A Day Behind the Scenes in Manhattan’s Chinatown

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Chinatown USA

A Day Behind the Scenes in Manhattan’s Chinatown

On a warm summer Friday in New York City, I shook the dust off of my camera, and headed to Chinatown. From the car on the Williamsburg Bridge, the city had its typical sweltering glow — the sweaty, magical mess that is summer in New York City. But the last months have been far from typical, which I was reminded of as I adjusted my mask, and stepped out of the car in front of Super Taste, Chinatown.

I’d never met Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou before, and it’d been a while since I’d interacted with a new person at all. I took out my phone to shoot her a text: “I’m wearing a pink shirt and denim shorts.”

Awaiting her reply, I opened Instagram and began searching for Yuh-Line’s page, double checking what she looked like. At that moment, I turned a corner and suddenly saw her face on a re-election poster.

Soon I noticed them all over Chinatown.

When Yuh-Line arrived, her smile and energy instantly alleviated my social-interaction worries.  During the hours we spent together, countless Chinatown residents approached Niou to thank her, or say hello, or offer congratulations on her re-election.

She took me to all of her favorite spots, encouraging me to try a bite of every dish we were photographing. At the end of our tour, we sat in folding chairs at a table on the blocked-off street, outside of Tonii’s Rice Noodle, still picking at all of the goodies we’d picked up to eat along the way. I sighed instinctively through a smile between bites, looked up at Niou and said, matter of factly, “This was a great day.”

She laughed, but I meant it.

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More and more Chinatown restaurants are shutting their doors for good due the pandemic, but those that remain have adapted to more takeout, and other ways to serve customers.

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

Niou digs into Taiwan Bear House’s Night Market Crispy Chicken, one of her favorites. The restaurant has become known for its bian dang, the Taiwanese equivalent of bento-box meals.

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

Patrick Mock, manager of 46 Mott in NYC, speaks with Niou. Mock has become one of the outspoken voices on behalf of preserving Chinatown as a community. He and Niou have been delivering meals to local residents.

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

Although indoor dining hasn't returned to the city yet, a handful of road closures allow businesses to set up shop in the middle of the street.

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

For nearly two centuries, Chinatowns across the country have been an essential part of American communities. Businesses in downtown Manhattan have been devastated in recent months, but even during the pandemic, local residents have continued to support and do their daily shopping.

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

Niou, sitting at a table on one of the blocked-off streets, ready for a bounty of roast pork buns from Mei Lai Wah.

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

Even with the pandemic, many places still have steady lines out the door. Mei Lai Wah is best known for its roast pork buns, but its rice rolls and congee bowls are an insider's treat.

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

One of the roast pork buns from Mei Lai Wah.

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

46 Mott's Patrick Mock says that that although more Chinatown restaurants are reopening, business is down 50 to 60% from the same time last year.

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

Packaged treats from 46 Mott. Patrick Mock: "For places like 46 Mott to survive, we need to evolve, but we can’t lose sight of where we came from, either. We can’t do everything the old-school way."

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

The famed sponge cakes from Kam Hing Coffee Shop, available for now at Tonii's Fresh Rice Noodle.

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

Though the pandemic has taken its toll on Chinatown, its residents, and its businesses, smiles and positive, hopeful attitudes remain strong.

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

A New Yorker walks past the Chinatown mural on Allen St. at Division St. Local pride runs strong.

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

Chinatown Manhtattan's street cart culture has diminished from the pandemic, but many vendors are still showing up on a daily basis.

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

An unusually empty Manhattan Chinatown, summer 2020.

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

"I grew up eating all this stuff that we have here. I knew keeping this stuff alive would be a lot of work. It’s not Instagram friendly. It’s the old-school nostalgia I grew up with — tofu puddings, rice cakes, sticky rice, pork buns, herbal teas, and grass jellies." —Patrick Mock

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

Niou has served New York’s Chinatown and Financial District neighborhoods for the past four years; posters for her re-election campaign remain a common sight.

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

Typically, this underpass is filled with Chinatown street vendors, selling fruits and vegetables, clothing, and more. The pandemic has forced many to close, or operate on staggered schedules.

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory on Bayard St. is known for such flavors as ube and durian. (Those are "regular," chocolate and strawberry are "exotic.")

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

"Chinatown is a hub. You can’t let a hub die. If you look in any tourism brochure about New York, I’m sure you’ll see Chinatown in it. It has so much history. It’s the culture. It’s this backdrop for so many movies and TV shows. Chinatown has given so much to so many." —Patrick Mock

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

Niou stands outside of Super Taste on Eldridge St, known for its hand-pulled noodles. The pandemic has forced the restaurant to allow only one customer to order inside at a time.

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

The silken soft tofu with molasses at 46 Mott.

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

Niou digs into her favorite dumplings from Super Taste.

Photography by Molly Tavoletti

Chinatown USA

A Day Behind the Scenes in Manhattan’s Chinatown

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