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Five Spice Alley

What is Five Spice Alley?

五香路 [wǔ xiāng lù] is a blog about New York’s Chinatown and Lower East Side written by a former resident, fourth-generation Chinese American, and sometimes Old China Hand. “It’s complicated” is probably the best way to describe my relationship with Chinatown. As a result, the blog shares my personal observations, frustrations, and musings about the neighborhood, and really, anything else related to China, Chinese culture, or being Chinese: food, customs, language, films, books, you name it.

Why Now?

After living there for nearly three years, I’ve realized that you can leave Chinatown, but Chinatown never really leaves you. Neither does the stench. Trust me, it’s hard to shake. So in that spirit, I’m finally embracing the neighborhood I’ve come back to again and again, whether in London, San Francisco, Yokohama, or Vancouver. I must feel at home here or why else would I come back? And maybe part of the reason we keep coming back is because there are always things to be discovered, shocked, amazed, and disgusted by in Chinatown. Plus, it’s got the cheapest eats around.

我的故事/My Story

I arrived in New York during the dog days of summer 2008, fresh from college and eager to begin. I camped out in my best friend’s Upper East Side apartment while I scoured Craigslist and MediaBistro day and night for potential job leads. The future was uncertain. I didn’t need a Magic 8-Ball to tell me that. Luckily, I got a job, and then I moved into the only Manhattan neighborhood, save Harlem and Washington Heights, that I could afford, Chinatown.

To be honest, it wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I moved to New York—city that never sleeps, “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” Not because I was unfamiliar with the territory. Actually, it was quite the opposite. I knew all about Chinatown, or at least I thought I did.

I’m half Chinese and my mom was born in Los Angeles’ Chinatown and lived there above her grandparents’ shop until the age of five. I myself grew up in a Southern California suburb that, by the time I entered high school, could be referred to as a “New Chinatown.” During college, I studied Mandarin and spent several stints in China–ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.

For the first few weeks after I moved to Chinatown, I felt a bit dazed. I walked through my new neighborhood streets wondering, “How did I get here?” I couldn’t help but see the irony in it all. My grandparents moved up in the world so they could move out of Chinatown, and here I was, with my laowai face, fourth-generation Chinese American, back in the hood, slumming it up in C-Town. But I guess everyone’s got to start somewhere.Katie Salisbury

Who am I to complain anyway? I like the street cred that comes with living in a gritty neighborhood (did I mention there are two gambling rings in my building?), and then there is the innate allure of the place. The mere mention of Chinatown conjures up a kind of Oriental mystique, a certain je ne sais quoi, albeit misplaced, that has become part and parcel of American folklore: hazy opium dens, long-nailed dragon ladies, the ominous sounding of gongs, and the ever-nefarious Fu Manchu lurking somewhere in the shadows (ok, so maybe this depiction only really applies to people who were alive during the turn of the 19th century, but you get the idea; Chinatown is exotic). To my surprise, I’ve become more interesting and more mysterious a person simply by association.

“You live in Chinatown?”

In my own experience, though, Chinatown is one of the least romantic places I know. Reality is never quite as rosy as we imagine it: crowded sidewalks, greasy chow mein, touristy trinkets like big-bellied, happy buddhas and Ming hats with fake braids, rats and cockroaches roaming free on the sidewalks, lines of nondescript Chinese women on Canal St. accosting passersby with, “Hello lady, Goochi, Goochi, Looey Veeton, Dee-Vee-Dee,” roast ducks hanging by the neck in shop windows, smelly seafood stalls, and the constant sound of loogie-hawking. It’s a place you might call 热闹 (rènǎo). Lively; bustling with noise and excitement. Basically a euphemism for anarchy. But I can tell you one thing for sure—there is certainly never a dull moment living in a place that operates according to its own ‘inscrutable’ logic.

So kick it up with a taste of five spice powder and follow me on my blog-o-venture through the back alleys of New York’s Chinatown, a place I now call home.

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