I remember peering down at 3 am from a loft party on Beach street in Boston’s Chinatown in the late 90s. Eyes gazed onto a sudden onset of hookers, dead of winter, fur coats scrupulously flashing bikini-clad bodies to passing cars in sub-zero temperatures.They’d cruise around the block, only to return within minutes and repeat as I watched in awe from my friend’s third story, dilapidated loft.
My childhood was riddled with stories of the combat zone. You just didn’t go there. And if you did and were brave enough to survive, you took on a hero-like quality. Mythos and reality stories of organized crime whispered to a hush amongst my Chinese friends. You just didn’t talk about it. Maybe Michael Bay will talk about it, but we didn’t. 1
Fast forward, I am ordering hot pot with a friend. The neighborhood is bustling with activity and our photo walk is over so we’re ready to eat. You can’t really eat better than Chinatown. I’ve tried. It’s not possible. I’ve always considered myself an adventurous eater, like squid and octopus-adventurous, but my friend has lived in Korea so were eating all kinds of stuff I’ve never braved: fish paste, fish balls, pork sausage that looks like cocktail wieners and beef tongue (I had to pass on that one). My herbal broth (I always get spicy but I’m on an adventure) smells like eucalyptus. I’m not sure if I want to eat it or rub it on my neck. All I know is the city feels electric and this act of eating has become a social triathlon. This is no twenty minute power lunch. This is about to be a three hour double feature of flavors and power confessions.
“I can eat a lot, my friend says–I’m just warning you.” I don’t think she realizes who she’s talking to. This is about to get competitive. “What is that, I ask–pointing my chopstick to a tiny white pouch.” “I dunno, she says, I’ll tell you after I eat it.” I’m impressed and entertained all at once. Is she like the John Coltrane of Hot Pot? It is ON now as I toss the white lump into the steaming hot broth. Our chopsticks grab and steam for the next several hours as we chatter about every topic under the sun.
I peer out the window and a large group of men in suits are jumping out of fancy, livery cars at “Centerfolds”, one of the last remaining strip clubs in Chinatown. Next door, a concrete, concierged building is sitting tall and gentrified. 4000-a-month-gentrified. Strange days, indeed.
An older man with a cane saunters with a smile toward the Chinese checker tables near the Chinatown gate with a large cup of tea in hand. My favorite tuī ná/massage spot is on Hudson Street. The owner has been massaging people for over 30 years. Serious chi, man. Murals and street vendors and markets where I buy dried enoki and ultra balm are still going, but it’s becoming almost impossible. Relics of a culture bred on strength and heritage abound, but you can feel the force of its people waning as they’re being forcibly shoved out.
We finish eating. A professer-type has struck up a conversation about his food with a young, Asian man. The man is explaining the professor’s food to him. It’s bar seating, so it’s not unusual to strike up a random conversation with a stranger while you eat.
We slowly exit onto the street. I say slowly because my stomach is full of herbal broth. All the goods swishing around in there. I feel amazing. A rat runs in front of us. A woman sips bubble tea and giggles with her friend in Mandarin. A group of drunk college kids are texting and blowing cigarette smoke in each other’s faces. A man in a surgical mask dons a big knife in the back of a restaurant with caged chickens. Life emanates from different tongues, beautiful lights flash in our faces, impatient drivers honk their horns and my mind feels completely clear and alive.
“You know the secret prostitute beep, right? my friend says in an educational tone.
“No, but I know the secret ‘truck-driver knock,’ I report back with feigned concern. Laughter ensues.
Beautiful generations of Chinese immigrants who call this little section of the city their home are out and about amidst French bankers stocking up West Elm in high rise apartments. A WayFair delivery truck barely squeezes down Hudson Street. Many of the Chinese who’ve called this place home have gone back to China. Some have remained in spite of very uncertain futures.
Cold tea and back door joints are now being replaced with upscale restaurants.
I tell my friend how I used to get Bubble Tea in this little Vietnamese place in Lawerence, Mass. It wasn’t even really called “Bubble Tea” back then. It was just a drink and you ordered it and it was delicious. Now it’s like wildfire. I’m pretty sure you can get it at Starbucks now.
We pass by swanky, dumpling houses at full occupancy. Down side streets, fish and crabs flap around in cramped terrariums in tiny windows.
My friend and I have lively conversation about cockroaches, a fitting post-dinner conversation as we’ve both apparently had our fair share of cockroach experiences.
We are just ourselves in a moment in time, shadows on these beautiful streets adorned in bright lights.
A part of my soul will always feel at home here along with fond memories of vague, drunken nights full of spoken word, unrequited love and laughter, reading poetry in a ratty loft space when rent control was still around and the skyline hadn’t yet shifted.
You can see more of my black and white photos here: