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Feb 12, 2002 11:29 AM

L.A. Times Article on N.Y. Chinatown

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i know i should post this on the General Topics board, but i realize that this board gets the traffic...


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  1. Sorry to say this, especially since I am someone who desperately misses the old New York, and am one of an admittedly very small minority who believes the Disney-fication of NYC under the Giuliani reign of terror has done far, far more damage to my beloved city than all the cave-dwelling cowards in the world combined, but if Chinatown as we know it goes collectively belly-up, no big loss, and in many ways, the business owners there have no one to blame but themselves.

    I and many, many others have had horrible experiences there since (and, for that matter, prior to) the 9/11 attacks. (Yes, I know the Funky Broome and New Green Bo groupies will hate me.) The fact is that the neighborhood is filthy--not in the gritty or edgy way Hell's Kitchen or Alphabet City used to be--just plain filthy and malodorous. Shopkeepers are rarely welcoming (this is not a post-9/11 phenomenon) and more often than not restaurant staff are downright nasty. Plainly spoken, a trip to Chinatown is way too often--much more so than any other NYC neighborhood I know of (and I know A LOT of them--a trip that ends in one asking oneself "why did I come back here? It was even worse than last time!"

    Many other areas were hit as hard by 9/11. If you walk into the chicest or snootiest restaurant in TriBeCa, for example, most of the time (not ALL---no where is perfect) these days you will be treated at least as a valued customer if not royalty. If you go into many, many, many restaurants or shops in Chinatown, too frequently you will be treated like an unsuspecting victim. And I don't want to hear anything about that being typical of tourist traps--if you go into most tourist traps in ethnic areas, even shitholes like Sylvia's in Harlem or Empire Korean in Koreatown, at least you'll be treated pleasantly. And even the crap they serve at Sylvia's is better than what many of us have encountered at restaurants in Chinatown.

    Sorry, but I have to say that I am shocked that so many (maybe not all) Chinatown businesses feel they can act as though they don't need the customers, and then bitch and moan about not having any.

    Seth Ruffer

    20 Replies
    1. re: Seth Ruffer

      Chinatown has always been a different experience than other neighborhoods in the city. Yes, it is more crowded and smellier - because of the tight streets. intense commerce and crowds, the trash piles up more than elsewhere, and food trash is smelly. But I dont see it as having changed for the worse since 9/11 and we have been going to Chinatown with pleasure for many years now. Some people will never like it and need more creature comforts. For every experience with uncivil uncaring restaurant staff (and Ive had some there) we have had many experiences with kind and well-intentioned servers.

      The article did not even mention the impact of the rerouting of the D and B trains which has also had a major effect on NY Chinatown and its accessibility.

      Foot traffic in Chinatown has been noticeably picking up over the last several months, and at least on Saturday night there are lines in front of many restaurants. Even the tourists are starting to come back. I'm rooting for this community to stay vital and alive and a resource for all of us.

      ps. Had a tasty $15 (for two) dinner at the Excellent Pork Chop House on Doyers last saturday night. Styrofoam plates, narrow selection, good at what they did. A couple weeks earlier enjoyed a meal at Oriental Pearl (maybe a new name) right across the street from Harmony Palace, which seems to have renovated and come back into good form. Especially nice braised fish, and compliments to them for listing a large number of good vegetable choices and other unusual items on their menu! If you want to see a chinese wedding party, they seem to specialize in small ones which dont take up the whole place and add to the fun of a night out.

      1. re: jen kalb

        Over the last few weeks I've been doing my part to help Chinatown come back. Joe's Shanghai is noticeably emptier (and friendlier!) than the old days. New Green Bo is always friendly. I tried out Goody's, wasn't bowled over by the food, but the service was plenty friendly. The people that run the Thai grocery store on Mosco are super-nice, outgoing and helpful, as are the proprietors of the antique shop across the street. Sure, some places, like the 20 Mott dim sum house (don't know the name), still aim to displease, but overall I have to disagree with you.

        1. re: Peter Cuce

          agreed on the narrow, the dirty, the smelly--and that's why i like it. it's one of the few neighborhoods south of 125th St. that looks and feels like a neighborhood and not just more of the rest of manhattan.

