Chinatown

Andrew and I arrived to New York in January. Our first stop? Chinatown. By default mostly, as our overnight 'Chinatown bus' dropped us off in the heart of what felt like a city far, far away from America. For the two of us, still feeling a bit unsure of ourselves in America after 5+ years in Asia, it felt like an appropriate arrival. We made our way to our friends' apartment and didn't return to Chinatown until the enclave gave pause to celebrate Chinese New Year the last weekend of January.

We were late getting to Canal Street in time to stake out a good spot for the parade, but before we even got along the parade route, young boys were already performing the lion dance down the sidewalks and into shops. I have always assumed this dance was a 'dragon dance.' But we've been wrong! It's the lion dance! It is performed to frighten away spirits by using the spirits' reflection in the mirror on the head of the lion to scare them away. Meanwhile, a little one dressed in monks' robes with a mask of a laughing Buddha runs alongside the lion fanning him, which is supposed to make him jump and dance around. Both the Buddha and the dancing lion visit different places, friends' homes, shops looking for lettuce to eat and a red envelope of money. He "eats" the red packet and scatters the lettuce leaves to signal good luck and a fresh start to all for the new year. I love the lion dance - or the dragon dance (a bigger version of the lion dance). I love it so much that when we saw boys performing the dance in a little market last year in Hoi An, Vietnam - I went on a wild 'dragon-hunt' in Saigon on my birthday. It turned into quite the adventure, and one purple lion/dragon head currently sitting in a box in Kentucky. As I stood behind rows and rows of people trying to watch the parade, I wished I had my lion head to join in the parade!

We walked on the outskirts of the parade route, hoping the crowd would thin out a bit. It didn't. I made a mental note to arrive extra early next year. (And you should, too!) While the parade was festive and fun, I was overwhelmed by the throngs of people. When it started to dwindle down, Andrew and I snuck away to walk around the outskirts of the crowd. I stopped to get a photograph of a simple street sign covered in confetti - and by the time I got a shot I was satisfied with, Andrew was in line for some dumplings at Fried Dumpling.

We figured everyone must have known something we didn't to be standing in line halfway down the street for some CHEAP dumplings. At 5 for $1.00, it was a perfect way for us to spend our time waiting for the rest of the parade goers head home. We tried to order some pork buns, but with the Mandarin speaking only women behind the counter, I think something got lost in translation. According to Yelp, we should have arrived earlier, as the pork buns tend to sell out early!

I had planned on returning a couple of days later to photograph more of the Canal Street station surroundings, but the snowpocalypse quite simply, prevented my return, or at least one that would be productive. Despite the multiple layers upon layers of clothing I've been bundled up in this winter, after nearly two years of warm weather, I am not yet good at being cold. When I finally returned, it was still brisk, but I was antsy and needed to get out and explore. As warned, between Mott and Church featured tons of souvenir shops selling everything from cheap t-shirts to black market purses, perfumes and more. I wandered along bypassing small gallery spaces and high end furniture stores until a magnificent bear, made of smaller bear balloons begged me to investigate. Some of the spaces in SoHo are a little intimidating- I wasn't always sure if the door would open up into a private artist's studio space, a store, a gallery, or what. I figured this bear was worth taking my chances and risk being slightly embarrassed if I found myself in the middle of someone's private living room.

Fortunately it turned out to be a very public and friendly pop-up exhibition (and store). Nipponista is a campaign that was designed to promote Japanese "craftsmen, techniques, and the products that they present with the objective to "make Japan cheerful" and to "reintroduce the excellence of craftsmanship in Japan for its people." (I borrowed the description from the pamphlet that I was given as soon as I stepped into the space.) The balloon bears were created by DAISY BALLOON. Once inside, my attention was quickly captured by Kansai Yamamoto's vintage kimono inspired fashions. Fun fact: he was the first Japanese fashion designer to have a show in London. I was told I had just missed him at the exhibition. I was disappointed, even more so when I saw his HUGE smile in the exhibition pamphlet. It makes you want to be friends with him, hang out, and wait to see what crazy creation he comes up with next. Next time Mr. Yamamoto, stay longer so we can be friends!

Obviously, I'm drawn to art, artists, and any kind of space or shop that cultivates creativity. Allow me to introduce you to Purl Soho. If you're from a more rural area than New York City (like myself), and you've sewn or knitted or crocheted or done anything involving a trip to a store like Hancock Fabrics or Joanne's or, well, I'm sure you get the point... This. place. is. so. much. cooler. Come here for all of your yarn and notion needs. It's probably best to come immediately after you get paid, as you could easily blow your entire paycheck on a new project (or three). I so desperately wanted to, but assured myself that I would return with a strict list and perhaps a chaperone to help me rein in my project(s) and spending a bit.

