Chinatown’s Underbelly @ The Manhattan Bridge

My family’s heritage is Russian and from an early age I was learning Russian, speaking Russian, eating Russian foods. My parents were not, however, born in Russia. My mum was born in Harbin, China; my dad in Lindau, Germany; my siblings and I in Sydney, Australia. Alongside the Russian influences, I also learned German in high school and ate a lot of great Chinese food.

Chinese Lanterns

As a kid, I remember frequenting our favourite restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown, BBQ King. The jolly round owner would greet us with open arms and ensure we were seated straight away.  By no means a fancy dining spot — it was furnished in plastic and imitation wood paneling — we loved its food and would order without glancing at the menu: fried salt & pepper squid, sweet & sour pork, stuffed bean curd, Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce, Singapore noodles, roast duck (my choice).

Sometimes we’d cave and take a peek at the ‘Chef’s Suggestions’, perhaps to order a plate of sizzling Mongolian beef or salt & pepper pork. It depended on how hungry we were and if we were with friends, who’d add their favourites to the order.

Hanging Roast Ducks

When not eating out, mum would make sure we had staples from the local Asian supermarket to enjoy at home. She’d make a weekly shopping trip and bring home packs of steamed pork buns, jars of preserved radish in chilli soy sauce, fresh tofu, which she’d later stir fry with bok choy. There’d be sponge cake  for dessert. I also fondly recall eating Haw flakes. I’d peel away the pink paper wrapper from around the stout roll, separate each flake, then pop them – one by one – into my mouth. They tasted like raisins or some other kind of dried fruit and I just loved them.

Steamed Buns

Fast forward to New York, where I have indulged in a lot of Chinese food, which has never measured up to the standard of BBQ King. Perhaps it is because I’m nostalgic for my childhood, or maybe because the dishes are prepared differently in Sydney. Whatever the reason, I am always happy to enjoy a good Chinese meal in a city where it is normal to order take-out and have it delivered. I enjoy an occasional visit to Manhattan’s Chinatown to simply wander the food stalls and be part of the market buzz.

Abundant Produce

Chinatown (City Hall in background)

Now, I am definitely not talking about Canal Street, where tourists search for fake Gucci this and faux Burberry that. Nor am I referring to Bowery, a haven for traffic jams, and kitschy storefronts selling random paraphernalia. I am talking about the calmer part of Chinatown centered under and around the Manhattan Bridge, the part that runs along East Broadway in the Lower East Side.

East Broadway is also known as ‘Fuzhou’ Street

Shopping under the Manhattan Bridge

Many of the newer Chinese immigrants that settled here came from Fujian province (as opposed to the Cantonese) , dubbing East Broadway ‘Fuzhou Street,’ after the province’s capital. The rare tourist can be found among the Chinese locals, who buy produce from the dozens of outdoor stalls brimming with fresh fruits and vegetables: persimmons, Asian pears, Durian fruit, oranges, apples, fresh greens. Fishmongers and butcher’s stores  are interspersed in between.

Asian pears, persimmons, oranges

Fresh Greens

Live CrabsWhat I like about this part of Chinatown is that I feel it’s as close I’ll get to China in Manhattan. Never mind that I cannot read any of the characters plastered all over the stores and buildings. There isn’t even any Chinese architecture. It’s just that the scene belongs to another country, and for a while I am transported from the norm.

Character Decoration

Butcher’s Shop

Chinese Newspapers

DVD Store

Next to the fresh produce markets stand DVD stores, dumpling houses, electronic game repair booths, hair salons, restaurants, herbal stores selling all sorts of dried stuffs, beauty suppliers, bubble tea cafes…. and many wedding dress stores. I recently read that:

 Luxury wedding ceremonies are traditional among the people of Fuzhou (capital of Fujian province). During Chinatown’s wedding season, which runs between late September and Chinese New Year, immigrants speaking the Fuzhou dialect host about 1,500 banquets and generate about $20 million dollars in restaurant business… In the late 1980’s there were no specialized bridal shops… By 2004, the number of bridal shops had increased to thirty-two, many owned by Fujianese. *

Dried Fish for Sale

Chinese Herbs

There is one food store that I always visit is called ‘New York Supermarket Inc’. Located at #75 East Broadway, it sits right under one of the Bridge’s archways. The complex is always bustling, and the sound amplifies when the subway rattles overhead. I like this place for its commotion alone. That said, I always browse the aisles and leave with a bag full of different Asian foods to try.

