November 17, 2012 | Mandarin
Chinatown Tour: Museum of Chinese in America
I roam Chinatown with a guide named Alice.
This afternoon I went on a tour of Manhattan’s Chinatown, organized through the Museum of Chinese in America. I had never before been to this museum, which is located at 215 Centre Street, near Canal.
Museum of Chinese in America, or MOCA
It is a beautiful little museum, though today I focused on the tour. I will go back another time for a full-fledged museum visit.
Alice, the tour guide, grew up in the area and still lives there. There were a total of seven of us on the tour—strangely, all women—and it was a talkative bunch.
Nice, but talkative.
You know how there is always at least one person on any tour who can’t keep quiet? Who wants to show off that he or she knows things the tour guide is clearly just about to tell you? Who interrupts sentences of the tour guide to steal his or her thunder, generally with less accurate or—when racial issues are involved—less racially sensitive commentary than would otherwise have been delivered to you by a calmer, better-informed, and more diplomatic tour guide?
The Cheerful Front Desk at MOCA
Wooden Sushi Slicing Playset, MOCA Gift Shop
It became pretty clear early on that we had one of those on the tour. She meant well, but she couldn’t help commenting on everything. It just exploded right out of her.
One of our stops was Columbus Park. This is the park I mentioned the other day (see bottom of that entry), where men were huddled around what appeared to be board games. Now I know what to call the park, and by the way, the Columbus name indicates its origins: Italian, not Chinese.
The Chinatown of today embraces areas that were once inhabited by Italian, Irish, Eastern European, and other immigrant groups, and there are historical residues everywhere.
We passed by funeral parlors, located in former bank buildings, and also stopped by the Church of the Transfiguration, where they have services in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English.
Wah Wing Sang Funeral Home
Ng Fook Funeral Services
Transfiguration Church, Mott Street
Mass Options at Transfiguration
Some of the older Chinatown streets are very narrow. One was Doyers. I doubt I had ever walked on it before today.
While we were standing on Doyers, I noticed Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which I had read about in a New York Times restaurant review.
According to that article, the owner, Wilson Tang, bought the restaurant from his uncle, who himself had started working there back in 1950, bought it in 1974, and then retired not long ago.
Wilson Tang is very tall. I would know this even if I hadn’t read it in the review, because while we were standing near his tea house, Mr. Tang himself popped out of the building behind us.
He greeted Alice, our tour guide, by name, and she greeted him back. Clearly they knew each other. She in fact seemed to know a number of people in the neighborhood, saying hi as we passed them on our journey.
After a brief exchange with our tour group, Mr. Tang went into his shop, which was like a magnet drawing hordes of people up the street from both ends, I noticed. Hipsters as well as non-hipsters.
There was much talk of language on my tour. And I didn’t even really have anything to do with that!
Nom Wah Tea Parlor
We talked about how (or rather, I listened about how) Mandarin was the easiest of the Chinese dialects, of which I have read there are eight main groups. It used to be the case that most Chinese immigrants to New York spoke Cantonese, but more and more Mandarin speakers have immigrated here, so the linguistic patterns of Chinatown have changed.
Alice pointed out that you could have a family of Cantonese-speaking immigrants in the odd position of sending their children to Saturday Chinese school to learn Mandarin, a language they don’t themselves speak. So even as the children are connected to a Chinese linguistic tradition, it is not in fact the tradition of their own parents.
There was also talk of tones on the tour. Chinese is tonal; you can take a syllable and then, by changing the pitch, change the meaning.
A rising tone means one thing, and a dropping tone another. Mandarin has only four tones, but Cantonese, I was told today, has seven to nine.
Lin Zexu Statue, Chatham Square
A woman on the tour who had been born in Fujian province told me that her dialect also has nine tones.
The smaller number of tones makes Mandarin easier to learn.
It is even easier than it might have been because in the middle of the last century, a simplification of Chinese characters was undertaken by the People’s Republic of China. The simplified characters, still in use in mainland China today, have fewer strokes than the traditional characters, which can be found in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere.
I have seen both simplified and traditional Chinese characters in official New York City government postings around town.
By the way, although Cantonese and Mandarin sound different, the written characters are the same. So two people, one speaking Cantonese and one speaking Mandarin, could look at a sign, both understand perfectly what it said, but then read it aloud and have it sound totally different. It is common for Chinese speakers whose dialects are mutually unintelligible to resort to writing in order to communicate.
I find that fascinating, especially given the quantity and complexity of the characters. I have read that knowing 7,000 characters qualifies you as totally literate, and that grade school students learn about 2,500 characters.
Anyway, I guess if I were studying Cantonese my Chinese studies would be a lot harder than they are, so I will be grateful for the relative ease I am enjoying at present.