chinatown

Before the break of dawn, the deep velvet of the night not yet tinged with the pink and gold of the day, downtown New York is already stirring. While shutters remain clamped like heavy-lidded sleepers, a different sort of pulse pervades the streets when night shift soldiers and early risers meet; and Chinatown has a rhythm all of its own.

Grand Street’s bakeries are the first to fill up. Inside Double Crispy Bakery, crowds gather around shelves stuffed with dumplings, buns, tarts and cakes. Over at Lucky King, neon lights illuminate the twilight of the street. The doors swing open every few moments as people brave out into the morning clutching brown paper bags full of warm pastries, the smell of freshly baked dough drifting in the air behind them.

The first hint of sunlight stretches over the skyline, the night softens and the city glows, golden in the half-light of the morning. On Canal Street, the traffic thickens and the city grunts to life. The energy here is different – the grey suits of the rush-hour commute replaced by delivery trucks, whistling and spurting between drop offs. Mothers and children on their way to school dart between the beeping of reversing vans and yellow flashing lights. The fishmonger preps his stand, moving and gliding his hands through the ice, ready for the morning delivery. Stacks of papers wait to tell the news of the day.

Nearby Columbus Park is a sanctuary of lush, leafy green amongst the concrete. Dappled sunlight falls through the trees as groups move and sway to tai chi in a morning meditation. Some pause on park benches for stolen solitude before the day begins. Weathered older gentlemen huddle around concrete chess tables, watching the game while shrouded in plumes of cigarette smoke; ladies play poker under pink parasols.

Come breakfast time, small groups fall into Cha Cha Tang for warming bowlfuls of congee porridge with pork, soft pineapple buns filled with fluffy “stir egg” and cups of hot, strong Hong Kong Tea.  Back out on Canal Street, the morning sun pours between sky-high buildings, casting long shadows down the avenues and market stalls spring to life. A street trader sets up shop on the pavement outside a Chinese medicine store, her crates of faux-leather wallets, sunglasses and hair bands, bartered side-by-side with herbal remedies and acupuncture.

On Broadway, food carts heave with brilliantly coloured fruit and veg; a kaleidoscope of giant peaches, dragon fruits and lychees. Then, a sudden juxtaposition. The vibrancy of Broadway meets an industrial edge; the service bays, dust and grey of Division Street. Beneath Manhattan Bridge, forklift trucks rattle by, bells clanging, wheels clattering. The rumble of trains over the bridge echoes and the ground shakes; lanterns red as dragon’s breath swing overhead.  The air changes – the comforting smell of bakeries and warm bowls of breakfast noodles gives way to something to else – notice the rubbish on the street, the puddles oozing, thick with mystery sludge. The smell is overpowering.

One more corner ventured and a change again. The air clears. The vivid colours of Mott Street – red-brick buildings, green fire escapes, yellow signs with red Chinese lettering, purple canopies – all in high contrast under the crisp light of day.

The fishmongers of Mott Street Market are now busy, customers clamouring over fresh prawns, brilliant blue crabs and giant shrimp. Restaurant windows lined with hanging peking duck signal that lunch is near. Swing on to Doyers Street passageway to Nom Wah Tea Parlour where, away from the bustle of the market, time seems to stand still.

By noon, as the sun reaches high into the sky, Chinatown is in full swing. The tourists are here, eager to explore the tastes and treasures. Restaurants buzz to action and the streets swarm with crowds, the quiet of the morning a long lost memory – a secret held only by those who seek it.

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