Growing up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, you’re only a few steps away from Chinatown. I have many memories there: buying “Naruto” manga and “Yu-Gi-Oh!” cards, shopping for gifts in Elizabeth Center, accompanying my mother to shop for groceries, and having dim sum or hot pot with my family. My working-class Malaysian-Chinese immigrant parents taught me the value of a dollar and how to make it stretch. From $1 coffee and golden pastries and $3 dumplings, to $18 haircuts and $45 facials and massages. As the rent in the city keeps rising, I don’t want these family businesses to change into another Target and Starbucks. Developers are devastating small businesses and affordable housing to turn Chinatown into an adult playground of loud bars, white cube art galleries, and corporate greed. But walking through its narrow, skewed streets, the Chinatown I know has always been home to elders, disabled folks, and families with small children trying to make ends meet. With Asian Americans having the largest wealth gap, family businesses and community power are all the more precious and crucial to places like Chinatown.
Chinatowns have always been about the power of family and community care. There’s a history of solidarity between other marginalized groups, like how Chinese groceries welcomed and provided affordable prices to Black people when they weren’t allowed at white grocery markets. There’s more effort than ever to build Asian and Black unity, and we need spaces for grassroots activism and solidarity-building. In Manhattan, public spots like Columbus Park, where people hold gatherings, workout classes, and art and health fairs, provide a space to spend time together as a community.
Chinatowns were built in the United States because of segregation and racism. If Chinese immigrants wanted to survive, they had to be resilient and work in solidarity with other marginalized communities. And yet, the controversy surrounding landlord Jonathan Chu is still ongoing, with the impending threat of a new “skyscraper jail” being constructed in the neighborhood. Cultural landmarks like East Broadway Mall and Jing Fong are at risk of being shut down, and many people continue to lose their businesses and jobs. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought waves of scapegoating and violent hate crimes against Asians.
It’s during tough times like these that I need to hold on to hope.
Chinatown is my safe place to write on my laptop in coffee shops, get takeout, pick up bubble tea, shop for groceries, and spend my self-care days with my Asian community. Here are places in Chinatown where you can accomplish your tasks and support small businesses at the same time:
Coffee and Tea Time
Dreamers Coffee House is where I get my Ethiopian drip coffee, pick up ham and cheese croissants for my dad, and get my writing done in their outdoor dining area. You might even get to meet owner Sandy’s adorable dog Milo!
Conveniently nearby is Food King for good old Chinese American takeout.
Get bubble tea freshly brewed from premium tea leaves, handmade onigiri with fillings like shrimp tempura or vegan citrus spare ribs, fried takoyaki, and other yummy snacks at Yaya Tea, which was founded by an Asian American woman.
Newly opened Asian woman-owned bookstore Yu and Me is the place to buy books featuring BIPOC characters and immigrant stories, and to sit down with a cup of coffee or glass of wine. Yu and Me’s owner, Lucy, also has a lovely dog named Odie who you might be lucky to meet at the bookstore as well!
My favorite grocery market in Chinatown is New Kam Man, a three-level supermarket with a floor solely dedicated to beauty and skincare.
You can always count on a Hong Kong Supermarket for a quick snack trip with its dedicated section for instant noodles, shrimp chips, and all your other favorite Korean and Japanese snacks.
For the plant lovers, I love Dahing Plants to cheer up my home with colorful carnations. This is where I bought a chili pepper plant for my father’s birthday which he loved; now we have fresh and very spicy peppers to use when we’re cooking mapo tofu and other spicy dishes.
For holistic care, I get body acupuncture and fire cupping at Emily Grace Acupuncture, which also hosts healing circles and workshops on gua sha and vaginal steaming.
For affordable massages, I head to Renew Day Spa.
I do skincare hauls at oo35mm where they have everything in Korean and Japanese beauty — thank goodness for their rewards system and free samples!
Chinatown has always been a home for minorities, families, and grassroots organizations. Spaces like Chinatown represent a rejection of assimilation, yet also showcases the community it creates and provides a safe space for many. It allows marginalized folks a seamless connection to their heritage without language and cultural barriers. Chinatowns also provide homes to non-Chinese communities as well, like Malaysian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese. Other Asian ethnic enclaves typically grow alongside Chinatowns, like Koreatown, Little Saigon, and other growing communities of color.
Ethnic enclaves are important for their history, as places for local activism and grassroots organizations. There are many grassroots projects and youth organizations that serve the neighborhood, and exemplify what community care looks like when the city won’t care for its own people. Send Chinatown Love provides meals for low-income elders. Wing On Wo & Co is a family pottery business since 1925 who have launched the WOW Project as a community initiative to combine art and activism to protect Chinatown’s culture. Welcome To Chinatown has aided in outdoor dining construction, gathering relief funds for small businesses, and compiling important statistics. Mott Streets Girls is led by Anna Huang and Chloe Chan to highlight small businesses and the history of Chinatown.
Chinatowns are made up of communities of immigrants and working-class folks who make ends meet while chasing their dreams that make up the heartbeat of New York City.
Photo credits: Kai Xing Mun
Last modified: November 11, 2022