Off the Eaten Path

Rediscover Manhattan’s Chinatown

Emerging Chinatowns in Queens (Flushing) and Brooklyn (Sunset Park) have been luring urban wanderers to the outer boroughs as of late, but it’s tough to beat the original.

Manhattan’s Chinatown is one of the oldest Chinese enclaves outside of China in the world, originating in the 1870s when immigrants were arriving to New York City in droves until the Chinese Exclusion Act halted the influx. After an 80-year lull in growth, the neighborhood expanded tenfold, growing from its original eight-block radius to the mile-stretch it is today, thanks to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

chinatown Manhattan
Discover the hidden-in-plain-sight Doyers Street. / Photo courtesy of Nom Wah Tea Parlor

But another major hurdle is threatening Chinatown nowadays: rising rents and gentrification. The neighborhood has already lost a few of its signature beloved stops—Fong Inn Too, Winnie’s Bar, Cup & Saucer—to rent hikes, but some veteran businesses are finding modern ways to reinvent themselves.

The oldest of the bunch is Nom Wah, a 98-year-old tea parlor and dim sum joint in the middle of the curved Doyers Street.

chinatown Manhattan
You’ll want to sample this dim sum spread. / Photo courtesy of Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Before becoming the go-to Chinatown stop for fashionistas, the block was prominently known as Bloody Angle because of its sharp bend; its reputation for being a popular fighting spot for local gangsters didn’t help matters. But Nom Wah’s owners, Ed and May Choy–succeeded by Wally Tang, who bought the building and business from the couple in 1974—persevered through some of the neighborhood’s rough stints.

The hard times took their toll on the space by the time Tang handed the business over to his nephew, Wilson Tang, in 2011. The former Morgan Stanley alum wanted to keep “old Chinatown old,” so he only made improvements to the areas that were needed: That included the kitchen, which hadn’t been renovated since the ’40s. He also added a curated wine and beer list, and changed the way in which the dim sum was served—out went the carts with the premade dumplings, in came write-on menus for cooked-to-order food.

You may no longer find old men playing dominoes in the back of the dining room, but for proof that some things at Nom Wah never change, just taste its heavenly shrimp and snow pea leaf dumplings and classic pan-fried turnip cakes. 

Wing on Wo & Co. Photo by Carolina Ramirez

Similarly, 93-year-old Oriental porcelain shop Wing on Wo & Co (26 Mott Street) keeps it all in the family. Members of the team include Nancy Seid, who inherited the store from her father back in 1964; Nancy’s son-in-law, master handyman and current store owner, Gary Lum; and Mei Lum, Gary’s daughter and owner-in-training. An integral aspect of Mei’s job is continuing the legacy of a century-old business in a rapidly changing Chinatown. To that end, she started The W.O.W. Project, an initiative to bring the community together through arts, culture, and activism. Touches of her vision can be found throughout the gift store—self-published zines and cookbooks are tucked in between hand-painted bowls from overseas; mono-chrome bulldogs stand guard next to traditional turquoise fu dogs; and clayware from the Zhejiang province mingle with modern Mason tea jars. The shop also hosts screenings for local filmmakers, hands-on workshops, and panel discussions, all catering to Chinatown’s rich culture.

Several younger businesses have also introduced modern touches to reflect the times. Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (65 Bayard Street) has been widely praised for its vivid flavors throughout its four decades in business, but it hasn’t been afraid to keep up with today’s food trends; recent scoops have included green tea Oreo, maple bacon, halo halo, and honey lavender.

chinatown Manhattan
Lick your way through staple scoops like ube and green tea. / Photo courtesy of Chinatown Ice Cream Factory

Just around the block, Yunhong Chopsticks (50 Mott Street) sells kitchenware, with styles that range from regal (carved sandalwood and mahogany in 24 karat gold) to playful (colored pencil chopsticks, anyone?). And while most Canal Street jewelry stores seem one and the same, the 30-year-old Popular Jewelry (255 Canal Street) has enjoyed a recent resurgence thanks to its hip-hop clientele: Macklemore, Joey Bada$$, and Goldlink have stopped by within the past 12 months.

There are some storefronts that refuse to conform, but what they offer stands the test of time. The no-frills Bok Lei Po Trading Inc. (63 Mott Street) is filled with everything you’d need to embrace your inner Bruce Lee: nunchucks, canvased training shoes, sparring equipment, samurai swords. The unfussy Kam Hing Coffee Shop (118 Baxter Street) hasn’t painted over its “sexy sponge lady” mural since it opened three decades ago; the prices on its ethereal sponge cakes haven’t changed in that amount of time either—just 75¢ for the original and $1.25 for specialty flavors like butterscotch and green tea.

chinatown Manhattan
Warm up inside this no-frills coffee shop. / Photo courtesy of Kam Hing Coffee Shop

And the meat-centric Ping’s Dried Beef (58 Mulberry Street) still labels its products with tags like Sweet Moo and Spicy Moo after 50-plus years in business.

So if you thought that Chinatown was only good for knockoff handbags, it’s time for another visit.  Make it easy with our detailed walking tour itinerary.

Get in touch for more Chinatown recommendations. We can plan an entire old-school/modern day in the neighborhood just for you. Find more crawls in some of NYC’s best ethnic enclaves in The Guide

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