Chinese Chicago: Race, Transnational Migration and Community Since 1870 (book review)

Posted in Down in Chinatown at 12:58 pm by Benjamin Ross

Chinese Chicago:  Race, Transnational Migration and Community Since 1870 by Huping Ling, Stanford University Press, 2012.

With the USA’s largest Chinese population between the coasts and the exhaustive body of area neighborhood studies undertaken by sociologists, historians, and geographers, it’s surprising that Chicago’s Chinatown has eluded the radar of academics for so long.  Huping Ling’s new book addresses this void with the first comprehensive history of Chicago’s Chinese community.

With the backdrop of the Chicago School of Sociology from the 1920’s and the current literature on “transnational” migration, Ling traces the history of Chicago’s Chinese community back to the three Moy brothers in Duanfen, Taishan, Guangdong, who arrived in the Windy City in the 1870’s.  She follows the community from its humble beginnings on South Clark Street in the Loop, through its relocation to the present site on the Near South Side, also highlighting the Vietnamese Chinatown on the North Side and the Chinese diaspora throughout the Chicagoland suburbs.  With thorough examination of trade organizations, politics, business, schools, and religious institutions, Ling provides a comprehensive view of the Chicago Chinese community, and its inter-relationships with both the city of Chicago and the sending villages back in China.

Some interesting tidbits that Ling brings to light include a de-emphasis on organized crime and tongs.  While powerful tongs with occasional violence did exist in Chicago, Ling argues that the Chicago tongs were primarily trade associations, with the function of protecting and supporting Chinese-run businesses.  And she concludes with the observation that relaxed migration regulations on both sides of the Pacific have caused a “hollow center” whereby entire Chinese villages have been depopulated due to migration to North America.  Their vacancies are often filled by migrants from inland provinces, whom Ling suggests may provide the next generation of transnational migrants.

Chinese Chicago is an accessible yet authoritative journey through a topic which has received scant coverage in both the academic and popular presses.  Through Ling’s comprehensive analysis of historical documents, photographs, natural histories, and family lineages, Chinese Chicago provides a fascinating journey through Chinese transnational life in the American Midwest.



American Long Distance Bus Transportation: Now Made in China

Posted in Down in Chinatown, Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 12:03 pm by Benjamin Ross

During my 3.5 years living fulltime in China, I set the goal of exploring as much of the country as possible. Before I returned to the United States, I had visited all but 6 of China’s 27 provinces, the majority of its provincial capitals, and tens of rural towns and villages. The way such extensive adventures were possible was by stringing multiple locations together on a single trip, and traveling between them over land. Sometimes I would start at home in Fuzhou and travel a circular path, leading back to where I started. On other occasions I would fly to a distant city, and slowly make my way back via trains and buses. A third option was to fly to one city, then travel over land to another, from which I would fly home. Due to China’s population density and predictable transportation network, this form of traveling was practical, thrifty, and allowed me to see more of the country than had I visited destinations one at a time.

It’s now been over two years since I returned to the United States, and my travels in China have left me curious as to how feasible this method of travel would be in my home country. In my early twenties, I traveled extensively through the U.S., mostly by driving. Now that I have repatriated, and given up car dependency (which I urge all to try) the time was fitting to test long distance ground transportation in the United States.

The itinerary for my recent trip to the East Coast was to fly to Boston on December 23, and then from Baltimore fly home January 7, leaving two weeks to meander down the coast. Though long distance ground transportation is the default in China, it remains foreign to most Americans, especially those not on the East Coast. While most Americans still prefer their jetliners and private automobiles, a unique marriage between China and the United States has blossomed on the East Coast: The “Chinatown bus.”

The “Chinatown bus” refers to several Chinese-operated bus companies (the ones I tried were 2000 New Century and Fung Wa) running networks throughout the Eastern United States. The buses provide frequent (sometimes hourly) transit between major cities including New York, Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, with fares rarely exceeding fifteen dollars. Using Chinatown buses, I traveled from Boston to New York, and then from New York to Philadelphia, and finally Philadelphia to Baltimore, all for a total cost of 37 dollars. I did not purchase any of my tickets in advance, and my longest bus station wait was twenty minutes.

on way to Baltimore, via Philadelphia -> DC Chinatown bus.

