Rosie Derong Li
Rosie Derong Li
2021 Urban Fellow
Research Topic: Socio-cultural and Ecological Interactions
Faculty Advisor: Michael Dove
Food, Rumor, and Otherness: An Ethnographic Study in Chinatown Wet Market in Lower Manhattan, New York City
Cities are eternal attractions to many, and New York City is one of the most alluring metropolitans. Many come to New York City with the hope of finding the most dazzling and beautiful parts of an urban area. New York City defines what a global city is. It juxtaposes the homeless and the billionaire, the beauty and the ugly, and the east and the west. Every day, visitors from around the world would visit Chinatown hoping to find a historical neighborhood that is so exotic, Chinese, and alienated from their own lives. To name a few visitors’ favorite contents for a photo:
• The alive crabs fighting with each other in the buckets in the seafood stores
• Durians on the fruit stalls
• Lanterns hanging between the buildings
• The storefronts of souvenir stores
Very few of the visitors focus on the people of Chinatown: the restaurant workers who always smoke in the corner, the fruit vendor who is crippled, the grocery owner who stars on the street as if he is waiting for an old friend to come in. There are two Chinatowns, the one on Tripadvisor or Lonely Planet, and where actual people live and struggle to survive on the street.
Here is a paragraph of description of Chinatown on Lonely Plant’s website:
“A walk through Manhattan’s most colorful, cramped neighborhood is never the same, no matter how many times you hit the pavement. Peek inside temples and exotic storefronts. Catch the whiff of ripe persimmons, hear the clacking of mah-jongg tiles on makeshift tables, eye dangling duck roasts swinging in store windows and shop for anything from rice-paper lanterns and ‘faux-lex’ watches to tire irons and a pound of pressed nutmeg. America’s largest congregation of Chinese immigrants is your oyster.” (Lonely Planet, 2021)
For visitors who follow Lonely Plant’s advice, Chinatown is featured as an ethnic ghetto, a neighborhood that can satisfy one’s curiosity about the exotic lifestyles of the Chinese(mah-jongg, eye dangling duck, ‘faux-lex watches’…). Not to mention the fact that Lower Manhattan Chinatown has no longer been the largest congregation of Chinese immigrants—Flushing, Queens and Sunset Park, Brooklyn both have a larger Chinese population than Lower Manhattan. (Homeland Security, 2012) The Chinatown in Lonely Planet is more of an imaginary and timely figure that feeds the curious gaze of the tourists.
While tourist magazine tries to turn Chinatown into a flattened figure of tourist attraction to an outsider. This essay attempts to provide another look at a dysnified neighborhood with a misunderstood market structure. Chinatown’s wet market setting means that the vendors resemble dendrites of a nerve a cell, extending from core groups with information and receiving impulses from its surrounding environment 24-7. Vendors who work in the Chinatown wet market spend most of their time on the street. Yet, I argue that vending is only part of their life on the street. As individuals and wet market participants simultaneously, they are subject to physical pain, practical difficulties, state surveillance, street violence, and nostalgia. I will also argue that the wet market setting also means that no vendor stands alone. Occasionally, vendors collaborate and help each other in onerous and anguish times.
This chapter will feature three ethnographic moments in the Chinatown wet market. The three moments reveal the Chinatown community’s daily intransigence to urban planning that tries to dysnify, stifle, and compartmentalize Chinatown. In Part I, I will review a day of Sister Jin, a fruit stall owner who works all year round, capturing the latest market dynamics to keep her in business. In Part II, I will walk with a former urban planner and community leader Wellington Chen, exploring Chinatown and Civic Center’s entangled relations. In Part III, I will describe the interdependent relations between licensed and unlicensed vendors through a couple’s story.
In Part I, I will review a day of Sister Jin, a fruit stall owner who works all year round, capturing the latest market dynamics to keep her in business. In Part II, I will walk with a former urban planner and community leader Wellington Chen, exploring Chinatown and Civic Center’s entangled relations. In Part III, I will describe the interdependent relations between licensed and unlicensed vendors through a couple’s story.