Saturday, 8 November 2008

My Chinatown: A New York Sketchbook

photo by: Nicole Tung

The crowded and noisome fish markets, the vendors sitting in crude shanties filled with counterfeit handbags, the language and lettering: all transported me to a different city that I didn’t understand. ‘I’m not in Manhattan anymore,’ I thought when I first moved into Chinatown two years ago. I felt like an outsider in my own neighborhood. Because I was an outsider.

At first I took solace in a line from Roman Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown, “Forget it [Will], it’s Chinatown…” But after I started reporting on Chinatown, the veils of ignorance that divided me from my new neighbors, and they from me, began to part. I became captivated by the neighborhood’s layered history, cultural heritage and ancient traditions. I kept in mind, “nothing is what it seems in Chinatown.” I didn’t take the spitting personally; I didn’t let the pushing and shoving get to me. I didn’t forget, but I observed. I embraced it all.

Now, as I walk Chinatown, I feel I’m at home. Here are some of the people and their places in my neighborhood.

I. Columbus Park

At the Mulberry Street entrance to Columbus Park, two Chinese shoemakers sit on crates, briskly sawing off the worn heels of shoes and nailing on replacements they’ve cut from sheets of rubber. The morning air is filled with the chirps of songbirds in wooden cages, hung in the trees surrounding the entrance.

Lugging his overstuffed backpack, Belgian tourist Dirk Bosraams surveys the groups of men playing Chinese chess, the women playing cards, the chorale wailing Chinese opera. Fresh from a three-week sojourn in Southeast Asia, Bosraams came downtown to visit the park because a friend told him it was a microcosm of Chinese culture in New York. “This park, right now,” he says, tugging at his scruffy traveler’s beard, “is more authentic than some places in Vietnam.”

The small patch of green in the heart of Chinatown was finally restored and reopened after 30 years of neglect on October 25, 2007 as an homage to traditional Chinese architecture. Its pavilion echoes the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, with its slanted slate roof, concrete columns and exposed wooden rafters. Here in my neighborhood, bamboo trees sprout everywhere and the gardens are accented with large jagged rocks. The nights are illuminated by big iron lamps with decorative dragonheads. The park is alive with people tying together the mind, body and soul through cultural activities. Beyond the pavilion, there are even basketball courts for youngsters dreaming of becoming the new Yao Ming.

Columbus Park wasn’t always influenced by Eastern thought. During the mid-1800s it was the heart of the Five Points. This was the most notorious slum in the United States, the subject of Herbert Asbury’s 1927 classic “The Gangs of New York”, and the Martin Scorsese 2002 film loosely based on the book. The dangerous and desperate intersection of Baxter, Worth, Bayard, Mosco and Mulberry, and its surrounding streets from Broadway to the Bowery, was riddled with club-toting, hobnail-boot-wearing gangs like the 40 Thieves, Dead Rabbits and the Plug Uglies, most of them Irish. But after the almost three-acre park was built in 1890, the turf was reclaimed for family activities, public gatherings and a tentative, emerging Chinese culture. Today, people of all ages and nationalities mix there, enjoying – some as observers, some as participants – the sounds of the World War II era Chinese arias, the languid yet disciplined motions of Tai-Chi, the spirited Chinese chess matches, the strolling herbalists and acupuncturists whose storefronts dot the surrounding neighborhood.

Dirk Bosraams is duly impressed. “Some places are designed to attract tourists,” he says. “But Columbus Park is not. It is designed for people to enjoy themselves.”

photo by: Will Yakowicz

A Weekend with the Columbus Park Senior Orchestra

High-pitched arias wail in the wind, carried through the streets of Chinatown. The erhu, (Chinese violin), the ruan, (long-necked lute), and the tambur, (five-stringed lute), emit discordant yet delicate plucking sounds. Every Saturday and Sunday, the 15-member Columbus Park Senior Orchestra of New York Incorporated plays and sings Chinese operas from the 1930s and ‘40s. All their instruments are electric and two microphones are plugged into portable speakers. On this brisk day, the elderly performers are swathed in scarves and winter hats. Passersby sing along, snap pictures, give donations or just listen intently, fending off the chill by hopping from foot to foot.

George Gong, 77-year-old percussionist and singer, founded the group in November 2007 by approaching several elderly Chinese musicians playing solo in the park and surrounding streets, and asking them if they wanted to form an orchestra. Now, just a year after their first official performance (at the Mott Street Community Center), the seniors are a permanent and popular fixture of the park. Although it has rained two Saturdays in a row, the show goes on. Dry underneath the park’s pavilion, Gong stretches out a hand and feels the cold drops: “We come every weekend, twice a weekend. Even when it rains, we come!”

