Chinatown in New York City offers a feast for the senses. Chinese culture, music, art and tradition can be found at every turn — so much so it’s easy to forget you’re in America at times.
New York City’s Chinatown rose to prominence during the middle of the 19th century. By 1880, the so-called Five Points slums were home to more than 1,000 Chinese immigrants. Funded by hand laundries and street food vendors, the area began to grow quickly — but remained the poorest part of the city. It wasn’t until the lifting of The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943 that the Chinatown we know today began to develop.
From the Lin Zexu statue in Chatham Square to the bustling bars and restaurants of Doyers Street, this place is brimming with history and excitement. If you’re planning a visit to Chinatown, it’s important to have a rough plan of action, as there’s a huge amount to do and see.
Take a Walk
The best way to see and experience Chinatown is to walk its streets; it’s also the best way to describe it. I find that a great place to start is the Museum of Chinese in America. You’ll get a flavor of what life was like for the first Chinese immigrants in the city, and how the area has changed over the years.
I usually head east on Canal Street and spend a while browsing the many shops and stalls — selling everything from perfumes to Chinese street food. Continue your walk until you hit Walker Street, where you’ll find an information kiosk. Pick up an information brochure, which should include a map.
Then it’s on to Mulberry Street, where there are some great shops selling authentic Chinese collectibles. You really get a sense of Chinese life in this area. The shop vendors meet you at the window to invite you in, which adds to the theatricality of it all. I usually continue my walk until I arrive at Columbus Park, which is a great place to take a rest. If you like people watching, this is a unique and fascinating place for it.
I always take a stroll down Mosco Street and Mott Street. Although very narrow, these streets are where Chinatown started. I pass by the Church of the Transfiguration and head south towards Bowery Street — before doing a 180 and heading north on Doyers Street. The goal is to finish on Pell Street, which I believe is the most distinctive and recognizable area of New York’s Chinatown.
I’ve already mentioned the Museum of Chinese in America and the Church of the Transfiguration — which are both well worth a visit. As well as an hour or so in Columbus Park, I recommend a visit to the Mahayana Buddhist Temple for some quiet contemplation and to discover your fortune.
If you have kids with you, make sure you take them to the Chinatown Fun Fair and let them blow off some steam in Sara D. Roosevelt Park. I like to end a great family day out with a group photo by the Statue of Confucius, which can be found on Bowery Street.
Of course, you’ll need to recharge your batteries with some food — and many of the restaurants in Chinatown are landmarks in their own right. Make sure you check out the custard buns at Fay-Da Bakery. Personally, I never visit Chinatown without stocking up on deep-fried sesame balls from Lung Moon Bakery. And for a memorable family meal, there’s no better eatery in Chinatown than Joy Luck Palace… although the guys at Golden Unicorn might disagree.
This is just a flavor of what Chinatown in New York City is all about. To really understand and appreciate this exciting neighborhood, you have to visit it.