Trips on the Chinatown bus are standard service without frills. Like China, there are no bathrooms on the bus, no wireless Internet connections, and minimal excess legroom. There are also no karaoke videos, farmers carrying bags of dead fish, or random stops to avoid police bus-overloading checkpoints. (America does have its perks.)

Aside from occasional mechanical failure, the main difficulty Chinatown bus riders report is finding the bus drop off locations. In some transit points, such as Boston’s South Station, the Chinatown bus picks up and drops off inside the official station, running ticket booths side by side with American bus companies. In other locations, such as East Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown, buses operate out of makeshift bus stops and storefronts. Additionally, for those traveling within New York City, an ad hoc Chinese-operated bus services whisks passengers between the three Chinatowns for only $2.50 each trip.

The Chinatown bus service is nothing new for East Coasters. On the contrary, it has become the way to travel cheap from city to city. According to Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, the Chinatown bus began as a service to shuttle Chinese restaurant workers from Chinatown to Chinatown between Boston and New York City. Buses were patronized almost exclusively by Chinese passengers until college kids got wind of it, and began using them to return home for vacation. It was then a matter of time until the Chinatown bus phenomenon went mainstream. In each of my Chinatown bus experiences, the drivers, conductors, and ticket sellers were all Chinese, while a majority of the passengers were not.

Chinese in America have a long history of occupational specialization, first arriving as railroad workers in the 1860’s. When railroad jobs waned, Chinese entrepreneurs opened cleaners or curios shops. In the 20th Century, the invention of American Chinese food led to a boom in the demand for restaurant workers. This boom continues today and ultimately was the impetus behind the Chinatown bus’ emergence, now providing new employment opportunities for blue collar Chinese immigrants who traditionally worked primarily in the restaurant sector.

Much as Chinese restaurants influenced the way Americans eat (Lee claims the US has more Chinese restaurants than McDonald’s, Burger Kings, and Wendy’s combined) the Chinatown bus is now reshaping transportation on the East Coast. Whereas compared to flying, long distance trains offer only of nominal cost savings, the Chinatown bus offers comparable transit times with significantly cheaper fares. Its popularity has caused American bus companies to lower their own prices in order to remain afloat against their “made in China” competition.

Will the Chinatown bus ever become a major player in the American long distance transit industry, as the Chinese restaurant has with fast food? Probably not. Mass transportation efficiency, both long distance and short, is a function of population density. Barring major changes in land usage and urban planning, the East Coast will likely remain the only region of the country where long distance buses are a practical alternative to planes or private cars. So for the near future, Chinatown style bus transit outside of the East Coast will probably still require a trip to the Middle Kingdom. But for backpackers wanting an overland excursion, the East Coast and its Chinatown bus network allow for the ideal budget adventure.



Chinese New York

Posted in Down in Chinatown, Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 3:02 pm by Benjamin Ross

Outside of the Middle Kingdom and Southeast Asia , there is probably no spot in the world more Chinese than New York City. When people think of American cities with heavy Chinese concentrations, usually San Francisco and Los Angeles are the first to come to mind. It often comes as surprise that New York City now has, by far, the largest Chinese population in the Western Hemisphere, and is the primary economic, cultural, and logistical center of Chinese life in the United States.

Throughout the 19th Century and the majority of the 20th, most Chinese immigrants to the continental United States came from Guangdong (the Cantonese province) and settled in California. In an era when ships were the dominant form of international transport, the West Coast was the logical destination for immigrants from Asia. Well into the 20th Century, even as air travel became increasingly feasible, most Chinese immigration still passed through the West Coast, since this was where the established immigrant communities were located.

Then in the 1980’s a dramatic shift in Chinese immigration occurred. Rural peasants from Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian province, just north of Guangdong, began emigrating en masse to the United States. The immigrants from Fuzhou did not share business and kinship connections with the established Cantonese communities in California, nor could they understand the Cantonese language, the lingua franca of most American Chinatowns at the time. Without ties to existing American Chinese communities, and with the ease of jet travel, the Fuzhou immigrants had little reason to settle in California, as previous generations of Chinese had done. Instead, they flocked to New York City, where a formidable labor vacuum was emerging out of the booming Chinese restaurant industry.

Since the 1980’s the Fuzhou population, and by extension the Chinese population of the United States, has grown by unprecedented numbers. With the quantity of Fuzhou immigrants long surpassing that of the Cantonese, New York has now become the main port of entry for Chinese immigrants in the United States.

Most Chinese immigrants in New York are not from the city of Fuzhou per se, but rather the small villages and townships in its rural periphery including Changle, Lianjiang, Fuqing, and Langqi Island. As someone who spent three years living in and around Fuzhou, the topic of Chinese immigration has always been of particular personal interest. So during my recent stop in New York, I made it a point to visit its various Chinese enclaves.

New York City has three primary Chinese communities, the Manhattan Chinatown on the Lower East Side, the Queens Chinatown in Flushing, and the Brooklyn Chinatown in Sunset Park. Excluding San Francisco’s Chinatown, each of the three New York communities on their own are more populous than any other Chinatown in the United States. The following is a photo essay from four days in New York. Enjoy.

曼哈顿 · Manhattan

Manhattan’s Chinatown is located on the lower east side within a massive tract of tenement housing blocks, not far from the former site of Five Points, the immigrant neighborhood showcased in the Martin Scorsese’s film “Gangs of New York.” For much of the 20th Century, the area which is now Chinatown was New York’s Little Italy.
The swarming, raucous, and grubby atmosphere of Manhattan’s Chinatown exemplifies the perfect marriage between New York City and China. With pirated DVD’s, fake Louis Vuitton bags, herbal viagra, and 50 cent patterned Chinese “famer bags,” there isn’t much you can find in China which can’t be purchased in Manhattan. It’s also probably the largest concentration of Chinese restaurants in North America, and at night vendors crowd the sidewalks hawking 烧烤 (Chinese skewers), 麻辣烫 (ma la spicy soup) and other Chinese street snacks rarely found outside of the Middle Kingdom.
As New York’s oldest extant Chinese enclave, more Cantonese is spoken in Manhattan than anywhere else in the city. The Cantonese still form a solid population base on the Lower East Side, however they are rapidly being eclipsed by the Fuzhou influx.
Chinatown’s boundaries are clearly delineated by its housing stock. As the tenements lie upper middle class residential high rises, which vividly contrast the immigrant housing in their shadows.
Although Fuzhou-ites can be found in all parts of Manhattan’s Chinatown, the commercial center of the Fuzhou population is East Broadway, aka 福州街 (Fuzhou Street)
For a particularly native experience, I recommend a perusal through the East Broadway Mall. With shops hocking phone cards, electronics, suits, and rice cookers, and a rudimentary basement food court selling authentic Fuzhou snacks and niblets, the East Broadway Mall (88 E. Broadway) could just as easily be located on a street corner in downtown Fuzhou.

法拉盛· Flushing

Hop on the elevated 7 train, and take it to the end of the line in Flushing. Disembark, and one is immediately transported into the most concentrated Asian population in the United States. To the east lies Koreatown, rather quiet and subdued compared with the massive Chinese colony to the west, which by most counts has now surpassed Manhattan’s Chinatown in population.
In terms of Chinatowns, Flushing is about as diverse as they come. Fighting through the crowds, one hears the sounds of Cantonese, Fuzhou dialect, heavily accented Northern Mandarin, Taiwan Guoyu, and shouts of “ma-sa-gee, ma-sa-gee,” all permeating through the noise and commotion.
The center of the Flushing Chinatown is at Main Street and Roosevelt, the third busiest intersection in New York and the busiest outside of Manhattan. It is chaotic, cramped, and crowded, even by Chinese standards. Flushing has a plethora of authentic Chinese restaurants and street food, making it an ideal spot for adventurous foodies. Like many ethnic neighborhoods in New York, one can easily consume an entire meal in Flushing without ever sitting at a table or using utensils. This is Chinese street food at its best, as many vendors and storefronts offer a multitude of Chinese finger food, much of it unavailable anywhere else in the US, and all at bargain prices.
After several rounds of street food grazing, I settled down to a meal at “Four Choise and Soup All Day Lunch Box.”
“Four Choise and Soup All Day Lunch Box” follows a formula common among New York Chinese dives: 4 servings are chosen from a buffet, plus a scoop of white rice and a bowl of soup, all for the low price of $4.95. The fare at “Four Choise” was was a unique blend of authentic Chinese 快餐 (fast food) and Fuzhou-style American Chinese food, which I found surprisingly tasty, albeit in small doses.
Owing to its comparatively low degree of commercialization and tourism, Flushing represents a less adulterated ethnic enclave than Manhattan’s Chinatown. With direct subway transportation to Manhattan, Flushing is an ideal destination for any traveler wanting to experience the Middle Kingdom on American soil.