          1. re: jasmurph

            The point of the L.A. Times article is that the essence of Chinatown is that it's life blood is not tourists, but workers. That's what's killing it right now. September 11th closed down the industry in downtown NY. Seth, the waiters and restaurants are not just there for the you, the tourist, but for the workers. Who do you think eats the $3.50 lunches, the wonderful noodle soups and duck on rice. We chowhounds benefit from the immigrant workers who live on this food.

            And if you resent the treatment by waiters, shop owners etc..... hey this country and city were built by immigrants. Chinatown waiters, cooks etc. are immigrants, excuse me if they don't yet know all of our customs, niceties etc.

            I vividly remember going to Jewish restaurants with my immigrant about nasty waiters, those waiters leave today's nasties in the dust!

            The tragedy of the Giuliani era is that NYC is no longer a place where working people can live. The NOLITA's etc., are replacing the true working class immigrant neighborhoods. I think Seth, when you said ,"... but if Chinatown as we know it goes collectively belly-up, no big loss, and in many ways, the business owners there have no one to blame but themselves..." you really didn't understand the implications...we are after all talking about people's lives, not just restaurants for us. Once lost...we will all never be the same.

            1. re: Linda

              After reading through all the posts in this thread it really seems to me a case of half-empty, half-full. My wife and I love Chinatown. We go as often as we can, especially after 9/11 and despite the best efforts of traffic cops to make driving through the area an impossibility. (We are from Jersey and mass-transit is not a realistic possibilty.) We've had shakey experiences in Chinatown -- but we've had those all over town. We've also had transcendent experiences as well. We'd be more than happy to continue taking our chances, confident that we'll be thrilled far more often than disgusted or mistreated.
              It seems popular to blame Guiliani for attempting to turn New York into a disney-type theme park. To be honest, I see this same trend elsewhere. I think, personally, it's yuppies (the same people driving others crazy with their efforts to child-proof the world) that are trying to replace what is, with what they believe should be. But enough of that.
              I'm saddened when I read and see signs that Chinatown's days may be numbered. I know that nothing lasts for ever. But before that happens, my wife and I are trying to plan out (at least in our imaginations) the perfect Chinatown dinner. Like for starters, the tendon with wild pepper sauce at the downtown Grand Sichuan, the #1 soup dumplings at Goodys (which we think have a sharper flavor that at NGB), the giant oysters at East Broadway Pings .. etc. Don't want to boor anyone with full menu, and of course, there's no accounting for taste. But we do really plan one, before it all goes away (or we do), to create a feast, sort of our 'best of chinatown' that will probably take all day to consume shuttling from restaurant to restaurant, trying to figure out how we make room for every dish we love. I'm sure this isn't an original idea, but we have fun planning it.

              1. re: Linda

                I actually planned just to leave this thread, but then I read Linda's post, and, sorry, I just...just....can't help myself. So, I have to respond, bit-by-bit.

                "September 11th closed down the industry in downtown NY. Seth, the waiters and restaurants are not just there for the you, the tourist, but for the workers."

                Born/bred in Manhattan, currently living in NJ, working mid-town and in NYC at least 5 and usually 7 days/week, having been publisher of the now-defunct NY Unique online magazine, I don't consider myself a tourist, nor am I sure how what I wrote could lead anyone to that conclusion.

                "And if you resent the treatment by waiters, shop owners etc..... hey this country and city were built by immigrants. Chinatown waiters, cooks etc. are immigrants, excuse me if they don't yet know all of our customs, niceties etc."

                What rude/ineffiecient/inept service has to do with a city built by immigrants, I can only wonder. I spend a great deal of time in ethnic restaurants staffed by immigrants--but can only consistently (NOT exclusively--consistently) count on lousy experiences in Chinatown. Not a slam against Chinese--who own excellent restaurants and employ terrific staffs throughout the country. Further, I would say that Chinatown, as an ethnic neighborhhod, is probably older than many of its counterparts throughout the city...if any residents should understand a city's customs, it should be those whose elders have been here far longer than almost all other immigrants. I really don't think this is an immigrant/ethnic issue, however; I believe it has more to do with a group of business people believing that they have a constant flow of customers and therefore don't have to care.

