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September 3, 2010 / Katie

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.

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10 Comments

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  1. frankenstein / Sep 3 2010 8:43 pm
  2. bradleyf81 / Sep 3 2010 9:05 pm

    Hi. I’ve been occasionally glancing over your posts, and I remember you had posted some pictures of fruit stands that looked familiar. This post caught my attention though and I realized that you actually live in NYC. I’ve spent quite a bit of time there, lived there for a while, and will be moving back at the end of the month after having spent a little more than two years in Asia.

    Most of that time was in Singapore, which is predominantly Chinese and the last few months I’ve been in the Philippines. I didn’t notice horrible smells so much in Singapore, except right around the hawker centers, which are open air eateries with assorted stalls. The Philippines has open wet markets though, and man does the one in town STINK! Especially on a hot day. I used to joke with my wife (who is from the Philippines) about how smelly NYC can be, but after smelling the wet market in her home town, I don’t think NYC, even Chinatown there, will faze her in the least.

    This was a really good post. Thanks!

    • Katie / Sep 6 2010 11:36 am

      From what I hear, Singapore is a very clean place (some have even called it sterile). I have yet to visit South East Asia myself, but would love to make a trip there. Thanks for your thoughtful comment and for reading!

      • bradleyf81 / Sep 6 2010 5:53 pm

        Yes, Singapore is very clean and depending on where you’re from it could seem sterile. It has it’s share of litter, but it’s nothing compared to what I’ve seen in other places.

        I think the smell is caused by how the sewage systems are set up around the hawker centers. It seems to leave behind food waste that then heats up and reeks. The worst one we ever found was the one nearest where we lived for the last year we were there, in Pasir Ris (by Dr 1 and St 11 if any Singaporeans stumble across this).

        Southeast Asia is definitely worth visiting. It’s incredibly interesting and living out here has given me new a perspective on the world. One of the smaller things is that American Chinese food isn’t really Chinese food, but that doesn’t stop me from craving it anyway!

  3. Kiwi / Sep 3 2010 11:10 pm

    Enjoyed the blog and had a good laugh! But you’re right. It wouldn’t be Chinatown if it were sanitized.

  4. Michelle Tsai / Sep 13 2010 12:41 pm

    Nice post!

    I’ve always been impressed by how clean Hong Kong is, even the wet markets. HK is basically a bajillion tall buildings smushed together, full of people, restaurants and more restaurants. And yet the place is so clean (even if facades are old), rarely smelly despite the tropical climate and despite the crowds. At the end of the day the restaurants and wet markets all get a serious scrub down. Imagine if Manhattan’s Chinatown had the same resources and priorities!

    • the cat / Oct 25 2012 10:57 am

      I came from HK. When I took my son to visit HK for the first time (he was 11 then), the first comment he said was, “I love HK, the Chinese people here don’t spit.” I am very proud of being a Hong Kong person. I now work in Manhattan’s Chinatown. I go there almost 7 days a week. I love Chinatown. I love its vitality and energy …and its food, of course. i am so very DISGUSTED at the bad smell and garbage all over the place. Chinatown does NOT have to smell badly to be authentic. HK is as big a Chinatown as can be, and it is CLEAN. Chinatowns in NYC can do much better if we don’t make excuses for it.

      • Katie / Oct 25 2012 11:54 pm

        A good point. I don’t recall China ever being quite as smelly or dirty as NYC’s Chinatown.

  5. pravit / Dec 10 2012 2:49 pm

    You know, maybe I’m just used to it, but I’ve never really thought Chinatown smells that bad. The B/D entrance at Grand Street, yes, as it’s next to a fish market, and the corner of Canal at Walker has a perpetual funk to it even when the fishmonger’s closed. Those are really the only two places that stand out to me as smelling bad. But then again I kind of think all of NYC south of 14th and east of Broadway smells faintly of rotting garbage.

    • Katie / Dec 10 2012 11:36 pm

      I’ll admit I do have a sensitive nose. But checkout Eldridge Street and Canal or East Broadway on a humid summer day and you’ll see (I mean, smell…) what I’m talking about. Chinatown wouldn’t be Chinatown if it didn’t smell just a little.

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