Long Live Chinatown, Especially When I’m Gone

I used to set two alarms before bed: One to wake me up in the morning. The other to remind me to take the chopstick out of the freezer. The refrigerator was ancient and it resonated with an increasingly loud hum that bounced around all 270-square-feet of my apartment and directly into my brain. I often dreamed of being underwater, swimming around looking for a giant speaker to unplug.

Of all the sounds I heard in my Chinatown apartment — the brass horns leading the way of funeral processions, the pigeons doing their mating rituals on the air conditioner, the film crews and garbage trucks, the full-throated partygoers stumbling out of Wo Hop just before dawn — this was the only one that really bothered me. For quiet, I had to stab a chopstick in between the blades of the freezer fan, jamming it into stillness. But if I forgot to take the chopstick out when I left the house, which I did often, then all the food inside went bad. I did this for nearly a year because I didn’t want anything to jeopardize my living in that apartment. If that’s not proof of love, tell me what is?

That apartment was on the second floor of an original tenement building. An exterior window, shut and painted over, cuts the space in half, technically making it a one bedroom. I found the listing on an online forum for Chinese restaurant workers with only one sentence of description and no photo. It was just what I was looking for, because the one sentence mentioned Mott Street.

Inside, the walls were covered with hundreds of nails, with five beds made of wooden boards pushed against them. The mysterious aluminum rods shooting across the ceiling, I realized afterward, were to hang the curtain dividers for the five to seven people who’d previously occupied the space. The bathroom was inside the kitchen. There was only one sink in the whole place. My boyfriend said that in Hong Kong, where he’s from, this would be considered spacious for two people. We signed a “lease” inside McDonald’s, handwritten on a piece of a paper in Chinese. Once a month, I would hand-deliver cash to a woman who washed dishes in the basement of Joe’s Shanghai.

When I brought a friend over to see it before moving in, she looked around and burst out laughing. “Why … why would you willingly choose to live in a place like this?”

The reason began four years ago, when I received an email that the lease on the Brooklyn studio I’d been renting with my boyfriend would not be renewed, despite the enormous broker’s fee paid only the year before. I was trying to finish my first book, living off a grant from a literary foundation, and he had just graduated from architecture school. Neither of us had steady income and we were unwilling to ask parents to co-sign for a lease ever again.

We were both born in China. He’s from the South, and me from the North. Between us, we spoke fluent Cantonese and Mandarin and have the combined literacy level of a teenager with bad grades. We came up with a plan, one that involved me coming to Manhattan Chinatown with the motto, I can Chinese my way out of this situation.

Because in Chinatown, it’s everyone else who is the foreigner for a change. Each time I emerge from the subway station at Canal, I disappear. I can zip up the small streets, past megaphone-wielding tour guides as they pass out plates of dumplings. I know where to strategically hop over the bouquets of swords that overtake the sidewalk. Nobody bats an eye when I step over the green plastic frog swimming forever in place outside the entrance of my building. That feeling of belonging is magical and consoling. Though, it does come with responsibilities.

Once, while waiting to cross the street at Bowery and East Broadway, I wound up on an hour-long phone call with American Airlines to help a man change his ticket. At this very same intersection, I often translated directions for other people’s cab drivers. I’ve helped my landlord with her English school homework. Before they changed the ATM screens to display Chinese characters, a grandmother led me by the hand to Bank of America, where I helped withdraw money with her debit card.

“That’s all part of living in Chinatown,” I explain to my incredulous friends. “Also, look at this,” I said, pointing at my face. A kindly and unassuming face, I thought. Not smart enough to do evil.

It’s also a very Chinese face.

For someone with such a face this part of the city is like an heirloom, like a grandfather clock or a gold ring, tying me to the past with awe.

I was 8 years old when I saw Mott Street in the opening shot of the ’90s television series Beijingers in New York. In the first episode a cellist newly arrived from China walked up this street to look for work and begin his seduction with the married restaurant owner who would become his lover. I idolized the cut of his leather jacket, and the length of his long hair. I recognized the desperation in his eyes, so close to that of my parents and their friends as they tried to make their way in America.

The series was the first Chinese production filmed outside of China, and it began broadcasting just as my parents and I emigrated from Heilongjiang to Los Angeles. We rented bootlegged VHS tapes from a local video store, waiting for weeks between episodes for the next batch to arrive via someone’s luggage. At the time I was attending second grade, not knowing a single word of English or what I was eating every day from the lunch tray. At night I slept under a New Kids on the Block beach towel and never knew they were a band. I thought they were just random kids.

Beijingers in New York became indistinguishable from my actual memories, during a time when so little made sense. I never saw Chinese people on TV or film in the States and on the show they were having interracial relationships, getting arrested, and drunk-dancing to Madonna. Getting rich then going bankrupt. Reuniting with their family then getting divorced. What was supposedly the whole roster of Western “spiritual pollution” on new immigrants from Mainland China.

The struggles of immigration actually happening around me seemed really lame in comparison. In Los Angeles, my dad went to work so he could make car payments. In New York, his counterpart went on wild adventure after wild adventure.

“If you love her, send her to New York, for there it is heaven; if you hate her, send her to New York, for there it is hell,” the voice-over growled at the conclusion of the show. It never occurred to me that it was cautionary tale. Just the opposite, the series planted within me a wild dream of New York City, where flawed heroes could take risks, no matter how many dark and twisted roads that will them down.

The guy who installed our internet said ours was the first internet cable in our entire six-story building. My boyfriend bought cheap rugs and taped them to the rotting plastic tiles with packing tape. We ripped nails out of the walls until parts of the wall fell off. We glued them back with gobs of white paint, hoping it wouldn’t fall down again. He made low-to-the-ground plywood furniture and replaced the coils of fluorescent lights with filament bulbs. From the street, our apartment glowed so warmly that our next-door neighbor followed me inside and gave herself a tour.

