Neighborhood Secrets

Chinatown: The insider's guide to living there

By Marjorie Cohen | April 25, 2019 - 9:00AM 

Twenty-first century Chinatown in Manhattan has not yet lost its authentic Chinese energy.

Mobilus In Mobili/Flickr

New York City neighborhood boundaries are constantly changing, but few as dramatically as those of Manhattan’s Chinatown. What began as a small enclave around Pell, Doyers, and Mott streets has grown exponentially over the past few decades. By now, the neighborhood has pretty much enveloped what was once Little Italy to the north and has expanded into a big chunk of what was once a predominantly Jewish neighborhood to the southeast. 

A 1859 New York Times article estimated that at that time, there were only about 150 Chinese men living in lower Manhattan. That’s Chinese men, not women, because the immigration laws of the time wouldn’t allow the wives and families of these men to join them. By the 1870s the neighborhood had grown to 2,000, an increase that Peter Kwong, the author of "The New Chinatown," attributes to “a violent anti-Chinese movement in the West and the completion of the transcontinental railroad.” 

Throughout the 1900s, the Chinese population of Manhattan’s Chinatown grew slowly and steadily until it surged dramatically in the 1960s, when immigration quotas based on national origin were abolished.

Here’s how Karlin Chan, a community activist who has lived in Chinatown for 60 years, describes the large-scale changes he has seen: “The Chinatown of the 1960s was all of five blocks sandwiched between Italian and Jewish communities. There was more of a sense of community among the locals, everyone knew each other. Chinatown saw tremendous growth in the early 70s as more Hong Kong Chinese immigrants settled in the area and then again during the 80s and 90s when mainland Chinese came in droves. 

“Over the past 10 years, gentrification and high rents have made New York’s original Chinatown no longer an affordable settlement point for new immigrants who choose Brooklyn or other options instead.”

At one time, Manhattan’s Chinatown was home to almost all of NYC’s Chinese people, but by the 1980s, only 30 percent of all Chinese in the city were living there. As Chan says, many of the city’s newer immigrants chose to settle instead in one of the newly created outer borough Chinatowns—in Sunset Park and Bay Ridge in Brooklyn and Elmhurst and Flushing in Queens. 

Today Manhattan’s Chinatown has two fairly distinct sections: The western portion is home to the older Cantonese residents who arrived in the mid-20th century and the east is where the newer immigrants, mostly from Fujian province, have settled. This eastern portion of the neighborhood is often called Little Fuzhou, a reference to the capital city of Fujian province. 

The Chinese who live in Chinatown speak a variety of dialects, but share a common written language. Betty San, who grew up in Chinatown in the ’90s, explains that “20-30 years ago Chinatown was mostly filled with people who spoke Cantonese (from Hong Kong and Canton) but now there has been a much greater influx of people from Mainland China who speak Mandarin. So I think now there are still a lot of people who speak Cantonese but who probably also understand and/or speak some Mandarin. There are other dialects like Fuzhounese and Toisanese, but I would say it is mostly Cantonese and Mandarin that is spoken in today’s Chinatown.” 

As more Chinese move to the outer boroughs, the population of Chinatown is becoming more and more diverse. Lucy West, who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, says that when she moved into her co-op, about 80 percent of her neighbors were Asian, but that is changing as young families of different backgrounds move in. 

 Chinese herbs being prepared at Kamwo Meridian Herbs on Grand Street

Chinese herbs being prepared at Kamwo Meridian Herbs on Grand Street

Marjorie Cohen

Thomas Leung agrees. He is the CEO of Kamwo Meridian Herbs, a Chinese pharmacy on Grand Street, a business that his father started in 1973. Leung moved to Chinatown from Hong Kong when he was seven years old in 1985. 

Back then, he says, “Most of this side of Canal Street was Italian. I even remember an old Italian guy who lived here who still had a horse drawn wagon!” Eventually, Leung’s parents bought the building where the business is located. Now, according to Leung, when older Chinese and Italian tenants leave the building, they are replaced by young people of varying backgrounds who are attracted by its ethnic feel and consider it a “sexy” place to live.

At least for now, that ethnic feel is very real. Twenty-first century Chinatown has not yet lost its authentic, Chinese energy. Walking the streets of Chinatown, shopping in its stores and having tea in one of its many bakeries is “like home” according to Mengting, a graduate student who came to New York from China to study and moved into the neighborhood six months ago.

