(Photos from old family albums dating back to 1980s)
The first time I’d been back to Philly Chinatown in an entire year was on a Saturday about a month ago to have tea with a friend. In the car with my father bumping slowly down 10th Street to avoid sudden street-crossers, I peer out the open window at the sights that have always been quite normal for me: 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 disappears into a pastry store to buy discounted buns.
My parents, my sister, and I used to live in an old apartment in Chinatown up until I was five, when we moved into a bigger house up in the Northeast. But even after that, I continued going to Holy Redeemer School at the corner of 10th and Vine. So Chinatown has been the backdrop for most of my childhood life, a place that, even with its rank fishy smell and its tendency to be a bit insular, has always been a little homecoming oasis in the middle of the city.
When I’m back in my old neighborhood, I always notice the changes, or at least the relatively new — the old-fashioned Chinese-style street lights the city has installed, posh bubble tea places I have never seen, a new ramen noodle bar that makes it way onto the must-try list. And after making a mental note of it, I begin to try to remember what those places used to be before now. Probably a different noodle bar, or one of the dozens of restaurants in Chinatown that have made their way into the rise and fall of businesses here.
But the most interesting places are the ones that haven’t changed in years, even decades. Like that place called Tuck Hing on the corner of 10th and Spring where every day after school, I’d go in to buy packets of Sprees or Sweet Tarts or Cheese Curls for 25 cents, and the old lady would ring me up with an abacus. It was the same place my dad would send me off with 60 cents to buy the daily paper, or where my mom went to buy boxes of freshly made, freshly cut rice noodles. Miraculously, it’s still in business and still selling the same stuff, with the same refrigerator showcasing frozen popsicles.
And the stores that smell of ointment or medicinal herbs where you can buy random knick-knacks, stationary, bamboo plants, or the old place where they’d spoon delicious tofu curd from a huge metal vat and sell it to you in a plastic container for a dollar. I even briefly pass by my old school, admiring the refurbished parish house and glimpsing the old swings we used to wait in line for during recess, in which, if you went high enough, you could almost touch your toes to the old gingko tree.
I get dropped off at the Wawa and I slowly make my way down Arch towards the Chinatown gates. It’s the famed postcard intersection. This is probably what the neighborhood looked like even when we used to live here, perhaps just not as gritty; our old photographs always show this gateway amidst the clamor of New Year’s celebrations and the lettuce-eating lions, me touting balloons and a devilish grin, people in traditional dress holding up signs with Chinese characters.
On this Saturday, the old traditional clothing has gone and the streets are full of families who speak English 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, late-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, suddenly abashed with my old tongue. But the pastry lady, probably unlike ten years ago, understands perfectly, and I even request some napkins.
Walking down the sunlit side of Race Street, I pass by the old laundromat, that place which used to be like a magic portal (and probably still is) to the other side where the courtyard houses lie, and the grocery store, the site of those longed-for belly button cookies mom used to buy me. Ocean Harbor, one of the most popular weekend tea places in Chinatown, is already warming to the morning crowd, and as I step inside, the manager unceremoniously charges over with his usual cut-to-the-chase line: “How many?”
At tea, everything is just as it always was. We sip on hot chrysanthemum tea, watch as the women push carts by full of greasy dim sum, dumplings, noodle dishes, fried squid. Families are gathered, a line sprouts out the door as 11 o’clock nears, and the women keep pushing their steaming carts by our table, inquiring with somber faces if we want something from their cart, meandering away to the other tables. 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 that envelops Chinatown on the weekend.
They say that I was awful at Cantonese when I was very little. Not that it has improved drastically over the last twenty years. I had bad intonation and limited vocabulary and spoke to my sister only in English. This, also, hasn’t changed.
Having an older sister is useful in discovering memories of yourself you never had and which your parents have already forgotten. Anecdotes of fevers, whining, fears of monsters at the window… All of the following is remembered by my sister.
When I was one, the two bones in my left arm were broken, my parents were told, while crawling around (very vigorously?). Social workers came to our house to investigate and to see if the cause was child abuse. My parents had to temporarily replace the padded mahjong table and chairs they were using as my make-shift crib with a real crib they had to borrow from my aunt.
I don´t think anybody really found out what had happened exactly. My sister told me that I would stay at my aunt’s house during the day at that age; she was unofficially the Chinatown babysitter because she didn’t work.
My aunt also babysat a pair of cousins, a boy and a girl. They spoke mandarin. My time spent there resulted in me babbling phrases in perfect mandarin at home, one of which I frequently mimicked was: “Bu yao da mei mei.”
My sister remembered asking my mother, “What is she saying?”
“Don’t hit your little sister.” Probably something my aunt used to repeat to the mandarin-speaking boy. Perhaps that had something to do with my broken arm, who knows really? The resurfacing of these little bits of information after the course of the years is like finding gold. Perspectives change. Memories alter, adding pieces of you to yourself.