Why Does Chinatown Smell So Bad?
This is the question of the hour, every hour, as in twenty-four hours out of each day that I live in Chinatown. Of course, it’s no secret that Chinatown stinks. I accept that the sickly-sweet smell of rotting garbage is a part of the neighborhood’s rustic charm. But that doesn’t mean I don’t complain about it.
My morning commute begins something like this: I take the elevator downstairs, draw a deep breath in the entryway (in spite of the fact that it smells of stale cigarette smoke), and then step bravely out onto the street, holding my breath all the way to the intersection where the passing cars whisk in fresh air. Sometimes I fan the invisible fumes with my hand uselessly, thinking to myself, “好臭!”
The summer heat only makes the stench worse by baking in the foul odor. Case in point, one broiling afternoon, which also happened to be on a trash day, I made the mistake of taking a stroll down East Broadway; it was the longest two blocks of my life and, in between gasps for air, I seriously felt like vomiting. I have avoided that street for the last three months.
Granted, I do have a sensitive nose, still I’m not alone in my opinion. A simple Google search shows that this question is on more than a few people’s minds.
So, why exactly does Chinatown smell so bad? One friend gave me some historical perspective that proved illuminating, if not altogether comical. Canal Street, before it was a major thoroughfare, was an actual canal used in the early 1800s to funnel contaminated water, sewage, and other refuse out to the Hudson River. I can only imagine what an open sewer would have smelled like in 1810.
More obvious reasons lie in the fact that Chinatown is full of restaurants and produce stalls selling fruit, vegetables, and live seafood–which means a lot of expired food and discarded animal parts. I don’t think I need to explain why rats and cockroaches flock to this part of town.
On the micro level, I see barbershops, noodle joints, and other small businesses slinging buckets of dirty water onto the sidewalk every day. Kids and adults alike walk through the park leaving ice cream wrappers, cigarette butts, and newspapers in their tracks.
But this is the way things are in most Chinatowns. Sure, it would be nice to see it clean, but I’ve found that cleaner C-Towns often result in a kind of sanitization of the culture itself. Take London’s Chinatown, or to some extent, the more commercial parts of San Francisco’s.
There is an upside to the stink: it builds character. I have a fond memory of walking through the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the middle of a blackout with my good friend Jeremy. The whole street was closed down, completely deserted, and it reeked. We didn’t know where we were going, but we knew we had to make it through the stench to get there. We covered our noses and held our breaths, checking every half a block or so to see if the smell had subsided. Each time we checked we were surprised to find a new and decidedly worse smell. So we started running, giggling at the absurdity of the situation as we ran.
As much as I like to gripe about it–just as I do with the spitting, the gambling rings, the constant clamor of loud, unintelligible Fuzhounese–Chinatown wouldn’t be the same without it. So I don’t have an answer to this question, but I do know one thing for sure: for better or worse, the smell is here to stay.