Surrounded by Tribeca, Noho, the Lower East Side and Soho, all trendy and pricey neighborhoods, Chinatown remains a densely populated and lively mix of residential and commercial properties. Will it stay that way or will it be Disneyfied, as some of the other Chinatowns in other U.S. cities have? Will low-rise tenements with walk-up rentals and the small family-owned shops survive or will some of the new residential developments, the new multi-story hotels, take over? Having endured and survived both 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy, is Manhattan’s Chinatown up to its latest challenge—gentrification? Stay tuned.

Boundaries: Chinatown’s boundaries are largely elastic and perpetually argued over, and no two residents gave us the same version, but let’s go with Delancey on the north, Chambers on the south, East Broadway on the east, and Broadway on the west. 

Buying and Renting: Recently StreetEasy had six condos listed in Chinatown ranging from a one bedroom, one bath for $753,000 to a four-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath penthouse for $15,950,000. 

Median rents, according to StreetEasy, are $2,250 for a one bedroom, $3,200 for two, and $4,450 for three. 

Lots of subway options but a parking space? Forget about it!

“Public transportation is great. I use it all the time. Now I take the F to and from work at PS 126 on Catherine Street to Fort Greene where I have lived since last July. When I lived in Chinatown (I grew up there) until I moved to Brooklyn, I would take the B or D from Grand Street or the N, Q, or R from Canal Street to get to any place I needed to go.” —Betty Sat, 26, grew up in Chinatown in an apartment her parents own

“I live in New Jersey and have an easy commute. I take a bus to the George Washington Bridge then get on the A train. Drive in? No. The parking lots are all gone. My friend’s family owned one and they sold it to a developer.” —Thomas Leung, 50, owns Kamwo Meridian Herbs on Grand Street

“Going up the East Side is easy, getting to the Upper West Side is a little trickier. The other day I was taking the J or Z, not sure exactly which one, to the Lower East Side, and I was amazed at how awful it was. The train was the oldest I’ve ever been on and the platform was gross. I was shocked. Some of the routes to the subway [from my building] have been blocked since 9/11, so the walk there takes longer than it used to. I have a car and a parking spot in my building. It takes seven to 10 years to get a space here. I use my car primarily to get to other boroughs, often for work.” —Lucy West, 66, owns

“The train system is far from reliable. My employees commute from Brooklyn and Queens, and I know it is stressful trying to get to work on time every day. The M103 and M15 buses are a good option to get uptown on the East Side. As for me, I grin and bear the train rides...or otherwise it’s Citi Bike or I just walk or take an occasional Uber. We have a car in a garage in Chinatown for those Costco runs. I do have to say I am a downtown kid (or adult) at heart. I have everything I need below 14th Street, better yet, Houston.” —Wilson Tang, 40, owner of Nom Wah Tea Parlor 

Neighbors friendly? Expect a 'smile here and there'

“For the most part, I think neighbors keep to themselves. You might have a smile here and here.” —Lilian Ng, rents

“In our building we have 400 families. We used to have social events— barbecues, holiday gatherings, Sunday bagels—but then that stopped. About two years ago, a new board with younger people on it started that all up again.” —Lucy

“I think the neighborhood residents are mostly friendly. There are a lot of rent-stabilized apartments in Chinatown that house new immigrants or lower income folks. They are mostly quiet and keep to themselves, which is very in line culturally with Chinese people.”—Wilson

  Fresh vegetables outside a shop in the Fujianese section of Chinatown. Note the prices

 Fresh vegetables outside a shop in the Fujianese section of Chinatown. Note the prices

Marjorie Cohen

 Dried mushrooms on Mott Street

Dried mushrooms on Mott Street

Marjorie Cohen

A food shopping “heaven” 

“I’m from the North of China and I can get foods that are dong bei style here that I can’t get anywhere else.There are so many food choices here—this is heaven for me.” —Mengting, 25, rents

“I am a creature of habit so I don’t have much new on my list of favorites. I love going to Aquabest on Grand for seafood. The family that owns that business has been there for a long time. My friend Sophia and her family runs Po Wing on Elizabeth and that’s a great spot for Chinese groceries and other Asian delicacies. Hong Kong supermarket on Hester Street and Kam Man on Canal are great standbys for Asian groceries. But the ultimate is always the street vendors selling fruits and vegetables on Canal and Mott.” —Wilson