Entrance to New York Supermarket Inc (right)

Packets and packets of foods

I have tried the roll with greens – sauteed bok choy on a soft sesame bun.

Just like mum, I love to buy steamed pork buns and sponge cakes. I have a few of my own favourite finds such as coconut creme (which my husband churns into ice cream); Japanese mochi balls, made of glutinous rice and filled with red bean, sesame, taro or peanut paste; vermicelli rice noodles; lychee gummi candy; and roasted seaweed. Hardly adventurous, I know, because I do pass by the rows of canned quail eggs, jars of sliced sour bamboo shoots, and packets of preserved duck eggs and think: “Should I?” But I always chicken out, partly because I fear trying them, and partly because I have no clue how to prepare such ingredients. I love to eat, but cooking isn’t my forte.

Street Vendors at Forsyth Market

A little further from the supermarket, under another archway, is the popular Forsyth Market. Though I do not shop there myself, it is a busy because vendors sell produce at really low prices. Employing a “low-margin, high-volume model”, the market caters to residents and local restaurants who shop here daily. If you want to be served, you have to get in line. Yes, it’s that busy sometimes.

Lines at the Market

Unfortunately the market vendors here are under continual speculation and subject to ticket sweeps by the city authorities and city regulators. Without going into too much detail about it, you may read more about it here. Street Vendor Project: Spoiled !.

Forsyth Market: Cheap Greens

This, coupled with the spike in rents, means a lot of business has relocated to Chinatowns in Flushing, Queens and Brooklyn.

Fuzhou Supermarket with Manhattan Bridge in distance

I’ll continue supporting Manhattan’s Chinatown because I like it for its vibe and food selection. It’s also easily accessible by foot, which makes for a great day of food shopping.

My Japanese mochi treat

I will need to make a trip, though, to experience the other Chinatowns. I will post on those after I’ve visited them.

Beautiful Manhattan Bridge

*Quote from: “The New Chinese America: class, economy, and social hierarchy.” By Xiaojian Zhao


40 thoughts on “Chinatown’s Underbelly @ The Manhattan Bridge

  1. This is fantastic!! Maybe my favorite so far!! I love the stories of your childhood and how you relate it to now. Loved it!!!! And the photos are wonderful!

    • Thanks so much Steph! The blogging and writing has all been a balancing act – like finding the right footing 🙂 I so appreciate your comments and thanks for liking the photos! Still trying to get basic DSLR operations going on the camera!

  2. We have a similar favorite in Chinatown (Brisbane)…Happy Chef BBQ…and the fried salt and pepper squid is a MUST! Every time 🙂 Not to mention, a load of other stuff as well.

    • I love salt and pepper squid and cannot find a dish like it in the US. They don’t prepare it like in Oz at all! I haven’t been to Brisbane in a while and glad I have a good restaurant recommendation. Thank you!!

  3. This post made me feel like I was back in NY! Chinatown was the #1 place I went if I was feeling homesick. =) Did you get some boba tea and egg custards as well?

    • I am so glad it brought you memories of being in NY! I actually had some bubble tea yesterday at Flushing’s Chinatown (in Queens). It was called Kung Fu Green Tea and I loved it. I really enjoy bubble tea. No egg custards on this trip but plenty of other pastries! Thanks for your comment 🙂

    • That’s a great shot! Thanks for the link. I like that you can see the Manhattan Bridge in the background. It’s such a cool part of Chinatown and how lucky you got to live there 🙂

  4. Great post Marina! I speak Russian and love Russian food 🙂 I think Lithuanians took over a few recipes from Russian culture, especially hearty food ones! 🙂 Since I am Lithuanian I learnt Russian while at kindergarten and watching cartoon since we belonged to the Soviet Union for many years 🙂

    I do enjoy well made Chinese food! But more and more I become disappointed with their food here in London.

