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Mott Street in July

by Harley Spiller

Chinese Food in the USA

Winter Volume: 2005 Issue: 12(4) page(s): 7

On the afternoon of July 8th of this year, I witnessed the largest Chinatown crowd I have seen in my twenty-four years of explorations hard by the Manhattan Bridge. I would call this view 'a run on a bank.'

There were literally thousands of people, mostly elderly Chinese women, milling about the busy intersection of Canal Street and the Bowery. The fact that it was raining cats and dogs did not seem to matter. People shared umbrellas and chatted amiably. Nobody budged from their positions in eight different lines. Commerce Bank’s opening festivities continued the next day, a gorgeous summer Saturday, when there were an equal number of umbrellas being deployed, but this time used as parasols against the hot sun.

Commerce Bank had several hundred employees on hand. They sure knew how to create a rush, giving away zillions of free hot dogs, drinks and scoops of ice cream from sidewalk carts. A half-dozen rent-a-trucks were parked nearby, some outfitted with makeshift kitchens to keep the free food coming at a sizzling pace. Of course, there were also free dumplings. You could hear the cries of 'deem sum' from hawkers with a distinctly CSL (Chinese as a Second Language) accent. The steamed shrimp and pork packets were surprisingly hot, silky, and delicious. Gawkers, Chinese and others, some probable bank customers, enjoyed the western freebies, too, including ball park franks and soda.

One line stretched an entire city block north to Hester Street for the chance to open a new account or two and receive a Salton rice cooker, George Foreman grill or an electric tea kettle. One could also enter a raffle for a trip to Disney World. Or one could win the much-coveted safety deposit box with the number 888; clearly a Chinese lucky number, or get $888 in cash! Also on hand were paper fans, balloon artists, and even a Chinese opera character.

Hot for a pair of Commerce-imprinted chopsticks, I was directed downstairs to the safety deposit area where the heavy hitters were lining up to stash their cash and other treasures. A teller explained that Chinese people were anxious to have boxes with prophetic lucky numbers, and sure enough that Thursday’s New York Times had a long story on just that topic. Seems Commerce Bank was unaware of the Chinese penchant for strongboxes and in the end, they redesigned the entire building for a culture that prizes saving for rainy days.

Inside, the branch boasts an eight- by fourteen-foot photomural of a 1940 Chinatown street scene. The branch manager said there was a long meeting about the colorization of this old photo-postcard. It had to be re-colored because no one drove purple or yellow cars in that period.

This mural depicts crowded streets lined with restaurants like Gee Kong Chop Suey at 41 Pell Street with daily dinners for thirty cents; The Chinese Rathskeller a few doors down, featuring 'Cantonese epicurean delights – lunch 35 cents, dinner 85 cents' and The Rice Bowl touting 'Real Cantonese Food.' Also, one can discern signs for a jeweler, a leather shop, a delicatessen, 7-Up, and Western Union. A Chinese general store with gorgeous glass lanterns, Mon Fong Wo Co., purveyors of porcelain flower pots, and typical Chinese veggies including bok choy, gai lan, long beans, turnips, fuzzy melons, Napa cabbage and, what was probably bitter melon. Another sign advertises York Kitchen Supply at 129-131 Grand Street near Broadway; they were purveyors of wok ranges for restaurant kitchens.

I headed to the corner of Mott and Pell Streets to see how this gem really compared to the olden days. I spun into the intersection with a small poster of the photomural, turning and fumbling until I determined that the photograph was taken from high up in the steeple of the 1801 Church of the Transfiguration at 25 Mott Street. Some of the buildings, including 39 and 41 Mott Street still stand, but none of the businesses from the 1940's seem to remain. You can, however, see an old, scintillating, black-and-metallic sign at 30 Pell that says 'Canton.'

A kind shopkeeper at the northeast corner watched me taking photographs and volunteered that I was standing at one of the four original corners of New York’s 19th-century Chinatown. This historic location is still home to Hoy Sun Ning Yun, the Toisan Benevolent Association formed by the first Chinese in the United States. This chap has been at his gift shop at 36 Pell Street for more than twenty years, and once a year or so takes photographs to document changes in the neighborhood. The amateur historian maintains a collection of about a thousand Chinese menus and would have more if his wife had not discarded a bunch of them.

It was great to meet a fellow collector of Chinese menus. When asked about his motivation, he replied, "Menus are Chinese history." I wonder if he ever heard Lorenz Hart’s famous ditty "I’ll Take Manhattan," which goes "And tell me what street compares with Mott Street in July? Sweet push carts gently gliding by."
The author thanks Ms. Acevedo and Mr. Leung of Commerce Bank, and Andy at 36 Pell Street, which has very pretty green detailing on the upper floors. July must be a good month for Chinese menus because on the 31st, a group of volunteers will help me count my collection of thousands of Chinese menus in an effort to set a new Guinness World Record. Wish me luck. Also, allow me to advise that photographs with this article were taken by me, the most avid, I believe, of menu collectors!

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