布鲁克林 · Brooklyn

With so many ethnic pockets in the city, even many New Yorkers don’t realize that one of the largest Chinese communities in North America is located in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. Of the three Chinatowns, Sunset Park is the least touristy, and the most completely and utterly Fuzhou-ified. Passing along the main drag, 8th Avenue, the glottal sounds of the Fuzhou dialect fill the surroundings with hardly a word of Mandarin, Cantonese, or English spoken at all.***

Sunset Park is the place to go for the most uncensored Chinese experience New York City has to offer. As the youngest of New York’s three main Chinatowns, Sunset Park is home to a higher percentage of new arrivals than the other two Chinese enclaves. And without bona fide “tourist attractions,” Sunset Park’s Chinatown is NYC’s least frequented by outsiders. Businesses such as fish markets and 网吧 (internet cafes) appear to have been lifted right off the ground from Fuzhou and transplanted into South Brooklyn. Most restaurants serve an array of authentic Fuzhou cuisine and snacks, making it quite possibly the only Chinatown in America where one would be hard pressed procure that famous chicken of General Tso. And most shop owners don’t even bother to translate the Chinese characters on storefront signs into English.

To reach the Sunset Park Chinatown, take the D train to 9th Avenue and walk one street west to 8th Ave. Chinatown runs north and south from 42nd Street to 68th Street.

***It is a common misconception that the Fuzhou population residing in New York (and all over the US) does not speak Mandarin. While the Fuzhou dialect is the preferred language, since the linguistic reforms of the 1950’s the vast majority of Fuzhou children have grown up bilingual, speaking both Mandarin and the dialect. Only a tiny percentage do not speak Mandarin, and this percentage is likely lower than that of those who speak Mandarin but no dialect.

I stopped in for a meal in Sunset Park and you can probably imagine the novelty for the wait staff upon encountering a 6-foot white guy who can speak about 10 sentences in the Fuzhou dialect. After exhausting my limited arsenal of dialect, I chatted in Mandarin with the staff and several of the other diners, who were able to provide me with a detailed update on the constant state of construction in my old neighborhood in Fuzhou. Being several thousand miles away from your former home, and encountering a room full of complete strangers who recognize down to the address exactly where you used to live and work is an odd sensation to say the least.

The food served at the restaurant was typical Fuzhou fare. On the left are wontons, which in Fuzhou are referred to as 扁肉. The broth has a unique flavor which tastes quite different from standard wontons, or 混沌. Interestingly, the word 扁肉 is generally not understood outside of Fujian province, and the only place outside of Fujian (China included) I’ve seen it on a menu is New York.

On the right is a 包子 (bao), a steamed dumpling, common throughout China, but regionalized such that there is flavors vary from province to province (and country to country). The Fuzhou style 包子 is filled with sweetened pork, although quite different from the more common Cantonese 叉烧包 (cha shao bao), frequently served in most American Chinatowns.

Similar to the “Four Choise and Soup All Day Lunch Box,” many restaurants in Sunset Park also offer 中国式快餐 (Chinese fast food). 快餐 is common throughout China, and can be thought of as the Chinese buffet which is actually Chinese (as opposed to your typical US Chinese buffet which is about as American as Hot Pockets). Also, 快餐 restaurants rarely offer “all you can eat” deals (another very American concept), and instead either charge per serving or offer a package such as 4 servings plus rice and soup for a set price. With stir-fried green veggies, pork fat, squid, and whole fish, this Sunset Park buffet looks just as it would back in Fuzhou.

With its three bustling Chinatowns, each swelling larger every day, the Chinese are increasingly expanding their stake in the ethnic mosaic of New York City. Even in neighborhoods which have not been traditionally inhabited by Chinese, it can be difficult to find a street corner in New York where the sounds of Mandarin, or Cantonese, or the Fuzhou dialect cannot be heard. Much has been written about the Chinese (and specifically the Fuzhou) immigration pipeline into New York City, and further reading, I would recommend The Snakehead by Patrick Radden Keefe (which I reviewed in July) or The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee. I still have more to report from my recent trip to the East Coast, and I’ll try to have additional posts in the weeks to come.



