Chinatown (31)

Just a few steps from modern Soho and minuscule Little Italy lies exotic Chinatown. A microcosm in constant activity that'll transport you to the heart of authentic China: Buddhist temples, neon ideograms, the scent of spices, strange sounds, street stalls, street upon street of imitation goods and, of course, plenty of shops and restaurants to make a stop along the way.

Fast-paced and colourful, Chinatown in New York is the largest in the United States and indeed the Western world. A community full of vitality, home to half of New York's 300,000 Chinese residents. Most of its residents can't speak a word of English, so gestures and a little imagination will be your best allies when it comes to buying, haggling or ordering noodles.

Chinatown is a growing neighbourhood. Its relentless growth has caused it to cross its original historical boundaries and gradually take over the neighbouring Little Italy and much of the Lower East Side. It is difficult to pin down on a map, but a good approach is to say that is bounded by Grand Street to the north, Allen Street to the east, Chambers Street to the south and Broadway to the west.

Getting to know New York's most dynamic, vibrant and chaotic area is a really worthwhile experience. Forget the skyscrapers, glass offices and incessant traffic, and gradually submerge yourself in the network of streets around Canal Street.  

If you want to know the history of the first inhabitants of the neighbourhood, we recommend you start on Mulberry Street and make a stop at number 70. This is where you will find the Museum of Chinese in America, the first US museum dedicated to the history of the Chinese people. It is located in a school that opened its doors more than a century ago.

After that, lose yourself in Mott Street, a shopping street that has provided the set for numerous films and television series. At number 29 you will find the Chinese Catholic Church of the Transfiguration, and at 32, the oldest shop in Chinatown, founded in 1891.

This is one of the neighbourhood's most emblematic streets, since the first Chinese immigrants who arrived in New York settled at the bottom of Mott Street, along with Pell Street and Doyers Street. 

This area is also famous because it is home to the Bloody Angle. This is the name given to the bend in Doyers Street because of the numerous shootings that took place in the early 20th century among the violent rival gangs that fought to gain control of opium trade in Chinatown. Today, however, Doyers is a quiet, picturesque street, full of barber shops and tea rooms.

A few steps on, you will come across the labyrinthine Chatham Square, with the impressive Kim Lau Arch in its centre. This commemorative monument was built in honour of the Chinese victims in the US wars. You'll find another statue that pays tribute to Lin Zexu, a minister who did a great job of eradicating drugs. The base of the statue is inscribed with "Do not do drugs". 

If you feel like getting away from the hustle and bustle for a while, go up Mulberry Street and enter Columbus Park. Although today this is a very peaceful place that's perfect for a stroll, a hundred years ago it was a dangerous neighbourhood dominated by lower-class Irish gangs bands and known as The Five Points. If you have seen the movie Gangs of New York directed by Martin Scorsese, the name will ring a bell. 

If you are visiting in the morning, you will encounter a large number of elderly people who flock here to practise tai-chi; in the afternoon, however, the tables are filled with fans of the game of mahjong.

At this point, we recommend you go back to Chatham Square and go up Bowery Street to Confucius Plaza, where a statue of Confucius presides over an apartment complex that bears his name. Bowery Street is now a major shopping street, but in the 17th century it was full of farms, which were subsequently replaced by theatres and taverns. In the late 19th century, the avenue was full of cabaret halls and brothels, and in the early 20th century it was full of destitute people and dominated by the criminal underworld. 

How about spending the rest of your visit on a shopping trip? If that's your plan, the best idea is to head to Canal Street, the main tourist and commercial artery of Chinatown and a complete paradise for imitation goods. Here you will find everything from souvenirs to perfect replicas. If, however, you are after authentic Chinese crafts, go to Pearl River Mart, located on Canal Street with Broadway.

Chinatown is an exciting neighbourhood. You should set aside three to four hours for the visit, with a gastronomic stop-off in one of the many restaurants where you eat well for little money.

If you want to experience it at its most lively, visit at the weekend. And if your visit coincides with the month of February, do not miss the Chinese New Year celebrations, with welcome firecrackers and huge dragons heads parading around the neighbourhood for 36 hours.

This neighbourhood will definitely surprise you at every turn, and on every corner.

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