(Photo: Those pesky kids, at home in Chinatown Square. Original Credit: Chris Brunn.)
No one can claim that Chicago’s Chinatown is the equal of older, larger Chinatowns in American cities like New York or San Francisco. But over the weekend, ex-Cincinnatian / new-Chicagoan Jamie helped me see the area in a whole new light.
Or at least a part of it.
Living here barely six weeks, Jamie still wears his Second City puppy love on his sleeve. Since we met, he’s been a veritable Cincinnati enquirer.
“Is it really easy to live downtown in this city?”
“Do they still call it the ‘L’ when it goes into the suburbs?”
“Is this railing really safe?”
Chicago newbies make me smile. They always remind me of my own early love affair with these parts after my sudden decampment from Gotham in 2003, and I’m always eager to share my run-at-the-mouth knowledge of the city. But that kind of two-way commentary can be exhausting, so when we met up on Saturday afternoon, I suggested a trip to Chinatown for fortification by dim sum.
Note to self: don’t attempt dim sumification after 2:00 p.m.–rolling goody carts are parked by then and ordering sticky rice and pork buns off of a menu is not similarly engaging. Happily, the super-spicy gastronomic fun house of Lao Sze Chuan took the sting out of our time-challenged visit to the neighborhood, and a couple of frozen bubble teas from the take-out window of Joy Yee’s Noodles took the sting out of the spicy.
Reading the above, resident Chicagoans will already know I had dragged Jamie to New Chinatown. The early 1990s-era two-story outdoor mall at the north end of the neighborhood is officially monickered Chinatown Square. But I don’t know any Chicagoans who call it that. A sturdy pile of glorified strip-mall, festooned here and there with ridiculous fake steel pagodas to ensure just the right combination of post-modern ramshackle and Flushing, Queens ugly, I never know quite how to describe the place to first-time visitors.
Jamie had no such difficulty. As soon as we arrived in New Chinatown, his brow immediately began to furrow.
“This place reminds me of something…”
He repeated the question for the next 90 minutes as I slurped down my kung pao kidneys and fished the yummy red beans out of my tapioca freeze.
“There’s something about this place I can’t put my finger on…”
His confusion ended not long after walking through the vendor area of a kitschy cultural celebration that had taken over New Chinatown’s central plaza for the day. I think it was seeing the little baby turtles trapped inside transparent carry cases that finally did it. Struggling away, they kept trying to climb up the side of their plastic prisons to freedom, only to fall back with a comical thud and try again, accompanied through it all by the off-key warbling of a Chinese opera diva whose dreams of grandeur obviously never panned out.
That’s when the a-ha moment to end all a-ha moments struck. Jamie suddenly stopped in his tracks, put up his hand to sush me, and came out with the best words you will ever hear to describe New Chinatown…
“This looks like the kind of place Scooby Doo would have an adventure.”
Momentarily speechless, my laughter told Jamie that he had just said it all. Had the Mystery Machine gone by at that moment, I wouldn’t have been in the least surprised.
But the only pesky kids we encountered during the rest of our time in New Chinatown were those in tow of wandering parents in search of some similar spicy, tapioca, off-key goodness on a day out in what will henceforth be known, by me, anyway, as the most animated neighborhood in Chicago.