                "I vividly remember going to Jewish restaurants with my immigrant about nasty waiters, those waiters leave today's nasties in the dust!"

                I do, too. Or how about the old matronly waitresses in the cheap German-influenced spots in Yorkville, etc. Those waiters/waitresses, however, were more often than not almost play-acting the gruff NYC stereotype, almost in the sense of giving a free show. Yeah, you'd have an ornery old waiter who, when you were on your way out and your parents weren't looking, would slip you a lollipop. They certainly wouldn't tell people who looked like tourists that the restaurant imposed gratuity charges, or take forever only to bring the wrong dishes and then take more than forever to bring the right ones or take three-quarter-eaten plates away, deciding that you're finished before you do, etc., etc., etc...and this stuff happens ALL THE TIME in Chinatown.

                "The tragedy of the Giuliani era is that NYC is no longer a place where working people can live."

                I agree--it's one of many tragedies, anyway.

                "I think Seth, when you said ,"... but if Chinatown as we know it goes collectively belly-up, no big loss, and in many ways, the business owners there have no one to blame but themselves..." you really didn't understand the implications...we are after all talking about people's lives, not just restaurants for us. Once lost...we will all never be the same."

                I'm confused--all I'm saying is that if you're in a situation where you're worried about going out of business, you don't, or shouldn't, treat your customers like dirt. If we're really talking about "people's lives" then I think "people" should provide a decent service for the money they charge.


                1. re: Seth Ruffer

                  Just a couple of minor philosophical points here, but no offense intended...

                  Very interesting distinction here between "rude-as-cute" and "just rude". Must say that I probably prefer the straight version, without the "playacting". I really find it hard to accept that someone is doing me a favor by appearing ruder than they actually are by fulfilling some stereotype I presumably treasure.

                  Given that you are not part of the Chinese culture, how do you know those waiters are not putting on a show of typical-but-so-endearing Chinese gruffness?

                  If you don't live in Chinatown and are not Chinese, you are a tourist there. If you don't live in Jackson Heights and go there to eat Indian food, you are a tourist. What's wrong with that? I'm a tourist in Chinatown too.

                  And the Guiliani era was one great tragedy, we must all agree. Oh how I miss those crack whores hanging out on my friend's block off the Atlantic Avenue stop... It was so quaint, so New York.

                  1. re: Katerina

                    I apologise in advance for a non-food comment, but I am sick and tired of the brain-dead crap dispensed as common wisdom on these boards about all the evil that guiliani did. I, for one, am very was upset I haven't had the opportunity in the past eight years to beat the crap out of another squeegee guy who went off his medication and decided to attack a companion. Hell, those were the good old days.

                    I'm sorry ..couldn't take it any longer

        2. re: Seth Ruffer

          I feel sorry for you. Ney, Pity.

          1. re: Josh

            Thanks for the concern, Josh--but I don't need your pity. I know lots of better Chinese/Asian restaurants throughout NYC/Metro region than you can find in Chinatown.

            And when I feel like traipsing through a filthy knot of unkempt streets and being mistreated and throwing away my money (which, by the way, I sometimes do feel like!) I know where to go for those times as well.


            1. re: Seth Ruffer

              Yo, Dudes--

              I just re-read my posts (I LOVE reading my own words!!!) and maybe I was a little harsh.

              It's just that I think that an unpleasant experience in Chinatown is at the very least as common as a pleasant one, and my feeling is that after 9/11, if the business owners there are so concerned about falling revenue, then maybe they ought to tell a large number of their workers to stop treating customers like dirt, and to do something about the state of the streets and sidewalks.

              We long-term New Yorkers ALL have fond memories of Chinatown--who's dad didn't take the family there on at least one Mother's Day? I can remember once when I was 6 or 7 being at some place with my family and this waiter demonstrated to my family how to eat snails...leaving none for us when he was finished with the demo! I remember my first job in Wall Street as an assistant on a trading desk (in the World Trade Center) and walking up on a Friday evening to Chinatown where for like $10.00 I could buy enough pork steam buns to keep me and my roommate from starving over the weekend while we spent all the rest of our money on booze and booze/sex-related activities (had lots more booze than sex, actually.)