A Chicago Chinese Spring Festival Parade (in blog format)

Posted in Down in Chinatown, Festivals and Celebrations, Uncategorized at 2:03 am by Benjamin Ross

In addition to being Super Bowl Sunday, today was the annual Chicago Chinatown Parade.  I’ve never actually blogged a parade before, so here goes.

Last year’s parade was witnessed by a miniscule crowd and in abbreviated form due to sub-zero temperatures (that’s sub zero farenheit).  This year, with temperatures in the 30’s, the turnout was huge.  The only other time I’ve seen a single “L” train stop so crowded was on election night.
Wentworth Street, the main thoroughfare in Chinatown is lined with onlookers, and an especially large number of small children lighting off whipper snappers.
Performers gear up for the parade set to start at 1 o’clock sharp.
Police line in place
Mexican guys with Obama hats sell cotton candy to the spectators.
Swarms of onlookers eagerly await the impending parade.
And the parade begins…
…care of Macy’s.
Dragons & Dragons & Dragons, Oh My!
We take a small moment to remember Western Union is (as the Chinese characters indicate) the world’s fastest way to send money.
Floats… I hope they’re throwing out hong bao’s
Presumably local dignitaries…Mister and Miss Chinatown 1982?
More banners, these traditional characters are a little to small for my astigmatic eyes to comprehend.  Can anybody read them?
A Chinese New Year Parade wouldn’t be the same without a marching band, would it?
Another float, this one sponsored by the Chinatown Parking Corporation
Another float with cute children.
Firetrucks!  It was at this point I was realizing that had I been 5 years old, this parade would have been shaping up to be one of the all-time highlights of my short existence.
An Irish bagpipe troop!
Anybody know how to say “kilt” in Chinese?
The Chicago Guzngzhou Association
Gong Hay Fat Choy!  Even with the recent droves of Mandarin speaking immigrants, Chicago’s Chinatown is still a predominantly Cantonese speaking community.
Taipei Economic and Cultural Association, along with their USA flare.
Cook County State’s Attorney?!?!?
They’re lovin’ it.
Remember when I said if I were a 5-year-old I would be having the time of my life?  Well, take that original excitement times a lucky 8!
make that two marching bands
Have a Happy Chinese New Year, from all of us in Chicago!



Barack Obama Targeting Chinese Voters?

Posted in Down in Chinatown, Translations at 8:32 pm by Benjamin Ross

During a routine walk through Chinatown today, I noticed that (like most neighborhoods in Chicago these days) the streetscape was blanketed with Barack Obama signage.  Chinese Americans are not usually viewed as a critical voting bloc, but apparently the Obama camp thought they were significant enough to put out this poster.

Barack Obama Poster in Chinese

It reads:

Please cast a vote for Obama
Strong Reforms
Lower taxes, more benefits
Whole-heartedly save the economy

Regardless whether or not Barry O. can garner the Chinese vote, his hold on the state of Illinois is a formidable force not to be reckoned with.  My own guess is that the sign is not targeted at Chinese American voters, but rather at “regular” Americans, as if to say “Look, Obama is multi-cultural.  He even attracts the Chinese.”  As for me, the sign had no effect.  I sent in my ballot last week.

伟大的导师,伟大的统帅  伟大的领袖, 伟大的舵手

奥巴马万岁,万岁, 万万岁!

*Midwesterner in the Middle Kingdom does not give explicit endorsements to any candidate or political party.  However, you are encouraged to give deep, thoughtful consideration to any candidate who may have a mother from Kansas.



A Chinatown in Japan

Posted in Down in Chinatown, Immigration, Japan, Travel Log (Asia) at 1:02 am by Benjamin Ross

Note:   I am now back in the US, and have been taking a little hiatus from blogging while I catch up on time, sleep, and Mexican food.  I will be in Chicago for the foreseeable future, and the blog should be back up to speed this week.

