At the turn of the 20th century, Manhattan’s Chinatown was a dark and mysterious corridor on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Regarded by non–Chinese Americans as dirty and violent, with ringlets of opium smoke haloing each alleyway, the neighborhood was layered with myth and legend.
In reality, Chinatown at that time was full of single men who were barred by law from bringing their families to America. Forced to leave behind their wives and children to support them from abroad, Chinatown’s “bachelor society” strove, through its restaurants and cafés, to create a sense of community among these lone patriarchs.
The places where this earlier generation of bachelors came together to eat, drink tea and socialize over the soft clacking of mah-jongg tiles are still nestled in the side streets of today’s Chinatown, as I discovered on a recent walking tour of the neighborhood’s historical tea houses and banquet halls, hosted by the Museum of Chinese in America.
Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which opened in 1920, claims to be the first dim sum restaurant in New York City. Though it was also a popular bachelor hangout and famous as a mah-jongg venue, it has been remodeled to appeal to a wider range of customers.
Mei Li Wah, which opened in 1968, served small snacks, like steamed buns. The café was open for 40 years until it was closed in 2008, remodeled, and reopened. The old bar-style seating throughout the restaurant, originally intended for male patrons, has been replaced with comfortable tables and now accommodates not only female customers but female servers as well. Despite the outward changes, Mei Li Wah still serves some of the best steamed buns in the city.
Oriental Restaurant, which once stood at the corner of the Bowery and Pell St. became something of a game changer for Chinatown. During the Great Depression, Chinese restaurants that were only just beginning to gain a mainstream following struggled to stay in business. Although Prohibition banned alcohol, Oriental Restaurant boosted business by serving “the tea that burns” and offering live entertainment. With singers and booze flowing, these establishments survived Prohibition, after which Americanized dishes like chop suey enjoyed renewed popularity.
The Port Arthur Restaurant, formerly located at the corner of Mott and Worth streets, was once a famous spot. Its name, a reference to a Chinese port where a major Japanese victory took place during the Russo-Japanese War, was chosen as a token of pan-Asian pride when the restaurant opened in the 1890s. The massive establishment, which stayed open for some 80 years, boasted three floors. The first two served up everyday fare, but the third floor was an elaborate banquet hall that hosted weddings and other events.
Across the street is the former site of Hong Ping Lo, a true bachelor joint where customers could select livestock, kept in the backyard, for their meals. The restaurant employed several live-in chefs, each with a different specialty. A calendar posted in the restaurant showed which chef was working, so customers could plan to visit when their favorite cooks were cooking.
In 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed and replaced with immigration quotas. This led to wider acceptance of Chinese immigrants, and gradually Manhattan’s Chinatown lost its stigma.
About 20 years later, immigration restrictions were removed entirely, and America’s Chinatowns, which had mostly housed Cantonese, Taishanese and Hong Kong Chinese, saw an influx of people from Shanghai, Beijing and Taiwan. With this new wave of Chinese immigrants came new businesses that helped to popularize Chinese foods across America.
Aji Ichiban, a Hong Kong snack food franchise with 90 international locations—including one near the intersection of Pell and Mott streets—was one of them. The shop stocks all manner of Chinese snacks and is well-known for allowing customers to sample any item in the store.
A few blocks north on Mott St. is Ten Ren Tea Ginseng Co., which spearheaded the Taiwanese bubble tea craze. Founded in 1953, the mini chain has locations throughout New York and Southern California.
These restaurants and cafés are only a few that played an integral part in the Chinese experience in New York City. As Chinese immigration changed in America, so too did the restaurants run by and for wave after wave of new immigrants.
Aji Ichiban, 37 Mott St., Manhattan, 212-233-7650, www.ajiichiban.com.hk
Mei Li Wah, 62-64 Bayard St., Manhattan, 212-966-7866
Nom Wah Tea Parlor, 13 Doyer St., Manhattan, 212-962-6047, www.nomwah.com
Ten Ren Tea Ginseng Co., 75 Mott St., Manhattan, 212-349-2286, www.tenrenusa.com