The vibrant sights, sounds and smells of New York’s Chinatown makes a visit to it feel like a daytrip to a different city. Storefronts are covered in Chinese characters, Chinese is spoken on every corner and exotic foods and goods are available in its restaurants and shops. This area of Lower Manhattan was originally home to the Five Points district, a rough-and-tumble neighborhood dominated by tough guys, as seen in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Starting in the late 19th century, it morphed into a Chinese enclave as immigrants, primarily from the Cantonese-speaking Guangdong Province, moved in. A wave of Mandarin-speakers from Fujian Province arrived more recently. There’s been an influx of non-Chinese newcomers, too, though Chinatown remains a stronghold of Chinese immigrants and their descendants. It crackles with energy during the day as hundreds of small businesses serve the local population and visitors converge on the streets to take photos, hunt for bargains on fashion knockoffs or New York souvenirs (often stamped “made in China”) and, of course, eat.
The Canal Street subway stop (6, J, N, Q, R and Z trains) puts you in the heart of the Chinatown action. Canal Street is a very busy artery. On weekends, it can be hard to maneuver between the street carts stacked with fruits and vegetables, vendors hawking fake designer bags and locals herding children to their next destination. Mott Street is another popular corridor, lined with shops that sell NYC T-shirts, postcards and key chains as well as chopsticks and Asian figurines. On side streets, you’ll find many stores and eateries and lighter crowds. For an off-the-beaten-path view of Chinatown, walk to Chatham Square and down East Broadway towards the Manhattan Bridge. Sometimes called Little Fuzhou, this area is home to a growing community from Fujian Province.
Chinatown’s abundant dining options range from tiny dimpling shops to huge dim sum palaces, where servers roll carts laden with Chinese nibbles through the dining room. Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a dim sum restaurant on Doyers Street that has been going strong since 1920, provides a taste of old-school Chinatown. Around the corner is Joe’s Shanghai, best known for its soup dumplings. Nearby, on Bowery, Great NY Noodletown serves barbeque meats, noodle dishes and wonton soup. It’s hard to go wrong in Chinatown since most meals are bargain priced; if a restaurant looks busy or something just catches your eye, go on and give it a try.
The Museum of Chinese in America, housed in a Maya Lin–designed building on Centre Street, traces the Chinese-American experience back to the 18th century. For a look at modern-day local life, stop in Columbus Park, where you’ll see people practicing tai chi in the morning and playing mah-jongg in the afternoon. After dusk, shop owners start to pack it in for the night and some streets start to feel too quiet. There are only a few nightlife options, including Winnie’s, a dive bar that also hosts karaoke, and Apotheke, a fancy cocktail joint. A handful of restaurants stay open past midnight including classics Wo Hop and Hop Kee as well as Fuleen Seafood, Great New York Noodletown and 69 Bayard.
While government buildings along Baxter and Worth Streets keep Chinatown’s southern and western borders in check, the neighborhood has steadily expanded into Little Italy’s traditional territory along Mulberry Street and formerly Jewish sections of the Lower East Side. Broome Street to the north and Allen Street to the east are the (unofficial) boundaries.