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Discovering New York's hidden Chinatown

The Year of the Ox begins Jan. 26. But while it's easy to pick up cheap souvenirs at shops in Chinatown, it's also worth spending a day seeking out the unfamiliar.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Year of the Ox begins Jan. 26 and stores all over Chinatown are selling bright red decorations to mark the new year. But while it's easy to pick up cheap souvenirs at shops around the neighborhood, it's also worth spending a day seeking out the unfamiliar. You can sample new dishes, listen to a two-stringed fiddle called an erhu, or even visit a Buddhist temple.

Michael Moi, spokesman for the Chinatown Partnership, which was formed after the Sept. 11th attacks to promote the area and preserve local culture, encourages visitors to "open themselves up when it comes to Chinatown, and disregard preconceived notions. People recognize that Chinatown is good for good food and shopping, but there's a lot more to it. We're a cultural center, and people should bring a sense of adventure when they visit."

Dim sum restaurants, where small plates of food are offered from carts that circle the dining room, offer an easy and inexpensive way to try new dishes. Typical fare includes dumplings filled with shrimp, pork and vegetables, stuffed tofu rolls, sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves, and mildly sweet desserts like egg custard tarts and sesame seed balls with red bean paste.

There's no shortage of dim sum places in Chinatown, but a good one that's a little tricky to find is the Golden Unicorn, at 18 E. Broadway near Catherine Street; take the elevator up to the dining room. Dim sum is served Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.- 4 p.m., and weekends beginning at 9 a.m.; most dishes are $3.75 each. The restaurant offers a regular pre-order menu for dinner. Don't be surprised if you're seated at a large round table with other customers; it's common practice in Chinatown and may inspire you to try something new recommended by your tablemate. (Bills are tallied separately.)

From tea to chopsticks
Gift shops are also ubiquitous in Chinatown. Wind-up toys and shiny red wall hangings spill from every other storefront along Mott Street south of Canal. But a few specialty stores are worth exploring in depth. Ten Ren Tea at 75 Mott St. sells tea that ranges from $2 a bag for regular jasmine to $144 for a pound of "King's Tea."

At 50 Mott St. you'll find Yunhong Chopsticks, a boutique that sells nothing but chopsticks, from $1.99 plastic chopsticks to $600 chopsticks made from black ebony in beautiful display cases. Some chopsticks are engraved and some are inlaid with seashells. The Yunhong company is based in China and has stores there, it also sells chopstick styles from Korea and Japan. The more expensive sets are bought for wedding and housewarming gifts.

Store manager Richard Lam says "chopsticks have a lot of culture," and he'll gladly explain the significance of any chopsticks you take a fancy to. For example, he says, traditional Chinese chopsticks are round at the bottom and square at the top to symbolize "common people on the earth and gods in the sky."

Pearl River Mart is another must for serious shoppers, even though its location at 477 Broadway north of Grand Street puts it closer to Soho than the heart of Chinatown. Look around this vast emporium for Asian goods and you'll be tempted to throw out everything you own and start over again with new home decor and a new wardrobe. Lamps shaped like Chinese takeout boxes are $18.50, silk evening bags are $8.50, richly colored cushion covers with delicate floral designs are $8.50, and sandalwood scented soaps are three for $1.25.

Some shoppers come to Pearl River with specific needs, like Mia Hockett of Burlington, Vt., who knelt in an aisle twirling parasols with her fiancé Adam Blake. "We're buying parasols for our wedding next summer in Vermont," she explained.

Leave an offering at a Buddhist temple
On the other side of the neighborhood is the Mahayana Buddhist Temple at 133 Canal St. It's a busy location, near the ramp to the Manhattan Bridge and next to the Fung Wah bus stop, where college students line up for cheap tickets to Boston.

But walk past the golden lions at the entrance and inside you'll find an oasis of peace. Here worshippers light incense, leave offerings of food and flowers, and fold their hands in devout prayer to Buddha, represented by a smiling golden 16-foot-high statue.

"They come to say 'Thank you for a wish come true,'" explained Molly Chen, who works in the temple, "or if someone in their family passes away, people ask Buddha to give them a better life in the next life." Chen said January is a busy month, as people seek good luck and protection for the new year.

The temple is open to the public. On a recent day, tourists from Holland, France and Ohio were among those buying paper fortunes for $1 and reading the story of Buddha's life in a series of illustrated signs on the walls.

Another side of Chinatown is best experienced outdoors. Many markets have open-air displays of fish, vegetables and fruit like the exotic green durian. Vendors sell bags of tiny sweet pancakes, cooked on griddles in streetcarts, for $1.50. A statue of Confucius can be found on Bowery Avenue south of Canal Street. A few blocks south of there stands a monument to Lin Zexu, who crusaded against the opium trade in the 19th century and whose statue describes him as a "pioneer in the war against drugs."

Near Mott Street, in Columbus Park, you might find seniors practicing tai chi or a man playing the erhu. He sells the instruments from a cart, $350 apiece. Look for the dragon head carved into the scroll of the neck.

Sara Delano Roosevelt Park is home to the Wah-Mei Bird Garden (near Chrystie and Broome streets), where bird owners bring their pets in ornate cages to get fresh air. On a chilly winter morning, four or five men hung cages from cross-poles there; one whistled to his bird and the creature trilled back. On a warm spring weekend, dozens of bird owners gather here.

Celebrate the new year
If you're up for more than a day trip to Chinatown, check out the Best Western Bowery Hanbee Hotel at 231 Grand St. and the Holiday Inn at 138 Lafayette St. Both have rooms around $200 — a bargain for Manhattan.

You'll find a good map of the area and lots of information about things to see and do at Or stop by the Official NYC Information Kiosk at the triangle of Canal, Walker and Baxter streets, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., near the Canal Street subway stops on the N, Q, R, W and 6 trains. The neighborhood is also served by the F train to East Broadway, and the D or B trains to Grand Street.

If you're visiting in late January or early February, catch some New Year's festivities. There will be lion dances on Jan. 26 and Feb. 8 in and around the neighborhood, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., and a ceremony with firecrackers Jan. 26, at noon in the Sara Delano Roosevelt Park soccer field near Canal and Forsyth streets by the Manhattan Bridge.

The Museum of Chinese in America offers New Year's Walking Tours, Jan. 17, 24 and 31, 1 p.m. - 2:30 p.m., with stops for shopping and tasting. Tickets are $15 (students and seniors, $12; children under 5 free). Tours depart from 70 Mulberry St., second floor; reservations at or 212-619-4785.

A New Year's parade is scheduled for Feb. 1, beginning at 1 p.m., with a route that includes Mott Street, Chatham Square, East Broadway, Allen Street, Grand Street and Chrystie Street, and a performance in Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, noon- 4 p.m.

Cantonese Opera performances are offered at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, 62 Mott St., every weekend through March. The Museum of Chinese in America is sponsoring a family-oriented Lunar New Year Arts Festival, Jan. 18, noon-5 p.m. at the Children's Museum of the Arts, 182 Lafayette St., with workshops and performances in art, music, dance and theater ($10 admission).

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