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May 23, 2011 / Katie

Sunday in the Park

Years ago, when I lived in Shanghai for a summer, my family came to visit me. On one humid morning we wandered through Fuxing Park in the French concession (a park that was originally built for foreigners and banned Chinese locals from entering). Despite the heat, the park was brimming with life. Elderly Chinese stood on plots between bushes and shrubs practicing tai chi, bird enthusiasts swung teak cages back and forth with colorful birds perched inside, couples waltzed and ball room danced to music pumping from a small boom box, and a group of patriotic men sang impassioned renditions of old Communist tunes, their fists raised. My family and I took in the scene with a sense of awe. It was just a bunch of old people hanging out in the park, but to us it became one of those moments that travelers sometimes have–a memory in the making–that sticks with you forever and becomes indicative of a time and place.

One of the things that makes New York’s Chinatown distinct is that many of the routines from daily life in China have been carried over and preserved thousands of miles away from the mainland. A month or so ago I found myself around the corner from Columbus Park and decided to take a quick stroll. The park was filled to capacity with elderly Chinese men and women enjoying the fresh air and some good company on a Sunday afternoon in the park. People were huddled around tables playing cards or Chinese checkers. Two motley crews of musicians–a squeaky saxophone, a rusty clarinet, several erhu players and a singer or two–clustered on benches near the entrance. Each group played songs from traditional Chinese operas, competing for a share of the park’s onlookers. The old feeling returned: a kind of wonder at having discovered something quite remarkable hidden within the everyday.

***

I complain a lot about living in Chinatown–the sidewalks are littered with wrappers and dog poop, the gamblers who come in and out of our building are rude, and the only time of year the neighborhood doesn’t reek to high heaven is in the dead of winter. Chinatown, as one of my friends has said only half-jokingly, is an Asian ghetto; a place Wendy Lee describes in her novel, Happy Family, as an “entirely different country, neither the China I knew nor the America I had envisioned.”

I complain because I can. But I also know that these things come with the territory. When you move to Chinatown you enter into an unspoken pact to put up with and tolerate things you would find unacceptable in any other neighborhood. In return you score an apartment with an awesome location, affordable rent, and a whole lot of culture. Plus, you can drink bubble tea and eat lamb burgers every night of the week if your heart so desires.

I complain about Chinatown to blow off steam. I forget, though, that my quibbling can easily be taken out of context. People might think I hate it here, or worse, that I’m racist (I have to remind people that, hey, I’m Chinese, too). The truth is, deep down inside I secretly love the place. Chinatown serves as a powerful reminder of where I have been and where I am headed. It brings my heritage and my personal experiences into sharp relief. I live every day playing the unassuming laowai–a stranger in a strange land–but in reality I am wise to all the trickster’s schemes. Chinatown, I’m on to you.

***

Two weekends ago the usual flurry of activity in Columbus Park was interrupted and brought to a violent halt. Responding to an anonymous 311 complaint, NYPD officers arrived at the park and accosted one of the usual opera bands there. They told the members that they could no longer use a microphone and that they didn’t have the necessary permit to perform in the park. An argument ensued and when one of the band organizers, Wu Yizuo, refused to comply, the tussle took a turn for the worse. A bystander caught the incident on her cell phone, but be forewarned, the video is graphic. In the end, several police officers pinned Wu to the ground, handcuffed him, and hauled him off to jail with a bleeding forehead.

Although some witnesses claim the video does not tell the whole story of what happened and significantly leaves out the actions that lead up to the arrest, that this incident occurred at all is undeniably upsetting. I should also note that local news sites have been the only outlets to cover the incident while the New York Times has remained silent. A community meeting with the 5th Precinct was scheduled for this week but has been cancelled without a reason given and no word of a rescheduled meeting.

Honestly, I’m baffled by the police department’s decision to act upon the noise complaint in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, on Mother’s Day no less. I can’t get the cops to do anything about the illegal gambling rings in my building, but apparently they have the time and energy to harass senior citizens and shut down their harmless weekend activities. To restrict the community from enjoying its few diversions and traditions is to strip Chinatown–one of New York’s most vibrant and culturally rich neighborhoods–of exactly what makes it unique.

***

This past weekend several friends and I ventured back over to Columbus Park. The park was a little quieter than usual, but I was glad to see that, for the most part, the community was out in full force. It was a perfect spring day. We made a few friends and joined in some joyful, if a bit awkward, dancing.

  

A neighborhood becomes more than just a place to hang your hat when individuals stop behaving like islands and, instead, as responsible members of a community. Part of belonging to a community is understanding that there are some things worth preserving above and beyond individual desires. I believe that Columbus Park is one of those things.

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7 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Shelley / May 25 2011 9:54 pm

    Love the dancing pictures. And re: police having nothing better to do, completely agree. I still remember those two bumbling idiots who arrived at the door when I called 911. New York’s Finest/ Fattest.

  2. BeeGee / May 25 2011 10:15 pm

    That’s my girl! You be the champion and voice for those defenseless
    seniors just wanting to have a good time in the park. Shame on those
    cops!

  3. kenju / Jul 14 2011 6:13 pm

    Thanks to Scouting NY, I’ve just landed here. Hope you resume posting soon. I’m reading Lisa See’s books and loving them.

    (And no, despite my screen name, I am not Japanese.)

    • Katie / Jul 14 2011 8:23 pm

      Thanks for reading, Kenju! I’ve been on a bit of a summer hiatus, but should be back up and blogging very soon.

  4. Thud / Jul 21 2011 6:00 pm

    As a member of a sino British family based in liverpool i have enjoyed your posts on a city I love to visit.

    • Katie / Jul 23 2011 1:58 pm

      I have fond memories of a day spent in Liverpool’s Chinatown. My friend and I peeked into one of the windows and saw a bunch of elderly Chinese people playing mahjong. Some things never change no matter where you go–which is a strangely comforting thought.

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  1. My Chinatown: Christina Seid « 五香路 Five Spice Alley

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