Most of the orchestra members say they’ve been singing all their lives, but not Gong. He says that when he retired two years ago, he yearned to do something he’d never done before, so he began singing the treasured songs of his youth – eloquent ballads about love, happiness, despair. His daughters, he says, chastised him: “‘An old dog cannot learn a new trick!’ they yelled… I practiced everyday, and I proved their theory wrong. ” After his debut performance, he told them proudly: “You just watched an old dog do a new trick!”

But being an old dog has its price, he admits. It took four arduous months for Gong to memorize his first aria. Nowadays, he often sits in the park wearing headphones, listening to the same opera over and over. Turning off his tape deck, he smiles, showing sparse teeth, and reveals the unlikely source of his memorization technique. Decades earlier, Gong confides, a young performer named Barbra Streisand used to work in a Chinese restaurant just around the corner from the park. “Barbra would sing all through her shift in an attempt to memorize her lyrics,” he says, leafing through his Cantonese sheet music. “That’s how you learn songs, that’s how Barbra learned songs!”

Gong with his sheet music. Photo by Will Yakowicz

A visiting brother and sister who had just returned from a trip to China, Mitch and Alice Robinson, were lured to the park by the music they heard wafting through a fish market on Mott Street. “I heard the gong and vocals and said, ‘Alice, it’s the gongs, we gotta check it out,’” declares Mitch. Alice gazes wide-eyed around the pavilion. “We heard this exact music in China in the Temple of Heaven,” she says. “This place looks exactly like the Temple of Heaven…”

It’s many years since most members of the Columbus Park Senior Orchestra have seen the real Temple of Heaven, if they ever had been in Beijing while living in China. Gong hasn’t returned to China since he emigrated with his parents in 1950. Nonetheless he looks serene beneath a bamboo tree, displaying a “USA” pin on his patched pinstripe suit. “We got a lot of Chinese people here,” he says matter-of-factly. “It makes me feel like it’s my home country, with my countrymen.”

2. Life Force in Chinatown
Positive energy reverberates beneath the park’s pavilion as a dozen bodies glide in trance-like, tranquil movements. The bodies are concentrated and controlled, belonging to people of various ages, colors and creeds. Together they mirror the movements of a Chinese man dressed in a silk martial-arts jacket with frog closings. Mr. Jin, as everyone refers to him, has been in the United States only five months, doesn’t speak any English, and how he launched his weekend Tai-Chi classes in Columbus Park his students do not know. For they simply stumbled upon the entrepreneur’s class and joined in for the six hour session (11-5PM) held every Saturday and Sunday, costing them $60 a month.

Tai-Chi is the movement of the body’s life force – or “chi” – through every limb, to keep the body strong, the soul balanced, and the life force agile. Jin teaches the “Chen” style of Tai-Chi, developed by the Chen family in the late 1800’s in the eponymous village of China. Levi Wilson, a 33-year-old Tai-Chi student who also studied Shaolin, Taekwondo, and Hapkido for ten years, describes the Chen style. “It’s a soft martial art with aggressive movements,” he says. “It has its hard and soft points, it’s a constant flow of energy, but punctuated by punches.” At the end of most movements, the students punch, kick, or unsheathe imaginary swords.

Jin was born and raised in Shanghai. He eventually taught three types of martial arts to the Chinese military: Shing-I, Pa Kua, and Tai-Chi. All three styles concentrate on the internal part of the body, the movement and control of one’s chi, and are considered soft martial arts (Neijia). Tai-Chi is unlike hard forms such as Kung Fu and Shaolin, which concentrate on attacks, physical strength and the external body. Tai-Chi is a circular exercise. The meditative, concentrated and physical motions are supposed to, through years of practice, make students sensitive to the movement of their chi and learn how to control the soul.

Most of the students have a hard time understanding their Mandarin-speaking teacher, so Jin overcomes the communication gap by leading his students by physical movement. They stand facing him and do exactly what he does. But, group activities like “pushing hands,” a basic exercise that transfers chi from person to person in a circle, need an English translation to be understood. A one-month-student, Caroll Lin, is the only student who speaks both Mandarin and English. Lin, her round, soft smiling head wrapped in a scarf, translates Jin’s words: “The pushing hands is an exercise to make students forget the instinct to resist force with force.” Instead, the exercise teaches students to yield to force and redirect it. “You need to feel the push and keep it going, ward it off,” she says. A key element of the exercise, Lin explains, is “a gentle exchange of weight and weightlessness.”