“It’s not easy to find quality organic food in Chinatown so I usually shop at Whole Foods on Houston or take the subway to the one on 14th Street.” —Lucy

“I take the 15-minute walk to Hong Kong supermarket about twice a month. It’s just like the markets in China. I can get sauces, vegetables, drinks, everything I want and need.” —Jing, 18

“Chinatown is fairly well stocked with ethnic grocery and specialty shops but does lack American food staples which are not stocked in Chinese-style supermarkets. For items like bread, butter, yogurt, etc., I walk to the only available option on the Lower East Side, C-Town, several blocks away, or to the Whole Foods on Houston.” —Karlin 

“Chinatown is one of the best places to shop for food. You can find a supermarket or grocery store at least once every two blocks. Some specialize in vegetables, some fruits, some meats, and some specific ethnicities. There’s a specialized Thai spot on Mosco Street where you can pick up anything you need to make a Thai dish—Pad Thai, coconut curry, Thai iced tea, etc. Although I hate the crowds, you can find good stuff on Mott Street between Hester and Grand Streets. From a.m. to p.m. it is always packed with elderly getting the best of the fresh items.” —Lilian

DeluxeFood Market and New York Supermarket are right next to each other and I can basically find any food I would want between these two places.”—Betty

“Why would I go to a supermarket if I can go to what we always called ‘The Market,' those little shops on Mott Street. I go for fresh vegetables and fruits. There used to be butchers but not so much any more. Lots of the shops sell only three different items and when they’re out, they’re out.”—Thomas

Eat out or takeout? Plenty of choices

“My favorite restaurant right now is Tiny Shanghai on Mulberry Street. I love their soup dumplings. Joe’s Shanghai on Pell Street has great dumplings, too. For take out I like the Vietnamese food from Nam San.”  —Betty

“I like Cantonese food. I just went to Ping’s on Mott Street with my family. But now I think that the best Chinese restaurants are in Flushing.” —Thomas

“I like to take friends and clients to Hwa Yuan. The original restaurant was owned by the grandfather of the present owner and was closed for about 20 years. The service is beautiful. I like the presentation and the food, and the staff is sweet. Their cold sesame noodles are delicious, so is their crispy beef and their duck. Here in Chinatown you can eat well for not very much money.” —Lucy

“I’m a big fan of Big Wong on Mott Street. They have great Chinese BBQ. Cha Chan Tang on Mott and Kong Sikh Tong on Bayard are my standbys for Hong Kong and Cantonese food. My new fave is Keki Modern Cakes on Mott Street. They make this amazing Japanese-style cheesecake. I also like Amazing 66 a lot as well as Xian Famous Foods, both in the heart of Chinatown.” —Wilson

"I only eat in a handful of area restaurants depending on mood but I like old-fashioned Toisanese (region of China). [For me] that’s comfort food since I'm not into that ‘fusion this, fusion that’ stuff. One of my favorites is Wo Hop, which has a dynamite Kwangtung style lobster or crabs and steamed minced pork with water chestnuts and salted fish (tastes like canned anchovies). Another favorite is Chinese bbq like roasted whole pig, duck and pork which I get at Yee Li.” —Karlin

“I personally love the bbq roast pork at Big Wong. I’ve tried all the BBQ spots in Chinatown and though Big Wong is priced higher than the other spots, they really are the best! Noodle Town is also famous and great. I love the southeastern choices at Wok Wok and the Shanghainese soup dumplings at Shanghai Asian Manor. There is literally every type of Chinese food in Chinatown, all from different provinces. There’s also Vietnamese, Thai, and Korean now. For takeout, I like the sushi at Matsunichi and Big Wong is always good for something quick and delicious.” —Lilian 

Need green space? Maybe you should consider a different neighborhood.

