and a mix of kids playing at the playground on the south side.
Insider tips on where to eat in Chinatown
Chinatown is one of the best places to go in NYC for some quality food. The general rule in Chinatown restaurants is that food is number one. You might be put off by a lack of service or by a less-than-ideal bathroom, but if you see a crowd of predominantly Chinese locals, or if the joint is packed, that means the food is good. (Editor’s note: If you’re looking for a food tour, click for a food tour of Chinatown!)
In middle school, my friends and I would always go to a food cart that sold us a discounted 50-cent takeout box of noodles with fish balls or beef tripe. The couple who owned the cart (and who would also make light-hearted jabs at my Chinglish) made enough money to open their own business. As with the food cart days, Wah Fung No. 1 Fast Food always has a line out the door, and for good reason. It has THE best char siu pork in all of Chinatown, and, best of all, a takeout box of char siu, vegetables, and rice will only set you back $4!
I’ve spent days in Chinatown just sampling dumplings. Two of the best dumpling spots in Chinatown are steps away from one another: Shu Jiao Fu Zhou and Vanessa’s Dumplings. Shu Jiao Fu Zhou specializes in their (very addictive) peanut butter noodles as well as their boiled pork and chive dumplings, which I buy frozen in a bag of 50 and heat up at home for meals. The original spot for Vanessa’s Dumplings is a few doors down, with fried and steamed dumplings that keep customers coming back, and an amazing beef, duck, pork, or vegetable sesame pancake, almost like a mini-sandwich.
Soup dumplings, with juicy pork or crab-filled dumplings with soup inside (don’t burn your mouth!) are originally Shanghainese, not like the traditional Cantonese and Toisan population in Manhattan’s Chinatown. For soup dumplings, Joe’s Shanghai is always packed and also serves solid Chinese American fare, and other solid picks include Green Bo and Shanghai Asia Manor. But my favorite soup dumplings in Chinatown are at Noodle Village, with its thin skin, and which has the best wonton soup you can get in Chinatown.
You have not lived until you’ve had handmade noodles. Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles has been a staple since my high school days, where you can get handmade noodles in soup or pan-fried with different proteins. Lam Zhou Handmade Noodle, which also has amazing handmade dumplings, shines with its pan-fried or noodles in soup. Spicy Village makes wide noodles in-house and is also known for its “big tray chicken” for two.
As a young kid, I would always go with my family for dim sum. I used to awe at the giant escalators at Jing Fong, a quintessential dim sum hall, where workers push carts of fresh dumplings, flat rice noodles filled with beef or shrimp or fried dough, and my favorite, sweet soft tofu. At nights Jing Fong does 12-course meals as well- everyone should experience a Cantonese-style banquet dinner like this.
New and new-ish restaurants are changing the landscape of Chinatown dining. The former Fong Inn Too offered fresh tofu and rice cakes on Mott Street, but closed in 2017 after no family member would take over the family business. One relative of the original owners decided to spend two years learning the recipes while also making soft tofu trendy. Fong On reopened two years later on Division Street, adding individual-sized sweet and savory soft tofu options with toppings like ginger syrup, red bean, and sriracha. Some restaurants are continually diversifying Chinatown cuisine like Kopitiam, which offers fast-casual Malaysian fare, including pan mee, desserts, and Malaysian white coffee.
After all that food, I am usually hankering for some dessert. Some lactose-free bubble tea always hits the spot at Teado, which has many creative drink options like my current favorite, milk foam earl grey tea. My favorite ice cream in the world comes from the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, which makes all their ice cream in-house, with fresh ingredients like ginger, lychee, black sesame, and my personal favorite, almond cookie ice cream. Next door to the factory is a relative newcomer to Chinatown, Mango Mango, which makes desserts from fresh juices, fruits, and other traditional toppings like red bean or tong yuen.
Keeping the Old and New Alive in Chinatown
Chinatown is continually changing, with many people attempting to keep the spirit of Chinatown alive while also adapting to new and current trends.
Unfortunately, parts of Chinatown are disappearing, being destroyed, or in danger of displacement. In 2009, the tenants of 128 Hester Street were forced to immediately evacuate their homes after neighboring construction of the Wyndham Hotel damaged the foundation of their apartment building. 128 Hester has been an empty parking lot for the past decade, and the tenants are still waiting for a settlement, all while the Wyndham Hotel is open for business. Organizations like CAAAV have been fighting tenant displacement like this for decades.
The James Cohan Gallery caused controversy in 2017 when it hosted an exhibit depicting a Chinatown “business” with broken floors, ATMs, and damaged awning and which many groups considered racist. Various anti-displacement organizations, including the Chinatown Art Brigade, protested the exhibit and wider displacement in Chinatown and across NYC, asking art galleries to “resist becoming weapons of mass displacement.”
There are many different spots where you can learn about Chinatown and Chinese American history. The Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA) is a great museum showcasing Chinese American history and culture- check out their permanent timeline, rotating exhibits, and the gift shop. I recently went to the Oriental Culture Enterprises Co. Inc. Bookstore, with a large selection of books, mostly in English and Mandarin.
The Lunar New Year is the most important holiday in Chinatown, and Chinatown has multiple celebrations to commemorate. Don’t miss the firecrackers, which will blow off your ears for a few minutes, and then come back later for the Lunar New Year parade, with lion dancers, drums, dragons, and dances. Come armed with noisemakers and confetti fireworks!
You might wonder what happens to all that confetti after the parade. For years, that confetti would be swept up and trashed. But not with the W.O.W. Project, a community initiative founded in 2016, whose stated mission is to “sustain ownership over Chinatown’s future by growing, protecting and preserving Chinatown’s creative culture through arts, culture and activism.” With the slogan “Resist, Recycle, Regenerate,” the W.O.W. Project, an offshoot of oldest store in Chinatown, Wing On Wo & Co., works with youth to collect the discarded confetti fireworks to be recycled into creative materials for the community. The W.O.W. Project also hosts different events for Chinatown residents and Asian Americans alike to create conversations across language and generational gaps and to help shape the future of Chinatown.
Chinatown has changed a lot, and I am hopeful that Chinatown residents will be able to preserve the culture, history, and character of the neighborhood. I appreciate a lot that I got to grow up and live here in Chinatown. I hope that this guide helps you support local Chinatown businesses/organizations and understand this unique New York neighborhood.