Japan is home to one of the world’s largest overseas Chinese communities, and the Tokyo Chinatown is a major attraction that I missed in my first round to Japan in 2007.  For me, Tokyo’s Chinatown bears a special significance.  I spent my first fifteen months in the Middle Kingdom living in Fuqing, a small town in Fujian.  Like most small towns in Fujian, Fuqing’s primary export is people, mainly in the form of commissary staff.  For many small towns in Fujian, they have corresponding locations abroad where its residents sneak over to, and then in turn help their friends and relatives make the journey.  Whether by arranged marriage, fraudulent passport, transit via shipping container, or in the rare instances with legitimate credentials, the Fujianese have spread themselves further across the globe than any other Chinese demographic.  Once abroad, the typical program is to find a job in a Chinese restaurant, work 70-80 hours a week for an interlude of 5-10 years, and then head back to Fujian with a veritable pile of money.  Even within Fujian, the residents of Fuqing are known for their prowess in sneaking across borders.  As for their destination, Tokyo is number one.

Where specifically do all of Fuqing’s emigrants end up?  A trip to Tokyo’s Chinatown was in order.  For starters, it’s actually a misnomer to say “Tokyo Chinatown,” as the Chinatown is technically located in Yokohama, a separate city which has now been completely engulfed by the Tokyo megalopolis.  On my second day in Japan, I made the 25 minute pilgrimage from Tokyo to Yokohama, in search of anything Chinese.

Like most Chinatowns, the entrance to Yokohama’s Chinatown is marked off by a large 牌坊 (pai2 fang1)*, with the characters 中华街 (zhong1 hua2 jie1), one of the various translations of “Chinatown,” written on it.  Behind the gate is a tangled web of streets and alleys, swamped by mobs of people.  The streets are jammed with stores selling Chinese spices and trinkets, restaurants with names such as “Shanxi Family Chinese Restaurant,” and street vendors galore.  By far, the most common items were smoked chestnuts (板栗) and baozi (包子).

But what was different about this Chinatown were the linguistic sounds emanating from the streets.  The racket of a typical Chinatown is usually dominated by the hyper-tonal sounds of Cantonese, the glottal emanations of various Fujian dialects, and a competing amount of Mandarin, usually spoken with a rough southern accent.  In Yokohama’s Chinatown, all I heard was Japanese.  In fact, it took me seven minutes from the time I walked through the 牌坊 until I first heard any spoken Chinese, during which time I had easily passed several hundred individuals.

If I had to give an estimate, I would say that on any corner of Chinatown, 90% of the people are Japanese, and that’s being conservative.  Like many famous “ethnic areas” in the US, Yokohama’s Chinatown seems to have long expired as an ethnic enclave, and is now merely a destination for Japanese tourists.  Although many of the businesses are still run by Chinese owners, their clientele are primarily Japanese.  The young wait staff can be seen outside storefronts yelling their sales pitches in fluent, but heavily Chinese accented, Japanese.  Even the “Chinese food”  (see picture below), looked and smelled Japanese.  I couldn’t help but conjure images of Homer Simpson eating at Americatown during his own visit to Japan.

So what has happened to the Chinese community in Tokyo?  My best guess (and I would love some feedback from those with more knowledge of the situation) is that as cost of living has risen in Yokohama, the Chinese community has dispersed to other parts of Tokyo.  During my previous visit to Japan, I had been eating Yakitori with a Japanese-speaking American friend in an old neighborhood in Tokyo when it came up that our waitress was Chinese.  She had been from Changle (a neighboring town of Fuqing), and told me that all of the store owners on that particular street were from Fuqing.  In another instance, on my way to Narita airport, I stopped to explore the area near Nippori Station.  While wandering through one of Tokyo’s more neglected neighborhoods, I was startled by an old woman on the street yelling “国际电话卡,”  (Get your international phone cards!)  As I meandered through the run down neighborhood, I encountered a disproportionate number of Chinese restaurants, and even a 刀削面馆 (cut noodle restaurant).  And if that weren’t enough, on my first evening out in Ikebukuro with the same American friend, we were repeatedly solicited services by Chinese hookers standing on street corners.  (I wonder if I could have worked a discount by speaking to them in their native language?)

So as it stands, Tokyo seems to still be a hotbed of Chinese activity.  It’s just no longer confined to a single Chinatown.  If I had more than three days, I probably would have dug deeper into the Japanese-Chinese community, but ultimately I was too distracted by people watching, conveyor-belt sushi, and all of the other stimuli which come with spending three days a city where you constantly feel as if you are inside of a cartoon.  Bottom line, if you’re going to Tokyo and interested in overseas Chinese communities, you might want to take Chinatown off of your must-see list.  Below are some pics from my afternoon in Yokohama.