              So when my wife and I, who spend lots and lots of money and time enjoing and supporting NYC, get ripped off in Chinatown, and when I hear of the same thing happening to lots of others, it pisses me off. And then when I hear of business owners complaining about declining cash flow, I lose patience.

              Anyway, I guess I've made my point. I think I'd better get back to work now, before I'm asked to leave the chowhound boards and/or have to look for another trader's assistant job!

              Seth Ruffer

              1. re: Seth Ruffer

                forgive me for dropping in randomly on the thread...I've read it through rapidly, am having a particularly busy day, and just sort of threw a dart on a random posting to chime in on (so I'm NOT directing this specifically to you, Seth).

                I'm not sure what we're talking about.

                We're here because we like really good food and dislike really bad food. Chinatown, like most neighborhoods, has plenty of the latter and some of the former. Assessing the overall "quality" of a neighborhood makes no sense. Suburban chain-choked sprawly areas are Shangri-La if someone opens an amazing pie store therein. A vacant lot is The Promised Land if a rib shack opens thereon. This site is about about finding the good places, the stand-outs, hold-outs, and exceptions...with disregard for prevalent ANYTHING.

                A place is dirty or has nasty staff? It's just another of the ninety gajillion places to ignore. There is treasure to be found...who focuses on the crap? Focus on the crap and you're dead. Focus on the treasure and life can be a delicious adventure. I opened this site to provide a forum for treasure-hunters.

                Unless you've tried a great many places (not just the obvious Zagat ones) in a neighborhood, it's absurd to summarily dismiss it. Damning classes of things via cliche and conventional wisdom is inane and dull. Statements which boil down to "Chinatown sucks" are inane and dull. Guess what? EVERYTHING sucks. Or at least 95% of everything. We're here not to joust re: blanket smears, we're here to ferret out exceptions, delicious exceptions. Exceptions are what make the lights go on. Exceptions float our boats. We are the passionate treasure hunters who find (and extol) that stuff.

                As for those who don't like nabes with unkempt streets, well, uh, that's just fine. My favorite color is chestnut brown and I like Robert Altman movies and old houses with wrap-around porches. If you find yourself getting drowsy reading that, it's because "sharing" on that level is dull and uninteresting. And off-topic. Who cares?

                If you prefer not to step over crates of cantaloupe peelings to discover something really good, that's cool by me, but I'm not sure why discussion of those crates would make interesting reading or pertain to the context of this site.


                1. re: Jim Leff

                  amen. one beef tho---if only we were all independently wealthy hardcore chowhounders, but most of us are not!

                  so the problem is that the total experience actually does matter. for example, DIFARA'S is way out there for many of us so time is a factor. or maybe i'll recommend a great find to you all, but don't expect me to take my mother there. since these things can limit business, it seems to me chowhounding is a pretty ephemeral proposition. my great find may not be there next month, or the quality may have slipped. i want to hear about it all, especially regarding chinatown.

                  oh and one more comment...merchants beware, if i slip on a cantalope peeling, i'm suing! ok, back to the chow.

                  1. re: Jim Leff

                    People, people, people...come on!!! Did I say anything bad about Chinatown??? I was kidding!!

                    Actually, Jim, your point is well-taken (though I will cling to the belief I've held since my early teens that it's more difficult to find decent service and decent food under the same roof in Chinatown than any area I know in NYC....not impossible...difficult.) And I'll still say that that should not happen during a time of extrme economic uncertainty.

                    And I know I should have left this string long, long ago, but probably part of the reason that I'm STILL in therapy is that I so enjoy responding to comments such as ones that insinuate you're a tourist every time you get to the next subway stop...