Multiple Chinatown "to-do" lists include a visit to Pearl River. It's fun, and a fairly authentic store, except for the price-tags on the giant lion (dragon) heads. I was suddenly glad I purchased mine in Vietnam for less than $40.00 and shipped it for the same. Maybe the plane ticket would add to your expenses a bit, so if you can't jump on a plane to Asia, come here for all of your giant dragon mask needs. Or lanterns, or tea sets, or Buddha statues, or Chinese fabrics, or...

Losing daylight, I headed home for the night and returned to Canal Street a third time- a few days later- to explore the rest of the station surroundings, specifically, Chinatown without the crowd of Lunar New Year festivities. I'm not even the hugest fan of duck, but I've grown to love the sight of a butcher at work. It wasn't a sidewalk where I had to dodge puddles of blood (as has happened more than once in Seoul), but it was one that wasn't ashamed of not being vegan or vegetarian, and I appreciated that. On a more vegetarian friendly note, I also appreciated the fresh produce on the streets. Especially the bright pink dragonfruit. It made me both nostalgic for the months spent traveling through SouthEast Asia and anxious for my blender (currently in Kentucky). It also made me so grateful to be living in New York City. Want something wonderful? Grab one of these beautiful fruits and an apple. Peel. Blend. Drink. You can thank me later.

We ducked into the very busy and highly recommended, Taipan Bakery. Once inside, we were consumed by the madness. We maneuvered our way to the back of the bakery and stood in slight awe at the commotion. I hopped in line, unsure of what to get, until I saw what looked like a beautiful piece of carrot cake. When someone behind me ordered a dozen egg tarts, I added one to my order. (If someone gets twelve of something, it must be good, right?) I'm glad I did- as it turned out to be much better than the carrot cake. I regret not getting more, or trying the green tea- among other flavors that were available.

We walked down Bowery, and seeing an open door to the Taoist Temple, I popped in. Was it really a temple or simply a gift-shop designed to look like a temple luring tourists or curious ones like myself inside. Turns out it's both. I made a donation, indicating my fortune of course. The woman gave a brief nod when I asked if I could take some pictures, but I was otherwise ignored by everyone inside. I checked out Yelp to see what others had thought, and it sounds like my experience was on par with the two who took the time to review. I had a laugh when I read Sally W.'s review; uuuuuhhhhh.....what do you think the gods with do to me if I write a bad review on Yelp.........let's not test it, 5 star! I think I'll follow her lead. If you walk by, stop in! Make a donation, grab a fortune. But don't be foolish like myself and slip it into a silk lined pocket and forget about it until you fear you lost your fortune (in more ways than one)!

Ducking down one of the alleys, we found ourselves in front of Nom Wah Tea Parlor. This was exciting, because we were here about a month ago with friends and knew it had the most amazing pork buns. It was exciting, until we realized there was a line out the door to be seated. As it turns out, going early on a weeknight is the way to do it. And you should. It's not only the most laid back restaurant to get some dim sum - at least, the most laid back one that I've ever been to, but it's also the oldest in all of Chinatown. It first opened in 1920- not for dim sum, but for baked goods and tea. According to their website, it was a neighborhood staple. We should have tried their almond cookie. Instead we opted for savory and cannot recommend their pork bun enough. If you find yourself there during the Chinese autumn festival, they suggest their (homemade lotus paste and red bean filling) moon cake.

We wound around Chinatown, crossing Mott and onto another recommended dumpling restaurant; Tasty Dumpling. Truth: We both preferred Tasty Dumpling over Fried Dumpling. The dumplings were crispier and even though we couldn't exactly tell the difference between the chives and pork dumplings and the cabbage and pork dumplings, they were all delicious. I will criticize both Dumpling Joints for watering down their Sriracha though. I noticed another patron unwrapping an unidentifiable dipping sauce she had just purchased. I didn't blame her, and was a little envious knowing her brand new condiment probably wasn't watered down at all.

Across the street, is Columbus Park, and towards one end is a wonderful pavilion full of older Chinese men and women playing games or music, or even some tai chi. The men (and a few women) playing games were oblivious to tourists trying to sneak a peek of the game that had gathered a crowd. While I couldn't always see, I was grateful to be able to hand my camera over to Andrew. Who needs go-gadget arms when your partner in crime is a foot taller than you, and has an impressive arm-span nonetheless. I think this part of the park is the most fun over the weekend, if you're wandering through Chinatown, grab some dumplings (from Tasty Dumpling) to go and head to the park to eat and people watch!

We walked up Mulberry, back towards Canal, past some smaller picturesque stores; a smaller fish stall than those on Canal, souvenir shops with buckets of old Chinese coins and impressive shrines set up inside, and little bakeries that tempted me to stop, yet again, for another treat (or two).