*I honestly have no idea what you would call a 牌坊 in English.  Maybe “big overhead Chinatown gate thingy,” but that’s my best shot.

Yokohama River
Yokohama has less of an urban feel to it than Tokyo…which now that I think of it, that probably applies to just about every other inch of space in the world, save for possibly Manhattan.
Yokohama Chinatown
This is the entrance to Chinatown with the 牌坊.  The characters read 中华街, (zhong1 hua2 jie1), one of the various Chinese words for “Chinatown.
Japanese Chinatown
This shot probably could have come from just about any other Chinatown in the world.
Tokyo Chinatown
However, I must admit, Yokohama’s Chinatown probably has the  cleanest streets of any Chinatown I have been to.
Chinese food in Japan
Like most Chinatowns around the world, the primary reason non-Chinese go there is to eat.  The picture above showcases the typical fare of most Chinese restaurants in Tokyo.  Usually there is 麻婆豆腐 (ma2 po2 dou4 fu2, spicy Sichuan tofu), some variation of beef with green peppers, and everything else is about as Chinese sashimi and a ham sandwich.
Chinese steamed buns baozi
As is also the case in the non-Chinese parts of Tokyo, baozi are the big rage in Yokohama.  A friend of mine who had been living in Japan for six years describes Chinatown as “basically a feeding ground for Japanese people to eat baozi.”
All in all, I knew I couldn’t make it two trips to Tokyo without a single visit to Chinatown, but it certainly was not a highlight of my trip.  I am quite sure Homer’s experience at Americatown was infinitely more cultural than mine in this assumed hotbed of Chinese activity.  But hey, they got great baozi, so how much can I really complain?



我爱中国肠粉…Chinese Funn Rolls!

Posted in Down in Chinatown, Food and Drink at 11:50 am by Benjamin Ross

It’s 10:30 AM. You’re in Chinatown (or Guangzhou for that matter). It’s too late for breakfast, but you’re not quite hungry enough for lunch. You want a little Chinese snack, but don’t want to throw down the cash for a full meal. Enter chang fen (肠粉). I still have no idea how I managed to live in China for 3.5 years, only to finally discover this little snack in Chinatown here in Chicago.

Chinese funn roll changfen
Chang fen, served with scallions and doused in homemade soy sauce

Literally, chang fen means “intestine powder,” with the “powder” in this case referring to granulated rice. The most common English translation is “funn roll.” The ‘fun’ comes from the Cantonese pronunciation of 饭, with the extra ‘n’ to alleviate the potential hilarity of having an item called “fun roll” on the menu.*

The concept of chang fen is similar to that of old-style sausages, only instead of pig intestines, the encasing is made out of rice. The inside can contain a multitude of goodies, however the most common are beef (牛肠niu2 chang2) and shrimp 虾肠 (xia1 chang2).

Chang fen originate from Guangdong, and are frequently found rolling through restaurant dining rooms on dim sum carts. They are often served with a dash of scallions and/or soy sauce on the side.

If you are in Chicago, tasty chang fen are served at the Sunlight Café (227 W. Cermak, in Chinatown), for $1.60. This includes 6 chang fen, and can practically constitute an entire meal, if you aren’t exceedingly hungry. They also have excellent homemade soy sauce. The employees behind the counter don’t speak much English, so if you don’t speak any Mandarin or Cantonese, expect to do a lot of pointing and hand motions. When you go, be sure to tell them that the six-foot Chinese-speaking white guy from Kansas sent you.

By the way, if anybody knows any good places in Beijing to get chang fen, let me know. I’ll be staying near 北三环.



The Chinese Siesta

Posted in Culture Clash, Down in Chinatown at 11:30 am by Benjamin Ross

There’s a little market called The Mayflower in Chicago’s Chinatown where I frequent about once a week to pick up Chinese cooking supplies and snacks which I can’t find at the big Jewel-Osco mega-grocery store near my house. Chinatown has several of these markets and so far I have found that there are few food products (with the exception of seasonal fruits) which I could buy in Fuzhou, but cannot find here in Chinatown.

The Mayflower, like most shops in Chinatown, jams an exorbitant amount of product into a comparatively undersized storefront. This results in crowded aisles, long check-out lines, and a somewhat stressful shopping experience. I frequently find myself inadvertently bumped into by other customers, as I’m sure I do to others as well, and scooting side to side to let other shoppers squeeze by.

