Wandering through a series of Chinatown shops setting up for the day is like walking into the dressing room of a movie star. Your pulse can’t help but quicken, from the bright lights cast upon the shops as the shuttered doors are thrust open; the prismatic colors of fresh seafood spread audibly atop frosted gems of crushed ice; and the musical clamor of carts wheeling onto sidewalks and displays of goods mounding to thrilling proportions. You can smell the sweet, hot bakery buns and the aroma of fattened ducks releasing their juices. A walk through any block or corner explodes with energy and infuses you with part of it as you shop for treasures, sit for a taste, or simply just stroll by.
Generations ago, Chinese immigrants traveled to other parts of the world like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Singapore for the hope of better economic opportunity. Many worked as laborers on railroad sites, farms, or in laundries, faced discrimination, and settled in ghettos in these foreign cities. As there developed needs among the working class for fortifying meals and the comforts of home, members of the communities went into business cooking Chinese foods and organizing familiar touchstones of their lives in China.
At first, cooks who might have preferred to prepare their regional foods—such as from China’s Guangdong or Fujian provinces—instead began catering to local palates by inventing foreign-style Chinese menus. In the case of the US, dishes like Chop Suey and General Tso’s chicken were born. But Chinatowns have evolved and continued to transform in the last century. They have not only become the pulsing hearts of many cities, but the populations who live in, work in, and visit them continue to grow ever more diverse and enthusiastic. A younger cohort of Chinese restaurateurs, who are proud to maintain closer ties to their specific cultural identities, have opened more regionally focused Chinese restaurants than ever before.
Amidst this thriving energy, however, global coronavirus scare has recently brought unnecessary consequences to many business owners. Local and global news stories have cited declining sales in the Chinatowns of cities such as Vancouver, New York City, Chicago, Houston, Boston, Singapore, San Francisco, Sydney, London, and more. PRIOR spoke to chefs and food experts with close ties to their Chinatowns in some of these locales, their memories, favorite dishes, and melodic depictions yet another reminder of why these special places are now, as ever, deserving of all of our celebration and patronage.
Cecilia Chiang, San Francisco
Known as the Grand Dame of Chinese cooking in America, founded the Mandarin Restaurant in San Francisco in the early 1960s. She was born in Shanghai and grew up in Beijing.
What was Chinatown like when you first moved to San Francisco in the late 1950s?
Chop Suey was the only dish in most Chinatown restaurants at that time. When I came here, I felt that this was not Chinese food at all, and it was just ridiculous. Every restaurant you go to Chinatown served the same four dishes, plus one soup. White rice and tea were free. Three dollars! I thought it was just a joke. For a country as large as China, the cuisine from each province has special characters, which is distinctively different from one another. That’s why later, I started the Mandarin.
The Mandarin was the first high-end Chinese restaurant in the U.S. that introduced Sichuan, Hunan, Northern Chinese cuisines to North Americans. Why did you decide to do something different?
At that time, I wanted to introduce real Chinese food, not just Northern food, to America. I wanted to teach locals and let them know Chop Suey couldn’t represent Chinese food. Now everyone knows what Xiaolongbao is. At that time, nobody knew. I had Xiaolongbao in my original menu. I also put dim sum, potstickers, buns, [and] pancakes on my menu.
Now regional Chinese cuisines are more available than 60 years ago. Which Chinese restaurant do you go to often?
You know, coming from China, you always want to eat Chinese food. The grocery stores near my apartment don’t carry a good Chinese ingredients selection, so I sometimes get fresh produce, like cabbage mustard, from Chinatown.
I still like going to a few restaurants [in San Francisco’s Chinatown]. There’s one called Z&Y Restaurant that makes Sichuan and Northern food. I know the owner. He’s also from Beijing, and knows what I like. So every time I visit, he just makes several dishes for me. There’s always a long line in front of the restaurant. But recently, because of the coronavirus, their business has gone down. Chinatown is like a ghost town.
