Some of the best things to do in Chinatown New York include checking into chic Chinatown digs, exploring the compelling Museum of Chinese in America, eating dumplings and drinking tea to your heart’s content, and kicking back in Columbus Park (with dumplings).
Chinatown in New York is one of my favourite Manhattan neighbourhoods – a ‘Little Asia’ with dumpling joints, traditional Chinese medicine stores, charming shops specialising in chopsticks, and open-air street markets with food stalls piled high with tropical fruits, Chinese vegetables, fragrant herbs, and dried fish. It hums with the quintessential cacophony of ‘Asian’ sounds, from street hawkers shouting out specials to the Chinese Opera that emanates from Columbus Park.
The last time I strolled through Chinatown New York, I was with a culinary historian on a ‘taste of the immigrant experience’ food tour. Although predominantly Asian-American now, with bilingual street signs in Cantonese and English, Chinatown was home to both Italian and Chinese immigrants from the 1870s.
But while there’s very little left that’s Italian in neighbouring Little Italy, New York’s Chinatown has still managed to evolve while retaining its Chinese roots and essential Asian-ness. The entrepreneurial spirit that distinguishes all Chinatowns and Chinese communities around the world, passed down to younger generations of Chinese-Americans, has resulted in cool new spots, from retail stores and art galleries to boutique hotels such as 50 Bowery.
While we’ll always have a soft spot for the old Chinatown, from the old-timers singing Chinese Opera in Columbus Park to the vintage dim sum joints and teahouses, newer hotels like Hotel 50 Bowery means we can settle into the neighbourhood to dig deeper on our next trip to New York.
Things to Do in Chinatown New York, Starting With Eating Dumplings and Drinking Tea
Check Into Hotel 50 Bowery for Chinatown Chic
One of the first things to do in Chinatown New York is check into cool lodgings with Chinese-American roots in the heart of this hip and happening neighbourhood. Hotel 50 Bowery, which opened mid-2017, is owned by an established Chinatown entrepreneurial family and epitomises the new sense of Chinatown chic, with a design that’s both inspired by and celebrates Chinatown’s history and spirit. The light-filled rooms have king beds with luxurious linens, whitewashed oak floors, timber furniture, original art, and white-tiled bathrooms with Jonathan Adler amenities. Rooms on the ninth floor and above have panoramic windows with sweeping city vistas. All rooms have fully-stocked honour bars and mini fridges with “sweet, salty, healthy, and sinful treats”.
There’s a 24-hour gym, complimentary Wi-Fi, and a permanent exhibit by the Museum of Chinese America (MOCA) in The Gallery on the 2nd floor. Hotel 50 Bowery is also home to The Crown, the 21st floor rooftop bar and lounge offering Asian-inspired cocktails and jaw-dropping views of the downtown Manhattan skyline, and Rice & Gold, a big buzzy 175-seat eatery and bar, pictured above, with vibrant street art by local artist Mr. Ewok-One. The menu features everything from dim sum and Asian-American fare to globally inspired dishes aimed at showcasing the diversity of modern-day America and its immigrant history. Expect to see dishes such as sizzling adobo pork fried rice with garlic, egg and bean sprouts, Three King’s Pho with dry aged steak, bone marrow and short ribs, and smoked sambal shrimps with masa chips, herbs and lime.
Pssst… Luxury Escapes has an offer (ending in 7 days!) for 5 nights at 50 Bowery from AUD$1,499/US$1060 (valued at AUD$3,451/US$2445) for two adults incl. three breakfasts for two at Rice & Gold, nightly rooftop cocktails at The Crown, daily morning espressos, free Wi-Fi, fitness centre access, local calls, and two tickets to the Museum of Chinese America.
Eat Dumplings and Drink Tea
Of course one of the best things to do in Chinatown New York – or any Chinatown for that matter – is to eat and drink and, if you’re like me, the best place to start is with dumplings, which should also be washed down with tea. Whatever your kind of dumpling – fluffy filled buns, slippery wontons, pan-fried pot-stickers, or steamed soupy xiaolongbao – you’ll find them in abundance in New York’s Chinatown. On a food tour with a culinary historian on our last visit we kicked off our Chinatown tastings with a refreshing iced tea at Ten Ren and tasty pork buns at Yee Li. Also try the special over-sized roast pork buns at vintage Nom Wah Tea Parlor, New York’s first dim sum joint, which opened as a bakery and teahouse in the same Doyer Street location in 1920. These days there are no pushcarts; everything is cooked to order. For the full yam cha banquet experience, make a booking for brunch at the 800-seat Jing Fong.
Explore the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA)
Exploring the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) is easily one of the best things to do in Chinatown New York for me. Just as a trip to the fascinating Tenement Museum is a must if you’re keen to scratch beneath the surface of the Lower East Side, so is a visit to MOCA if you want a taste of more than tea and dumplings in Chinatown. This dynamic, interactive museum is aimed at preserving and bringing to life the rich 160-year history, heritage, culture, memories, journeys, and diverse experiences of Chinese Americans, through engaging and innovative exhibitions, festivals, workshops, and events. Past shows covered everything from Chinese medicine to Chinese food, which even included dumpling-making lessons, so I’m told.
Kick Back in Columbus Park
On our last trip to New York, we were actively seeking out the Lower East Side’s community gardens, so it was a delight to serendipitously stumble upon Columbus Park one afternoon, where we found amateur Chinese Opera troupes performances, ballroom dancing underway, and retired residents sitting around together gossiping, getting their fortune told, playing mahjong and cards, and practicing tai chi. Like the community gardens, Columbus Park feels very local compared to, say, Central Park. There are plenty of sports facilities, like basketball courts, as well as a kids’ playground with a children’s swimming pool, but it’s the local culture and insight into everyday life that we love. An hour kicking back at Columbus Park is easily one of the best things to do in Chinatown New York. Take some Chinese buns and iced tea and make a picnic of it.
Poke Around Canal Street Market
It’s a far cry from the chaotic fresh wet markets we shop at here in Southeast Asia, and even the bustling Chinatown street market we explored on our last trip. But a visit to the sleek, upscale Canal Street Market with its carefully curated ‘retail experience’ and fancy food hall is going on our list of one of the best things to do in Chinatown New York. Aside from the insight it gives into the ongoing gentrification of this once-gritty and even dangerous district (although keep in mind it does lie on the border of Soho and Chinatown), there’s some good shopping and eating to be done here, and it’s ideal if you couldn’t get a table at one of our tips above, you’re in a hurry, or you’re looking for take-away (or ‘take-out’ as our American friends call it) for your Columbus Park picnic. Check out these guides to what to eat at the Canal Street Market by Eater New York and Thrillist.
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