When I was a child in Brooklyn Heights, my family often voyaged to another world: Chinatown. Just three subway stops away, we’d emerge near the Bowery, then the world’s largest skid row. For me, these journeys had an even greater impact and resonance than my many later trips abroad.
This was before the elevated track along Third Avenue was demolished and so, day or night, there were odd moving shadows thrown by the rays of the sun or the dim lights of the bars. Tattoo parlors, rescue missions and numerous flophouses lined the street. Holding my and my sister’s hands, my father navigated snoring, open-mouthed men, the occasional splash of vomit and broken whiskey bottles. Occasionally someone would come ask for “coffee” money. My mother, as good-hearted a liberal as ever existed, informed us that many of these men were veterans, scarred by their experiences (this before PTSD was part of the vocabulary). But rather than compassion, I felt confusion, guilt and a profound discomfort.
No matter the day or the hour, on the second or third floors of the old tenement buildings we saw women hunched over sewing machines. “Sweatshops,” said my mother. “Each woman is paid by the piece, not a salary like we get.”
Finally we would come to the bright lights of Mott and Elizabeth Streets and the sign for Wah Kee, whose basement location, according to my father, made it more authentically Chinese than the gleaming, street-level establishments with their window tanks of somnolent lobsters.
Inside, my father was handed a menu headlined Cantonese Family Dinner and a pot of tea was set before us. This was a treat for me and my sister, who were ordinarily not permitted tea except when we had sore throats. We poured the tea into small cups, adding heaping spoonfuls of sugar. When the pot was empty, my father would invert its lid, proud to know the traditional way to indicate that it needed replenishing.
Ordering was strictly from column A and column B. We always began with wonton soup, eggrolls and sticky-sweet spareribs. Yunnan, Fujian, Sichuan, Shandong Provinces—we had never heard of them! China was just a mysterious place on the other side of the world toward which we sometimes dug for days on vacations at the beach.
As my mother gingerly picked up a rib, she would invariably tell us that when she was a child, she’d heard that fingers, accidentally lopped off by the cooks’ cleavers, were sometimes substituted for ribs. “Oh, Violet,” my father would say. “Cut it out!”
No chicken chow mein or fried rice for our family. Too Americanized, according to my father. It would be lobster Cantonese, moo goo gai pan and shrimp with (as I later discovered) faux lobster sauce, all in a cornstarch-thickened sauce with some fermented black beans for flavor.
The one exception to our search for edible authenticity was shrimp egg foo young. It remains such a favorite that it has become my annual birthday lunch—the crunchier the shrimp and the thicker the brown sauce, the better.