While the classes have helped Lin improve her Mandarin, she says that Tai-Chi has done much more for her emotional and physical well-being. “I used to be melancholic,” she says, smiling, “but since Tai-Chi I am not so melancholic.” The students, as a whole, are an enthusiastic lot. Andrew Steinman, a long time Tai-Chi student and Manhattanite, tilts slowly side to side, squats, whisks his arms upwards and then down again. “Oh, man!” he exults. “It keeps you alive – this is how you keep life energy moving through your body, from the toes to the top of your head!”
Class members say they’re like a family, after spending 12 hours together every weekend – learning, growing spiritually, and warding off the cold through their collective movements. “The class forms a community. The seasoned students help the novices,” Lin says. “It’s a community without formality…”

For both practitioners and observers, Tai-Chi is also an art form. Ele Malla, a lanky 17-year-old from Washington Heights, took up martial arts for self-protection. But he soon grew to love it on a different level. “I appreciate the art of the exercise,” he observes. “I use it, not like a painting hanging in a museum that you’ll forget about, but I use the art every day, and I won’t forget that.”

Moving in synch beneath the pavilion, Mr. Jin’s Tai-Chi class does indeed resemble an ephemeral tableau of ancient Chinese performance art, with the vast, unchanging metropolis as its backdrop.

3. Chinatown’s Third Eye

If Mr. Jin is something of a mystery to the denizens of Columbus Park, then Dr. Mou - who also teaches a Saturday Tai-Chi class - is a Chinatown legend. The locals rave about the uncanny accuracy and wisdom of Mou’s “third eye,” the ancient Eastern representation of enlightenment and higher consciousness.

So much so that this I soon found myself stretched out in the veteran acupuncturist’s Chatham Square office, with 33 slender needles inserted into my head, torso, arms and legs and then another set of 33 needles in my back. “Reeelax de leever, reeelax de small intestine,” Mou chanted alongside me. “Reeelax de right kid-ehnee, relax the left kid-ehnee…”

And I did. Guiding me through a meditation, Mou enabled me to control parts of my body I never knew a person could. With a flick of his index finger on my heart and kidney meridian, he popped in the silver needles to “cleanse” the “sick” organs. Also, positioned to alleviate my chronic lower-back pain, they entered my flesh with a smooth pinch. On the table, I felt etherized. While I lay face up, Mou placed a hot bottle of herbs on my belly and covered me with an aluminum-foil-like blanket, which was slightly suspended over my body on the needles’ tails. My body disappeared and I felt like I existed only at the needles’ points.

Earlier that day, when I entered Mou’s office, I had no intention of allowing Eastern medicine to penetrate my mind or my skin. The sounds of soft crashing and receding waves emanated from hidden speakers, and the room was filled with the pungent smell of burning herbs. Mou - full name: Chuan Jing Mou, O.M.D. (Doctor of Oriental Medicine) -motioned me to sit. He wore a physician’s white coat, a horseshoe of black hair hugged his temples and his languid eyes barely blinked. Lowering his head, he placed three fingers on my right wrist, and then on the left. His quiet, precise voice had a soothing tone, but some words were hard to understand. Even harder to understand was how he instantly knew everything that ailed a patient – me – without being told.

The Doctor, showing off a picture of his trip in Korea to rejuvenate his Third Eye. Photo by Will Yakowicz

Mou’s celebrated third eye, apparently, zoomed right in to my insides. “You leetle sick, leetle sick,” he announced. “Your leever, yes, leever and your right kid-ehnee, right kid-ehnee.” I’d started feeling sick just that morning, I admitted. Then he told me how long I’ve been smoking. “You smoke cigarette, for long time. Almost six year. You smoke the pot too.” Bingo. “The cigarette no affect you lung,” he explains, pointing out that people have different physiological effects from smoking. “They affecting your haaart.”

Then he told me about my back which I injured while training for NYU’s wrestling team. “You have bad back injury, very much pain in lower back. You have herniate disc.” My friend who served as a translator (for the more in-depth questions that challenged Dr. Mou’s limited English vocabulary), was also diagnosed, and was surprised by Mou’s accuracy. Mou insists that using a patient’s pulse to find out what’s going on inside his or her body, is the first step to successful treatment. “I take a pulse and know everything that wrong on your inside,” Dr. Mou tells me. “Then I treat you. Then you get balance and you feel bettah, much bettah.”

