Next time you’re passing through Chinatown, take a look at some of the business signs on buildings and you’ll notice that most have a phone number posted, many with two or even three.
Not that unusual in New York, and I never gave it a second thought until a few years ago, when I was working on a film shooting in Chinatown. Art needed to make a number of changes to businesses on the street, including covering some signs (ha, with more “authentic”-looking Chinatown signs), and we approached the establishments in question.
Everyone on the block was very cooperative with just about every request – except, for covering the signs. We could pay to shut down businesses, put fake merchandise in the windows, paint walls, hang neon lights – but ask to cover a sign and the business owners would absolutely flip out.
To film in Chinatown and do it right, you have to hire a local of Chinese descent to help out. It’s both a lingual and cultural thing, and on this particular job, we had a really nice young guy working with us who could accomplish in minutes what would take me an entire week.
I love working with Chinatown locations liaisons because you get to hear about the side of Chinatown that’s off-limits to tourists and “gweilo” like myself: underground clubs, drug dens, gang wars, etc.
I was once told a great story about a grocer/drug dealer who received a big shipment of coke hidden in packages of flour. Somehow, one of the packages, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, accidentally made it to the shelves and was sold. Everyone was freaking out about losing such a valuable shipment – until an elderly woman showed up at the store with the package, furious at having been sold flour that had “gone bad.” Chinatown’s a small place, and before long, everyone had heard the story (I was also told this former “grocer” now owns a very popular Chinese restaurant there’s a good chance you’ve eaten at).
I asked our liaison about the signs, and he explained that the real problem was in covering up the phone numbers. As it turns out, most of these places run illegal mahjong games in back rooms, upstairs apartments, and underground spaces. To get a seat, you simply call the number on the sign and see if there’s room for you in the game. These seats must be worth some cash, as the owners were adamant the numbers not be covered.
Mahjong gambling in Chinatown is big. I just came across a fantastic blog called Five Spice Alley, an amusing and frank look at Chinatown written by a young fourth-generation Chinese American named Katie, and in a recent post, she writes about how not one but TWO mahjong rings operate out of her building:
Every night I hear the gamblers slamming their tiles down on the table. More than once I’ve heard a loser argue hopelessly with the proprietor, sounding as if on the verge of tears or an all out mental breakdown. It’s not pretty. Then there are the nights when I or my roommate or both of us go out on the balcony at 1 am and yell down to them to, “Shut the hell up or I’ll call the police!”
There’s a million more stories, but I’ll save them for another day. Suffice it to say, spend enough time as a gweilo in Chinatown and you’ll realize what you think you know about the neighborhood amounts to about 2% of what’s actually going on.
Or, as Walsh brilliantly and succinctly tells his partner Gittes, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
PS – Seriously, check out Katie’s Five Spice Alley blog. She stopped writing in May, but I’ve got my fingers crossed she’ll pick it up again soon!
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