Yesterday I went to The Mayflower to pick up some fresh bamboo and a few cooking supplies, and to my surprise, the store was almost entirely empty. I carelessly strolled through the wide-open aisles without dodging other customers, found my items, and made it to the check-out counter in about half the time it would usually require. Something seemed odd…that is until I glanced down at my cell phone to check the time—it was 12:20 PM.

Beijing delivery driver asleep xiuxi
Sites like this, a Beijing delivery driver taking a nap in the bed of his bicycle, are not uncommon around noontime in the Middle Kingdom.

The idea of an afternoon siesta, or 休息 (xiu1 xi1) is deeply entrenched into the Chinese lifestyle. While the exact times vary based on region and season, business in China typically shuts down around 11:00 or 11:30 and picks back up at about 1:30 or 2. The interim is used both as a lunch break and a nap time. During the mid-afternoon in China, it is not uncommon to see taxi drivers asleep in their cabs, shopkeepers dozing behind the counter, and construction workers playing cards or taking naps on bamboo mats. School children often return home to get fed and take a rest before returning to class, and office workers often do the same. As a general rule, it is also somewhat rude to call or visit someone at this time, as it is likely they are sleeping.

During my first year in China when I was living in Fuqing I found myself sinking into these same Chinese sleeping patterns. All of the teachers and students at my university would take a nap from 12:00 to 1:30, and there was nothing for me to do but take a nap as well. However, before long I found an even better use for my xiu xi time—going shopping and running errands!

Because much of China is asleep at this hour, it the ideal time slot to buy groceries, make a transaction at the bank, go shopping, or do anything other activity which would normally subject oneself to the ubiquitous masses of people which crowd the Middle Kingdom. Before long, I found myself consolidating all of my shopping to the time between 12 and 2 and found both the time and aggravation I was saving myself to be well worth it.

Here in Chicago’s Chinatown, Chinese and American cultures mix, and often result in a hybrid form of Sino-Americanization. While many American customs are adopted by the Chinese in the Windy City, there is also much which remains culturally Chinese, and the xiu xi is one of them. For me, at least I now know that early afternoon is the time to do my Chinese grocery shopping in Chicago too.



Chinatown “L” Station Back Up and Running

Posted in Down in Chinatown at 12:45 pm by Benjamin Ross

Yesterday I was in Chinatown and got a first-hand look at the site of Friday’s crash. The Cermak-Chinatown station is now back up and running, the only difference being that passengers now must use the escalator on the south side of the street until the one on the north side reopens. I arrived in Chinatown via the station, and transportation appears to be functioning as normal. Score 2 points for the CTA for resolving the situation so quickly, or as Xinhua might put it “restoring social order.”

CTA Red Line cermak-chinatown station
Exiting the train at Cermak-Chinatown, the escalators on the north side of Cermak remain closed until repairs can be completed.
cermak-chinatown train station
a view of the station from below, looking north
Somebody was kind enough (CTA possibly?) to put up an explanation of the situation in Chinese.
Dan Ryan exit ramp cermak
This is the intersection (looking south) where the accident occurred. It was from this exit ramp, straight ahead, where the semi that plowed into the station originated. More often than not, there is a homeless man in a wheelchair who haphazardly weaves through the intersection begging money from stopped cars. Part of me wonders a) if he was there on Friday and b) whether or not he had anything to do with the crash.
chicago chinatown train station
another view of the station looking east…this whole area between the escalator and Cermak (where the people are standing) was still roped off by police as of Sunday night.



Semi Crashes into Chinatown Rapid Transit Station

Posted in Announcements, Down in Chinatown at 12:16 am by Benjamin Ross

Chicago’s Chinatown is making national news, but unfortunately it is because of a deadly incident which occurred Friday during which a semi-truck crashed into a the Cermak-Chinatown “L” station. 2 people were killed and 22 were injured, when the semi plowed into the escalator leading up to the train platform. This is the station I use several times a week en route to Chinatown, and I had actually been on the platform just hours before the accident. I’ve always found the intersection to be a particularly dangerous one, especially due to the proximity of vehicles exiting the Dan Ryan Expressway, but never imagined an accident of such magnitude. Service at the station, part of the CTA Red Line, the main north-south artery for Chicago rapid transit, reopened Saturday morning.

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