The ladies who worked the knick-knack shop downstairs began regarding me with a mix of motherly concern and amusement. In equal parts Cantonese, Mandarin, and hand gestures, they made comments on what time I got up in the morning. They appraised my outfits. They remarked on when I bought groceries and how often I seemed to be eating takeout. How much wine I have been drinking and how many bottles of sparkling mineral water, until I felt guilty and spoiled and stopped drinking it. When they went back to China for two weeks of vacation after Lunar New Year, I found out that I missed them.

No one from the neighborhood has ever questioned my living here and that’s why I kept staying, year after year. Long after the various circumstances that brought me in the first place have been resolved. After all, how does a person have the courage, to say good-bye to a place like this?

Two years ago, it was in our Chinatown apartment where my boyfriend surprised me with a ticket to Paris, where we got engaged. A few months later, we walked through basketball courts and one block down the street to City Hall to get officially married, both of us wearing leather jackets, our Instagram celebrity friend taking photos of us in line behind two men wearing matching suits.

Since then, many cocktail bars have opened in the neighborhood. Two coffee shops arrived where there were none and brought with them imported design publications and oat “milk.”

Above us used to be half-empty units locked in a time warp. As if each resident packed a suitcase in a hurry, and never came back, ’70s Hong Kong pop stars smiling from their fading posters, woolen slacks still hanging in the closet. But one by one those places were being fixed up and inhabited by friendly Australian bros. Restaurateurs reopened an old Chinatown opera house as an upscale fusion-dining destination that lined its bar with Chinese cooking wine. I noticed that the hair of one the ladies who worked at the shop downstairs had gone completely gray.

After I got married, she started asking different questions: “ When are you two going to have children? “

“Soon.” I always replied, even though the apartment was too small to add even a microwave. Where would we put a baby?

“You should hurry up. You’re not that young anymore,” she said matter-of-factly. “And go home, go take care of your mother.”

That summer, just as the watermelons appeared on street vendors’ carts, old people I’d never seen before came down the stairs of our building, pale-skinned and white haired, smiling like angels. During the blizzard the following winter, my husband bought extra taro cakes and bottles of waters and knocked on all the doors of upper floors to make sure those old people were okay. After our 80-year-old neighbor recovered from her fall, she resumed placing torn up bread for pigeons on the sidewalk and when it rained, my husband joined her to hold an umbrella over her head.

Around this time I began having vivid dreams of opening up the front door and discovering a large secret level to our Chinatown apartment. For some reason in every reiteration this “basement” always had wood paneling and a pool table inside. I would become ecstatic, because it meant we wouldn’t have to leave. We’d get to stay right where we were, now that there was space for a microwave, for our parents to visit us, and to start a family.

Sometimes a truck would come and pump grease from the restaurants directly below our window, for hours, and leave behind a foul-smelling psychedelic puddle on the sidewalk.  One night, during our walk home from the subway, a garbage truck forklift squeezed a large bag filled with trash juice, much like a soup dumpling. A stream of fluid shot right onto my husband, covering him from head to toe, getting on his glasses, some of it getting into his mouth.

It was his mouth, so at first I just laughed. But when we woke up in the morning, the apartment smelling like sewage, we looked at each other in horror and resignation.

“I think that was it. I think they want us out.”

We had moved to Chinatown when we weren’t qualified to rent any apartment in the city but now four years later, we could go anywhere we wanted. Yet part of me was still not ready to give up, because when you leave an apartment in New York, you lose it forever.

One morning I woke up, took the chopstick out, and realized I could just get the landlord to buy a new refrigerator. I was no longer afraid to ask. The choice seemed suddenly clear. The only way I could have stayed in our Chinatown apartment was if I chose to stay the same forever, to never move forward with my life. And it was too late for that.

I’ve already found someone else, another immigrant artist in need of incubating, to take my spot in Chinatown. When I’m gone, I hope this new person will continue taking care of the old people. Though I think I’ll always go out of my way to try to walk up Mosco Street, to check up on them.  To look for the shadow of my former self, standing on the fire escape, against light of the neon sign, disappearing and appearing at the same time.

I can’t take with me the magical healing properties of broth from the noodle shops or the smell of incense that burns in the hallways after someone’s family member has died. But maybe I can finally buy that stupid green plastic frog with those doleful eyes, the one that swims each day in a shallow bucket, so I won’t forget the nameless tune he plays. I picture throwing him in a backyard pool in a city where the water never freezes, where he can finally experience new things. Where he won’t be forever struggling to inch forward, forever fighting to scoot back.

I’ll leave behind the sunsets, the way the sunshine passes through the subway tracks on the Manhattan Bridge and takes on a dark orange. How difficult it is to keep moving, to not stop to take in the wonder of light dripping through the grates. I’ve lived in cities my whole life. The way people talk about vistas and floodplains is the way I talk about crowded intersections and underground malls.

Did I create the myth of Chinatown, or did the myth create me? It was stories of immigrants that brought me to this apartment on Mott Street, and I hope that in the process of adding my own story to this history, I will finally be able to let it go. Walking out each morning down these old streets has closed the distance to “home” for me, and helped me come to terms with some essential truth of what my place is in this country of immigrants. The afternoon sun goes down daily behind One World Trade right outside my window, where there was no better place for waving at the little girls in white dresses floating by in the St. Rocco parade. All these years I’ve been able to watch those sunsets, funerals, and weddings. The best part was, nobody was watching me.

Long Live Chinatown, Especially When I’m Gone