Mou hails from China’s Sichuan province. He was only five when he began studying under the tutelage of his father, also a master acupuncturist and Tai-Chi teacher. “My training was, follow my father and do what he do,” he says. He has never been back to China since leaving in 1986. When he speaks of his home country, his expression darkens. In the midst of Mao Zedong’s 27-year rule, Mou’s father spoke out against the communist party and was jailed for three years. His father was a fit 80-year-old when he entered prison, says Mou – but upon his release he was severely depleted physically and mentally, and he died three years later.

In 1986, Mou, then studying microbiology, wrote a couple of articles on Eastern medicine that caught the attention of an academic in Illinois who convinced Mou to come work in a Chicago-based regional research center. After working briefly in Illinois, he made his way to New York City. Once in the City he built a reputation in Chinatown, and now he owns his own practice, specializing in acupuncture, Qi-Gong (breathing and movement exercise) and herbal medicine. He practices and teaches Tai-Chi in Columbus Park and on Pier 17 on Saturdays. Mou is also the Director of the American Taoist Qi-Gong Natural Health Center and President of the American Chinese Qi-Gong Society.

Dr. Mou’s patients come from the Upper West Side, Boston and even Europe. He treats babies, young people and the elderly for a long list of ailments including asthma, infertility, addiction, and even cancer. The dim walls of the office are covered with pictures of happy couples and their newborns. “All these parents no able to have child. They go Western doctors but no help. This woman, see here,” he says (tapping a photo of a smiling mother with baby), “ten years no able have child, she come to me and have child.” He smiles proudly, declaring that his patients’ births go smoothly and that the results are exceptional. He barely credits Mother Nature, but says the successful outcome is due to the mystical power of acupuncture. One baby, he says, knew “two plus two is four, at age two!” Pointing to another picture, he muses: “You can see that the child has very nice features, although the father has a big mouth and the mother wasn’t pretty.”

Mou credits his success partly to caring rigorously for his own health. He practices Tai-Chi to “channel energy from the universe to myself”; when his body is filled with positive energy, he says, he has the power to displace negative energy from within his patients. And then there’s that third eye – a skill that is honed, he says, by frequent travel. He recently returned from Japan and Korea, and next month, he says, “I go to Mexico country. In three month I go to Greece country.” Mou says that engaging with communities and individuals throughout the world helps him to treat his patients. “Everyone around world have the same eye,” he says, placing a finger on the space between his eyebrows, where the mystical eye is said to reside. “Seeing the world regenerates my third eye and it helps me see people’s sickness.” Mou believes that his third eye will soon be powerful enough for him to be able to diagnose patients without even laying a hand on them. “I will be able to look at them before I take their pulse,” he declares, “and say, ‘your leever is sick.’”

Mou’s acupuncture did not work miracles on me per se, but it did make me feel much more relaxed. And as one who suffers from a severe back injury, the few pain-free hours he gave me I am forever indebted. He assured me that with a couple of more treatments the effects would be more long-lasting and that with a couple of more visits he could finish cleansing my kidney, and possibly my heart.

Lulled by his soft voice, his gentle touch, and the slender needles under my skin, words a patient named Martha Keith said while we were waiting invaded my thoughts: “Acupuncture works, and Western medicine cannot explain it… but it works.”
Amidst the rushing ocean sounds, he launched back into the meditation, chanting, “Welcome to Hawaii beach, reeelax the eye, reeelax the head, reeelax the haaart…”

At dusk, after the orchestra has packed up and the chess players have gone home, Cheron Tomkins, a British immigrant who lives in the neighborhood, walks her dachshund in the park. Although Tomkins – with her red hair and an unmistakable Cockney accent – is an outsider to Chinese culture, she insists she has never felt ostracized in Chinatown. Eastern medicine – like Chinese herbs and acupuncture – and lifestyle practices characterize her daily life and help her to attain physical and spiritual wholeness. “There’s a psychological barrier you break,” she says, petting her dog, “when you cross Canal Street.”

And Columbus Park? Its beauty, democracy and cultural richness, she says, make her “feel human again.”

Chinese Senior Orchestra of New York Incorporated:
Performs every Saturday and Sunday from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
All year round, rain or shine, free at the pavilion.

Mr. Jin’s Tai-Chi:
Meets every Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. $60 a month. Meets under the pavilion

Dr. Mou:
7-8 Chatham Sq. Suite 805, 10:00a.m.- 7:00p.m. Telephone: 212-349-1768.

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