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December 21, 2011 / Katie


hapa [haw-puh]: 1. From the Hawaiian word meaning half, part, fragment; to be partial, less. 2. A person of mixed heritage, usually part Asian or Pacific Islander. 3. Originating from the Hawaiian term hapa haole, which literally means “half white”; a person of mixed blood who is part Hawaiian, part white.

Kip Fulbeck's The Hapa ProjectIdentity is a slippery thing. There are many ways to explain who and what you are, yet words often fail to encompass the entirety of that identity in all its beauty and complexity. I am half Chinese, half Irish. The dictionary might offer up terms like: multiracial, mixed race, mutt, eurasian, amerasian, or 混血 (mixed-blood). I eschew all of them for hapa or, simply, mixed.

Hapa, like most words, has evolved over the years from its original Hawaiian meaning. If you’ve ever been to Hawaii you know that there is an obvious distinction between the locals and the tourists. Back in the day when Hawaiians were still the majority and whites the exception, hapa was most commonly used in the phrase hapa haole or half white. As more Asians have immigrated to the U.S. and become a part of American culture (especially in California where the largest population of Asian Americans resides), hapa has come to mean someone who is part Asian, part white, or more broadly, anyone of mixed heritage.

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December 11, 2011 / Katie

What Happens in Chinatown

photo by Guney Cuceloglu

On an ordinary weekday night I woke up at 2 am with a start and sat bolt upright in the midnight haze. The word “haze” doesn’t do justice to the sooty particles hanging in the air, the thick scent of smoke permeating the apartment. My roommate and I flung open our doors at the same moment as if we had telepathically sounded the alarm: “Do you smell smoke?”

We pulled on sweatshirts and slippers and dutifully woke up our buddhist neighbor. Did she smell the smoke? She politely dismissed our concerns while blinking sleepily in the hallway’s harsh florescent light. We hesitated over what to do next, but by then it was too late to turn back; there was no way we were going back to the haze to sleep without an “all clear” signal. The Grand Street fire only a year and a half before had taught us that lesson.

If there’s something strange

in your neighborhood,

who you gonna call?

The Chinatown Dragon Fighters, of course. We walked down the block and around the corner with a sense of mission to the Engine 9, Ladder 6 fire station and rang the doorbell. Hardly a second later a groggy fireman appeared at the door. Our story tumbled out in spurts–smoke, tenement building, Eldridge Street, fire! Read more…

July 29, 2011 / Katie

Ginger Root & Winter Melon

Produce deals in Chinatown are the best to be had in all of New York City. On any day of the week, thrifty shoppers and cooks in search of the freshest ingredients can head down to Forsyth Street and find a wealth of fruits and veggies. From afar, this makeshift farmer’s market looks like a caravan of nondescript moving trucks, but once you get close, a long line of sidewalk stalls comes into view. Simply follow the vibrant hues of tomatoes and turnips, eggplants and snap peas, ginger root and winter melon that wind down the side of the Manhattan Bridge. Read more…

July 23, 2011 / Katie

The Green Tea Party Goes to Town Hall


(Gray folding chairs have been arranged in a clumsy circle. Despite the chairs, the room is nearly empty. The white walls lie vacant except for one or two small framed photographs; in each picture a group of men looking festive in matching jackets are gathered together in several rows, a banner strewn across the bottom row that reads: Foochow Village Association No. 5. The hardwood floor has no finish and has been scuffed and scratched beyond recognition, even though the apartment is less than a year old. A group of Chinese men and women enter the room, followed by two young American girls in their twenties. The meeting, conducted almost entirely in Chinese, begins.)


Hello everyone. Thank you for coming to the board meeting. We have several issues to discuss. Do you want to start?

(He motions to the young women sitting in the corner. Mr. Deng is dressed in a cheap pinstripe suit, probably made by a local knockoff tailor. A loose gold chain dangles around his wrist. He is the manager of a restaurant down on East Broadway.)


Yeah, basically we’re tired of strange people coming in and out of the building. They buzz our apartment at all hours. They leave trash in the hallway and smoke and spit in the elevator. It’s disgusting.


I still find people smoking in there even though we have a sign in the elevator that says “No Smoking, No Spitting.” We should make the sign even bigger so that no one can miss it. Read more…

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. Read more…

May 11, 2011 / Katie

Trouble in Peach Blossom Land

I can’t remember a time when strange men didn’t come in and out of our building at all hours of the night, but I know they weren’t there when I first moved in. And when I tell people that there are two–not one, but two–mahjong gambling rings in my Chinatown apartment, they usually respond with a comment like “How cool!” or “That’s awesome!” I assure them that it is most certainly not awesome or cool to live with Chinese ruffians.

It began quietly. Our building is small with 10 units, two per floor spread across six floors total. Two men bought one of the third floor apartments. We know these partners only by sight: the younger of the two walks with a cane and has an ominous limp that hints at a violent past; the old man has a head full of gray-streaked waves (a perm, at his age?) and an ugly face, he’s usually smoking in the elevator in spite of the sign and likes to make a point of remembering which floor we live on.

Then a group venture bought up both units on the second floor under the auspices of a Fujianese Village Association. They claimed the space was to be a community center. They even applied for a special city permit. Legit, right? Read more…

May 5, 2011 / Katie

long time no see

好久不见 [hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn]: 1. Long time no see. 2. A greeting for someone you haven’t seen in a while.

I have always been interested in the origins of words and the stories behind them, even though such stories are often farcical, if not totally absurd. In high school, my AP History teacher Dr. Onderdonk–a name that itself merits a linguistic examination–told our class the story of the Mexican-American War. American troops marched down into Mexico by way of Texas, singing a nettlesome little diddy that went something like, “Green grows the grass…” Not only did the Mexicans know full well that the Americans were coming, but they also couldn’t stand the racket they made. And in that moment, the word gringo was born.

Whether you believe the story or not, it illustrates the fluid and ever-expanding nature of languages. The strength of the English language, in my mind, is its ability to borrow and ultimately coopt words and phrases from foreign tongues. Read more…