Fuchsia Dunlop, London
English food writer and cook who specializes in Chinese cuisine. She is the author of five books about Chinese food.
When was your first visit to London Chinatown?
A long time ago, in the 1980s, when I was a teenager and a Singaporean family friend took me there for dim sum. Dim sum was very fascinating and exotic. I didn’t know what anything was, but it was delicious. I was quite a good cook then, but I couldn’t guess what anything was made from. There was a particular dim sum restaurant, which is no longer there, which had these red pillars outside with Dragons curling up them. It was definitely very Chinatown.
How has London’s Chinatown changed over the years?
It was always a Cantonese district, and so all the food was Cantonese. There was some pretty good, very traditional food there. And now there’s still quite a lot of dim sum, but you’ve also got Sichuanese restaurants; you’ve got people doing some northern noodle dishes and that kind of thing. What’s happened is that it’s no longer just Cantonese.
How often do you go to London’s Chinatown these days?
Chinatown is the only place which is where you have everything all together. I go there all the time for shopping. Because if you want to cook fresh Chinese vegetables, for example, then there’s nothing like Chinatown. Other smaller Chinese shops in other areas might have some Chinese vegetables. But in Chinatown, they just have a better selection—things like garlic scapes, celtuce, yellow chives, and all these other wonderful vegetables that are really hard to find elsewhere. There’s one store called See Woo, where I do much of my shopping. They have a fishmonger; they have a butcher’s shop; it has the kind of things you might need for Chinese cooking, like really meaty ribs and chicken hearts. And aside from that, of course, all the dried goods, pickles, and frozen foods as well. If I’m having a dinner party, then I almost always end up going to Chinatown to shop.
What do you usually cook for your dinner for your guests?
All kinds, really. I do quite a bit of Jiangnan food and Sichuan and just other recipes that I pick up while I’m there. A bit of Cantonese. I always make Mapo Doufu.
Lucas Sin, New York City
Born and grew up in Hong Kong, Sin is now the executive chef at Junzi, a fast-casual restaurant chain on the East Coast of the US that specializes in Northern Chinese food.
How did you get interested in Chinatown cultures?
I try to visit every Chinatown that I travel to because I’m interested in how Chinese food evolves when it moves to other parts of the world. [North] American Chinatowns are perhaps the most sophisticated by far, which was surprising to me. Because when you come to the US and people tell you about Chinese food, it’s quite monolithic and quite singular. But what we have in the US is, by and large, way more sophisticated than every other Chinatown in the Western hemisphere, I would say. [Havana’s] Cuban Chinatown has like six or seven restaurants. Even London Chinatown has [fewer restaurants than] the one in San Francisco or New York. The immigrant population in the U.S. has done an incredible job of not only establishing Chinese food in and of itself but Chinese food as an organism that is real within the confines of the United States. It’s evolved over the last hundred or so years; it’s a really special thing.
How often do you go to Manhattan’s Chinatown?
Three to four times a week. I get ingredients for myself at home. I get ingredients for the restaurant to use. I go to eat just because I like the food in Chinatown. I go to visit people that I know that grew up in Chinatown and live there. It’s very much a part of my New York life. It’s also one of the few places in New York where I feel very much at home because I can speak Cantonese.
Does NYC’s Chinatown remind you of Hong Kong?
No, it definitely does not remind me of Hong Kong. It feels very different. But there is a sense of kinship with the people who work in Chinatown. When you speak Cantonese, and you say you’re from Hong Kong, they get nostalgic about their Hong Kong. And I’m mostly talking about people who work in restaurants that are nostalgic about Hong Kong from 30, 40, 50 years ago, when they emigrated.
Shen Lu is a journalist based in the United States. She is a founding member of Chinese Storytellers. Topics she covers include the Chinese diaspora, the human side of the U.S.-China relations story, technology, and culture. Her writing has appeared in ChinaFile, The Columbia Journalism Review, The New York Times, and The South China Morning Post, among other publications.