                    No, Katerina, I don't really miss the crack whores, but if it meant reversing the trend that left us with a Korean Grocer (or maybe it's a laundry mat) where Bradley's Jazz club used to be; a sports bar where the Lion Head used to be; a mother****** Banana Republic where Brentano's used to be; who-knows-what to take the place of the exiting Coliseum Books; and a million tourists (people from out of town who are not familiar with the terrain) checking their maps where the entrance to my subway station used to be, then I would heartily say bring back the HOs.


                    1. re: Jim Leff

                      Hear! Hear!
                      Finally some sense on this tangled thread.
                      Thanks Jim

              2. re: Seth Ruffer

                "more often than not restaurant staff are downright nasty"

                I find it odd that no one has questioned the comment that most restaurant staff in Chinatown restaurants are "downright nasty". I don't think I've ever received more disdain in my life than an unfortunate visit to Mercer Kitchen.

                Is everyone else being mistreated in Chinatown except for me? I find that hard to believe. I've yet to encounter this "nasty" serivce that everyone seems to take for granted. I would term the service as efficient, swift, and at times less than attentive. Sure, there are times when you have to spend a few minutes flagging down waitstaff to get a glass of water or an extra bowl of rice or two, but I've never caught anyone rolling their eyes or make long drawn out sighs of disgust.

                Granted the waitstaff is hardly as fawning as the waitstaff at Union Square Cafe or Gramercy Tavern, but nasty? Not once in 3 years. At Joe's Shanghai, they don't bat an eye when my friends and I place a single order of soup dumplings and then go somewhere else for lunch. At Ping's Seafood, I'm greeted with a smile and a handshake when I arrive and leave (I'm nothing but a poor medical student). At Funky Broome, they've become so accustomed to me ordering the fish with pork and sugar peas that they tease me about it. Think you'll get that at your "snootiest" TriBeCa hotspots? Methinks not.

                1. re: Porthos

                  I must agree, I don't think I've ever encountered a NASTY waitstaff in Chinatown. I've encountered people who occaisionally do not understand what I say -- I speak only english -- or acted that way. I've been hurried, though never had a half-finished plate snatched from me. I'll be honest, I consider the service in Chinatown professional and attentive and considerate when compared to some of the major attitudes I've encountered from boorish waitstaffs at much more expensive, trendy restaurants. You know, the people who offer an exhaustive ingredient list and methodology for each and every special; the ones who continually let you know, that while it's against their better judgement and inclination, they will condescend to serve your table. I find that act far more annoying than anything I've ever encountered in Chinatown.

                2. re: Seth Ruffer

                  I disagree with everything you said except one thing: Chinatown is truly filthy. It is not beyond my personal threshold for filth, and I probably eat and shop there twice a week or so (and it's on my semi-daily jogging route as well). But it is easy to see why people might avoid it for the filth, and I don't blame them.

                  The merchants in Chinatown pour their used kitchen liquids in the sewers (and miss), carelessly heave bags of kitchen garbage out on the street (they break), and unlike many merchants and restaurateurs seem to have NO collective pride in the cleanliness of the neighborhood. The produce vendors trim their vegetables and leave the scraps in heaps on the sidewalk and in the gutter. When was the last time you saw a Mott Street sidewalk being hosed down? Rats are evident in size and abundance.

                  I don't think it's cultural, because I was in China and found it much, much cleaner. The only rats I saw there were on the menu!

                  Chinatown is fine with me, but if the merchants there need/want to increase foot traffic, they ought to stop throwing their crap all over the streets. Maybe even put together a community-sponsored group to keep things clean, like on Wall Street and Times Square.

                  End of rant.

                  1. re: keith k

                    I agree completely. I lived there for a year, and have never seen a neighborhood that treats its streets more poorly than Chinatown does. I ended up rarely eating there, even though I lived in the middle of it, because I could not bear to subsidize businesses with such little care for the neighborhood. As far the wait staff, they may be brusque, but that's the way all Chinatown businesses seem to be. Compared with my experience living in an immigrant hispanic area (my previous neighborhood) Chinatown just doesn't seem as hospitable or welcoming.

                    1. re: Jason W.

                      readers of this thread may want to segue down to Not About Food where Dennison has written a thoughtful piece about Chinatown and its current travail.