To get to know Chinatown, grab your headphones
NEW YORK — Like a cardsharp practicing her best sleight of hand, New York's Chinatown can fool you. Certain stretches of Mott Street and East Broadway in lower Manhattan produce an atmosphere available in few American cities: The smells, the crowds, the ambient Cantonese language are all uncanny replicas of the real thing.
Having recently lived in China, I am curious to visit the Western Hemisphere's largest Chinatown - Tong ngin gai to locals - to compare notes. It has been about 10 years since my last venture to the renowned ethnic enclave, and, this time, I am looking for a richer experience. What, I want to know, is the workaday Chinatown like?
I find help from an unusual source: A new CD audio guide called Soundwalk promises a hipper version of the tried-and-true walking tour, using a winking narration style, music samples, and snippets of interviews to lead listeners down alleyways and through unmarked doors in search of a neighborhood's pulse. The Chinatown 2004 CD seems worth a try, so I pop it into my Walkman and head to the corner of Eldridge and Canal streets.
Here, at the tiny but well-trafficked Cup and Saucer luncheonette, I tune in to the guide's narrator, Jami Gong, a Chinatown-born stand-up comedian.
"These are my streets," he whispers. "I will bring you into places you are not supposed to go."
He's as good as his word. Within the first block, I am introduced to a bona fide sweatshop concealed behind a turquoise wall, where Mr. Gong says his mother works for $2 an hour. Then comes one of New York's oldest synagogues, reflecting the area's complex ethnic roots.
Next there's an employment agency for "fresh off the boat" immigrants from China's Fujian Province. The Fujianese have arrived in New York in record numbers in recent years, challenging the longtime foothold the Cantonese have had here and in many other Chinatowns.
Immigrants have always settled along these narrow streets, Gong tells me. The Irish, the Italians, European Jews, and now the Chinese. In the early 19th century, this neighborhood was known as Five Points, the notorious slum portrayed with bloodthirsty zeal in the film "Gangs of New York."
I follow Gong's voice under Manhattan Bridge, through a small shopping arcade and onto East Broadway, the commercial heart of Chinatown. This is where residents bank and shop and exchange news with neighbors: at herbal shops advertising help for "male vitality"; markets displaying the pungent, spiky durian fruit; and at busy bridal salons.
The sidewalks are dense with people and, very much like walking in downtown Shanghai, moving forward is best done in a mincing shuffle.
The small map accompanying my CD guides me across the Bowery, to Doyers Street, more of a shadowy alley that bends in a sharp right turn. Here lies a Chinatown institution. The Nam Wah Tea Parlor, sitting unprepossessingly at the street's right angle, advertises itself as "The First Dim Sum Parlor in Chinatown, Since 1920."
My guide tells me that Mr. Wah can be found most afternoons sitting in the back of the parlor reading a newspaper. I peer through the door and sure enough, an elderly man is hunched over a paper in the far corner. The place is empty and appears unchanged by the years. A Chinese chanteuse sings a melancholy 1920s ballad on my CD, making it easy to imagine long-ago crowds filling the parlor's black-and-white-tiled floor and narrow leather banquettes.
Past the barbershops, alleged opium dens, and the largest Chinese Roman Catholic church in the United States, I come upon Chinatown's Funeral Parlor Row. At row's end, my audio sidekick points out a ramshackle five-floor walk-up, home to a certain Mr. Lam, retired head, he says, of one of Chinatown's biggest triads (secret societies reputed to engage in criminal activity).
Gong dares me to enter: Mr. Lam's second floor door is open, he may be playing cards.... Alas, no open door, so instead I walk through the building to a small courtyard where a gray cat looks startled to see a foreign face. I may be the first waiguoren, or foreigner, he's seen.
Directly across the street from Mr. Lam's lair sits Columbus Park, where elderly men congregate for spirited mah-jongg contests while their wives sit on red plastic stools to trade gossip.
One block more and I encounter a row of fortunetellers and trinket sellers outside the Chinatown Senior Citizens Center, a hive of activity on a Saturday afternoon. One woman is vigorously jabbing her finger at the goat sign on a Chinese zodiac chart. She is protesting her reading.
Near the end of my tour, I realize I've warmed to the Soundwalk concept. Though the sound effects are heavy-handed at times - a few too many gongs are struck during the course of the recording - they paint an extrasensory layer over Chinatown's already frenetic atmosphere, and the narration is quirky and interactive. And, unlike trailing after a human tour guide, I can hit "pause" when I want to linger.
I admit I'm having fun.
My rendezvous with Gong ends at the Mahayana Buddhist Temple on Canal Street where, upon entering, visitors can donate a dollar and take a tiny paper fortune secured with a rubber band.
As I slide my bill into the collection box, a man behind me says something unintelligible. I whip off my headphones. "You have to ask a question first," he repeats earnestly. "And make it an important one. That way the fortune will make sense."
I ponder this a few seconds and make my choice. Unscrolled, my fortune reads: "Probability of success: Good. Tidings may come from the East or the West. Some may be very good, while one the best."
Below a giant golden Buddha, I listen to the monks chanting through my Walkman and contemplate my good fortune.
• Soundwalk Audio Guides for a number of New York neighborhoods are available in CD format ($19.95 each) through www.amazon.com or www.barnesand noble.com. The Soundwalk website (www.soundwalk.com) also offers the guides for download in MP3 format.