Philadelphia Metropolis


My Chinatown

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By Mabel Lee

The first time I'd been back to Philly Chinatown in a year was on a Saturday a few weeks ago to have tea with a friend. In the car, with my father bumping slowly down 10th Street to avoid sudden street-crossers, I peered out the open window and took in the familiar sights: Chinese grandmothers aggressively doing their weekend shopping, the tofu woman selling an unsettling combination of bras, panties and Asian sweets, the backside of my mother as she happily disappeared into a pastry store to buy discounted buns.

My parents, my sister and I lived in an apartment in Chinatown until I was five, when we moved into a house in the Northeast. But even after that, I continued going to Holy Redeemer School at the corner of 10th and Vine Streets. So Chinatown was the backdrop for most of my childhood, a place that, even with its rank fishy smell and its tendency to be insular, continues to be my homecoming oasis in the middle of the city.

To me, Chinatown has always been the mapping ground for the fuzzy boundaries between my parents' generation and that of their own parents, and for the irreconcilable gap between those older generations and our own. It marks the differences between those traditions that have slowly died out for our parents during their life in America and the few ones that our generation has kept, consciously or unconsciously. 

The move to the Northeast signified for us a huge step toward what my parents, after fleeing China's Communist regime, envisioned life to be like in America: a house with three floors, a garage, a garden, a car, two children -- both daughters -- and simple pleasures. "The freedom to buy sugar, and as much as you want," my mom once marveled. My parents managed to save up half the payment on the house through restaurant jobs, dishwashing, sewing and ruthless savings plans during the years that we lived in that small Chinatown apartment.

For my parents, it definitely was a step toward becoming more assimilated, successful Chinese immigrants in America, ones who waved at their next-door neighbor, whose daughter they sent to piano lessons, whose garden bloomed every spring, whose new car they kept in the garage where the previous owners had left behind an enormous American flag. I don't think I ever saw that when I was younger. I wanted my parents to speak English, and I wanted them to take me to Disneyland.

On weekends and on special occasions, we'd leave the rather undefined and sprawling space that was the Northeast to go into Chinatown by car. There, in that four-block radius, we would eat, go grocery shopping, buy the newspaper, meet relatives, see the doctor or celebrate birthdays. There, we watched cousins get married and held funerals for grandparents. As I grew older and began exploring the outside world, and even went to live in other countries, what was normal for my parents and Chinatown became more peculiar for me as an American. Instead of trying to dissect it or judge it or become frustrated by it, I began to relish my singular background.

I was once embarrassed by my parents and bored by the weird banality I believed my childhood to be. Now I'm glad they never took us to Disneyland, so that my sister and I can take them one of these days and return the favor of bringing us up in a place so foreign to them. Every time I come back home, I begin to look forward to things that were once mundane, like having tea or watching Hong Kong telenovelas with my parents.

For me, it was a matter of assimilating, not to the America that my parents imagined or to the America that other friends had experienced growing up, but to that amalgam of America we know as Chinatown. It is a place that jumbles everything together like the tofu lady, yet still remains true to its roots, which aren't only ethnic. They draw water from the river running through my hometown, Philadelphia, from my parents' hometown, Guangzhou, from my childhood home on 11th Street, from our happiest memories, and from my grandmother's devotion to her grandchildren. 

Going back to Chinatown now means peering in on a place that, at the outset, looks as if it barely has changed since the old photographs in our albums. Now, having just turned 26, I wander the streets and overlay them with moments in places that have shaped the younger version of me: the shops that smell of ointment and medicinal herbs, the underground malls, the old Laundromat, the candy store where the owner used to ring you up with an abacus.

Now the streets are full of families and young people like me who are meeting their friends for tea. I am early, so I stop by K. C.'s Pastries to grab my mandatory morning coffee, iced for the warm, Indian summer weather. Before the illuminated glass display of cakes, buns and tarts, I order my coffee in English. I realize I have never ordered in English before; it's always usually in Cantonese. I am lazy getting back into my old skin, or perhaps I've already shed it. But unlike 10 years ago, the pastry lady understands perfectly.

At tea, everything is just as it always was, but I observe everything with a nostalgic yet appreciative eye, looking inside a revived memory from an older, more settled vantage point. We sip on hot chrysanthemum tea, watch as the women push carts  full of greasy dim sum, dumplings, noodle dishes, fried squid. The conversation and sound of chopsticks hitting the plates rise to a comfortable din within the restaurant, and my friends and I relish our peaceful round-table camaraderie amidst the hearty raucous sounds that envelops Chinatown on the weekend. I am home again.


Chinatown illustration by Bill Cannon

Available at FineArt America.

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