    • Wow – you speak Russian! That’s great – kak dela?! I blogged about our Brighton Beach in NY that is also called, “Little Odessa.” Take a peak at it for its photos of the Russian food. I agree – there’s a place for great Chinese food and so far, Sydney rates highest on my list. That said, I haven’t traveled enough to make a final call on that. Perhaps there are pockets of London that have better Chinese food than others? I read a book called ‘Sweet Mandarin’ that documented a family’s travels to Manchester from China. Though it’s outside of London, apparently they ran a very successful restaurant there. Maybe that’s a spot to check out..

      • Vsio Narmalno, spasibo 😀 We have so many Chinese places here in London and I haven’t found my favourite yet, it’s not recommended to go to restaurants in Central London, it’s too touristic and quality is not very high 🙂 I have a friend who lives in Manchester, will check it out 😀 The book sounds interesting to read! I’ll add it to my list 😀

      • So funny, writing in Russian via English letters! I don’t have Cyrillic on my keyboard 😦 Let me know what you think of the book. It’s a very easy and interesting read, especially if you can relate to migrating overseas to a country that seemed so foreign from the onset. Enjoy!

  5. I love the story and pictures. Asian food is indeed delicious..
    But my ultimate question is, do you like Durian? I saw the header of your blog is the picture of durian. In Asia (esp. in Indonesia), durian is one of the common fruits that we’re looking for, but I never found any westerners who like it.

    • Thanks you for your comment! And, you are asking the hard question now! I have smelled Durian and it doesn’t have the most pleasant scent so I continue to I fear it. Also, Andrew Zimmern (of Bizarre Foods, Travel Channel) has scared me off of it given his episodes showing his attempts at eating the fruit. I don’t want to buy a whole one so haven’t ever managed to try a piece of the fruit. I like the textural look of the Durian though 🙂 Do you like it?

      • Yes, durian is indeed has a very strong scent. I cannot say that I like it but I certainly don’t mind eating it 🙂 In Indonesia, we have various food processed from durian, from durian flavored ice cream to some cake. Maybe you should try them first before eating the real fruit.. But, eating too much durian can be bad for health (from what I’ve seen)

      • Hi! I think you’re right – starting with ice cream and cake sounds alot more appealing. That said, durian is bad for your health? I had no idea – I will need to read up on that. I really want to visit Indonesia. I remember one word that my sister would always repeat to our cruise stewards (as we’d go on a number of cruises from Sydney that had Indonesian workers) that she’s learnt from her Indonesian class: ganteng!

  6. Ah the good old BBQ King in Chinatown still retains its crown!
    I love poking about in asian supermarkets as well – and buying strange and unusual things to try (not too strange though!!)

    • Yes.. BBQ King has also increased their prices since then! I walked past some duck eggs again yesterday in Flushing’s Chinatown… I just couldn’t buy them. Though I did buy a jar of soycheese (tofu in chili oil). I’ve yet to open it…!

  7. Oh you make me want to visit New York! I used to live there and I absolutely loved it – Flushing is one of the places that I’ve always wanted to visit over there, I’ve just never had the time. I’ve been to Manhattan’s Chinatown and it is so much fun. I had my first dim-sum experience there and it still is one of my favourite things to eat.

    In Flushing, have you been to the Roosevelt (I believe? It could be the Flushing mall) Mall where it is just a big underground food court with no English spoken? I’ve always wanted to go there! Have you gotten to visit Brighton Beach as well for Russian food and goods? I love it there.

    • Thanks for your comment!! Yes, I went to Flushing a few days ago, to do some shopping in their Chinatown. I don’t believe I went to the Flushing Mall but I will look it up 🙂 Yes, I did a post on Brighton Beach if you wanted to take a look at it and reminisce 🙂 It doesn’t beat St Petersburg nor Moscow though!

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