Twilight Hour: The Rhythm of Chinatown, New York

Twilight Hour: The Rhythm of Chinatown, New York

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
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.