From Hidden Tunnels to History…Eight Ways to Get Your Non-Food Kicks in Chinatown

Chinatown, even for many Chinese-Americans, has become a bit of a necessary evil. So-and-so is in town and they want to have dim sum, have to have dim sum. It takes forever for your group of twenty to individually trickle into the restaurant lobby and then you all starve as you wait for a table to open up. Once you’re seated, you overeat and load up on so many carbs your stomach has become a weapon of mass digestion. You stagger out of the restaurant in a food coma, clutching leftovers.

It’s a shame that many visitors miss out on the myriad incredible things that Manhattan’s Chinatown has to offer. I’m not going to tell you the best places and things to eat. There’s already enough of that. I’m going to tell you eight ways to get your nonfood kicks in Chinatown to give a wider view of the neighborhood and community you might be missing out on if you’re a nonnative.

Why eight? Let me hip you to something: the number eight in nearly every dialect of Chinese sounds like wealth or fortune. Chinese people love homonyms so much they’ll pay more for license plates, phone numbers, and street addresses with the number eight in them.

1) Enter Chinatown the right way. Don’t take the trains to Canal Street, where hawkers accost visitors on the overcrowded sidewalks, and the most unimaginative gift shops create a line of visual pollution that’s hard to shake. Take the 4 train to Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall. You’ll exit beneath the beautiful groined vaults of the Municipal Building. Make your way north, unmolested by aggressive salespeople and traffic—private vehicles are banned. Pause at a preserved barred window incorporated into a brick wall. It’s all that remains of a prison built by the British in 1763 that housed unruly Americans during the Revolutionary War. Observe St. Andrew’s Church, which once served the now-gone Five Points slum. Pass by the doors of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse on Pearl Street, from which the famous (Tom Brady) and infamous (Bernie Madoff) have emerged on camera. Across the street to the north is Columbus Park.

2) Stroll through Columbus Park. Jeremy Lin is not an anomaly. Asian-Americans love playing sports and you might catch a future NBA star working on a hook shot on the basketball court. Soccer and handball are also big here. Walk north through the park and, thanks to recent renovations, you’ll find plenty of open and clean public restrooms (reason alone for a trip). In the shade of a 120-year-old pavilion, you’ll find older people playing xiangqi, so-called Chinese chess. The xiangqi playing boards engraved on stone tables are always occupied while tables with Western chessboards are often covered with newspapers being read. Xiangqi is cool; can you name another game that involves generals, advisors, elephants, chariots, and cannons? Players may not speak English, but if you learn some basic moves beforehand and are patient enough to wait your turn, you can get in on a game—and get wiped off the board. Just outside the gate of the north end of the park features a number of fortune tellers, many of whom give readings in English.

3) Check out Chinatown Shopping 2.0. Here’s a great tip: Get your glasses in Chinatown. The upscale eyewear shops can’t be beat for name-brand fashion and price. They also take insurance and have optometrists on site. Seriously, there are too many for me to start singling out. I can, however, name two other unique stores. The first is Yunhong Chopsticks at 50 Mott Street. Is there anything more taken for granted than the utensils that we eat our food with? Yunhong offers chopsticks that open a new visual stratum to your meals. Pick up a pair aligned with your zodiac sign or themed on your favorite classical Chinese novel (I’m partial to Outlaws of the Marsh). One can even go upscale to the $200 silver- or gold-tipped set for wedding gifts. The second store is Uniqulee, down a few doors at 36 Mott Street. Chinatown’s first design store offers vintage cameras that are as stunning as any picture they’d produce. Fascinate yourself with antique key tags, vintage bowties, cast-iron banks, hand-blown glass heads for modeling hats—it’s not a big space, but each foot of shelf space tells another story about a different time and different places in the world.

4) I hope you’re feeling game. All Chinese-Americans of a certain age remember the two live chickens at Chinatown Fair on 8 Mott Street. One was the dancing chicken, which would strut on a spinning metal plate for a bit of feed. The other was the tic-tac-toe–playing chicken (which was a scam, as a secret light would show the chicken which button to peck). The chickens are long gone and over the years, arcade machines took over the amusements. By the late ’90s, nearly every cabinet was a fighting game, and many of the patrons looked like they’d be obliged to carry on the conflict on the street after the game was over. The business has been through boom and bust and is even the subject of a documentary film. As it stands now, Chinatown Fair is crammed with full-body participatory games such as dancing on weight-triggered mats, firing off plastic machine guns, twisting knobs like a DJ, and one odd Japanese import that involves lifting and “throwing” an anchored table in a fit of anger. Oh, and there’s an air-hockey table!

5) Pay your respects. Unlike most Chinatowns in the U.S., Manhattan’s lacks an entrance arch, but it does have a memorial arch, dedicated to American soldiers of Chinese descent. It’s known as the Kimlau Memorial Arch, named after 2nd Lt. Benjamin Ralph Kimlau, who flew a bomber in World War II and made the ultimate sacrifice. The arch is located at Chatham Square, where the Bowery, Mott Street, and East Broadway all meet up. Just one block south on St. James is the oldest Jewish cemetery in New York City. The first cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese, Synagogue Shearith Israel was established in the 17th century and its occupants include at least one Jewish Revolutionary War soldier. Over the years, the street level has sunk to the point that the graveyard is now a few feet above the sidewalk.

6) Hammer out your banking issues. All banks in Chinatown are open seven days a week. Even major banks such as Citibank and Chase have teller hours on Saturday and Sunday. Come on down and deposit those checks that the ATM won’t read. Mad about that mysterious charge on your banking statement and they’re giving you the runaround on the phone? Show up on Sunday and give them a piece of your mind in person, delivered with full dim-sum breath.

7) Explore the last hidden tunnel in Chinatown. Supposedly there used to be a vast network of passages under the streets that saw much use during the tong wars of more than a century ago. Now there’s only a small commercial strip left of the passage that ran from Chatham Square to Mott Street. Enter the Wing Fat Mansion building at 7-8 Chatham Square and head down the stairs on the left. Purportedly, this tunnel was a part of grain-storage tubes. Now it houses businesses including doctors, gravestone chiselers, and geomancers. The tunnel ends at a roll-down gate. If you’re lucky, it will be open. If you can walk out of it and emerge on Doyers Street, you will have unlocked the drunken-dragon achievement level.

8) Get a dose of history and the present. Head just north of Canal Street to the Museum of Chinese in America (215 Centre Street Take delight in the incredible exhibits, one of which currently is Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America. Thrill to walking on reclaimed lumber in a beautiful space designed by Maya Lin. Perhaps most importantly, you can book a formal tour of Chinatown with a guide who will give you the full scoop that my simple and subjective list can’t.