“Chinatown has one [main] green space, Columbus Park, which happens to be among the most-used parks in NYC. There is also Sara Roosevelt Park on the eastern side of Chinatown, but both of those parks lack modern play areas for young children.” —Karlin 

“Columbus Park is always a good for some fresh air and people watching. Another one is Kimlau Square, a memorial for Chinese Americans who served in WWII. Another good quiet space is the courtyard of Confucius Plaza on the Bowery. It’s technically private property but there are a lot of benches to sit and relax.” —Wilson

“I moved to New Jersey so that my kids could have some green.” —Thomas

“There’s a new playground on Spring Street and it seems like fun. My niece has played there a few times now. I grew up going to Columbus Park.” —Betty

A good place to raise a family?

“The schools are good, especially elementary and middle schools...I think this could be a fine place to raise a family.” —Lucy

“The schools are great. Top in District 2 but highly competitive to get into. It’s a great place to raise a family but know that the apartments are very small. Many people are used to it though. For playgrounds, if you’re willing to walk a bit, Tribeca and the Seaport have some good ones.”  —Lilian

“We moved to Fidi. We wanted to be close enough to Chinatown but also far enough so it didn’t feel like we lived where I worked. I think with kids it was important for us to live in a building with an elevator, most buildings in Chinatown are walk-ups. Although, with the kids a little older now, I wouldn’t mind it.” —Wilson

 Residential buildings in Chinatown are typically walk-ups.

Residential buildings in Chinatown are typically walk-ups.

Marjorie Cohen

Rents and prices are rising 

“Rents here have steadily increased and some buildings are approaching or are at market rate, but deals can still be found.” —Karlin

“Affordable? I think it’s still cheaper here than in other parts of Manhattan but I wouldn’t say ‘affordable.' It is quite hefty still.” —Lilian

“It’s expensive to live here now. You can move to Bay Ridge or Avenue U and buy a townhouse [for what you would have to pay here]. Now a renovated 500-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment can rent for $3,500 to $4,000.” —Thomas

“When I moved to my building from Park Slope 20 years ago, this was the only place in Manhattan I could afford to buy. I think it’s still affordable compared to other neighborhoods. Originally I didn’t want to live here but now I expect to stay forever. I love it here.” —Lucy

What are the Chinatown residents worried about?

“I want [the city] to take the barriers down [they’ve have been up since 9/11] and make it easier for us to walk to the subway. Open up the damned streets!....It’s costing the city millions to keep the barricades up.” —Lucy

“As a property owner, I’m ambivalent about new development. As a New Yorker, I think it’s best to preserve neighborhoods like this. Changes should be done with input from the people who live here….Chinatown is losing its identity. Amazon is destroying [small businesses]. Will everything here become just bubble tea and restaurants?” —Thomas

“As an activist in the area I have a myriad of issues. I believe the main ones are lack of curbside [and] garage parking. Curbside parking is almost nonexistent because of our proximity to the courts and the placard cars taking away most of whatever available street parking there is. Another issue is that the NYC Sanitation Department hasn’t increased pickups in this high-traffic area.” —Karlin

“There’s talk of adding jail space in Chinatown. We already have three jails in the area. I’m hoping that they’ll find that the water table is too high for them to go through with their plans.” —Corky Lee, Commander, Chinatown’s American Legion Post on Canal Street

“I rent a small room—about 100 square feet—in an apartment with two roommates. The people in the building are friendly and I like it here but there’s often the smell of garbage in the hall.” —Mengting

Advice for anyone planning a move here?

"I think Chinatown is a great place if you are okay with a walk-up and slightly lower rent because of the lack of amenities. If you are open-minded and friendly, you should give it a try. It’s an experience unlike any other part of town.” —Wilson

“Chinatown is a bustling place for food, culture, and exploration. There is definitely a lot to see, learn and do. Just know that the living spaces are smaller and many buildings are walk-ups, no elevators.” —Lilian

“Anyone who comes to stay with me loves being in Chinatown. I love the parades and the celebration down here. New Year's is just one of the many public celebrations; there are lots of others during the year too and all are fun.” —Lucy

“Chinatown, like any other ethnic enclave in NYC, has many new immigrants so people planning a move here or visiting should not expect everyone to speak perfect English, or as I jokingly say ‘talk American.’ Our supermarkets and butcher shops sell whole meat products like chickens with the head, butt, and legs intact so they shouldn't be grossed out by it. I've always found it incredibly rude for people to gawk and say, ‘ewww,’ when they see a whole cooked chicken hanging in a window of one of our BBQ shops. I’m sure they've eaten chicken parts before!” —Karlin


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