Forget It, Gweilo – It’s Chinatown

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:

Picture courtesy Five Spice Alley – Click for more!

From her post:

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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  1. My FIL is a Kuo Min Tang vet from North China. He belongs to one of the closed gambling clubs in Chinatown made up of Northern Chinese vets like himself. There are a ton of these clubs all over the neighborhood for people who don’t want to give the proprietors of the illegal operations a cut of the action, and who want to avoid the walk-in riff-raff FOBs.

    You are absolutely right that there’s a whole lot going on in Chinatowns you don’t see if you don’t speak and read Chinese, and even then, the triads are so secretive your guide probably mostly knows about stuff that’s in his or her dialect group’s area of influence. The Chiu Chao, for example, usually don’t talk to anyone else about their business. In the old days everyone was Cantonese and the HK gangs ruled, but I only hear Cantonese about half the time in Chinatown any more, if that.

    Speaking of newcomers, do you ever scout Flushing? When access to Chinatown was restricted in the days after 9/11, a lot of businesses shifted there and never moved back because of the low rents. It’s the new de-facto Chinatown for recent immigrnants, now. It used to be where the Hoklo-speaking Taiwanese and Fujianese kept away from the Cantonese in Chinatown, but now there are all kinds of dialect groups there, though most of the city’s good Taiwanese restaurants are still concentrated around the vicinity of Main and Northern Blvd.

  2. Last year, there was a place in Flushing that was a gambling parlor – but totally out in the open

    I never really mentioned it b/c I wanted to do an event there (never did). They had games on computer screens to play. You’d buy chips, gamble chips ( I think they were chips or soemthing), and then exchange them back for money. It was really remarkable that I was doing this out in the open in Queens.

    Here is their explanation for how it is legal.

    Well, it’s gone now.

  3. Scout:

    Very interesting post. My wife is Chinese, but we don’t go to the Manhattan Chinatown as often as we used to go. There are better shops in the Brooklyn and Queens Chinatowns, and easier parking.

    As for the signs, would it be any cheaper these days for filmmakers to fix the signs via CGI in Post? How many of the signs are actually on-screen for more than a second or two?

  4. Jeremy In Kansas

    “most of these places run illegal mahjong games in back rooms, upstairs apartments, and underground spaces.”

    This is what I romanticize most about New York City–the back rooms and underground spaces, and the activities (legal and illegal) that go on there. They’re probably nothing like what I imagine they are, but the fact that they exist is good enough for me.

  5. I lived in a place on Mulberry Street years ago and about a week after I moved in I noticed someone in the building behind us burning garbage in the yard of their building which faced Mott. At first I thought it was a Budhist prayer ritual; but I soon realized it was going on every night and became suspect as to their activities. Several months later, I started talking to another resident in my building and happen to mention the garbage being burned. I was told that the family with the burn barrel ran “numbers” and other games and this was how they did their “filing”.

  6. Sean, have you noticed that the stuff carried in what few large Chinese groceries are left in Chinatown don’t carry as high a class of merchandise as the Queens stores? HK Supermarket has outlets in both Chinatown and Flushing, and the good quality HK and Taiwanese brands are mostly carried in Flushing while the Manhattan store has many more PRC brands. I think that many of the affluent Chinese have left Chinatown, and this is a reflection of that shift.

    We prefer Gold City in Queens anyway, despite the parking headache on Saturday mornings.

  7. Thanks for the link; I hope she resumes posting too! I have loved Chinatown in NYC every time I’ve been there.

  8. Jeremy: Some of these spaces still retain a hint of mystery. The secret tunnel on Doyers Street is one of them…they were used as escape routes for gangs at the start of the 20th century:

  9. Scout: Thanks for the shout out to Five Spice Alley! Part 2 of the Peach Blossom saga is up now:

  10. Thanks for a nice read at 2:45 am.My girlfriend lives in Flushing and is playing Mahjong tonight. That’s how I ccame upon your blog. She’s from Kowloon. I prefer Manhattan Chinatown the most. I am there quite often. The way to learn anything in New York whether it be Chinatown or Little Italy…be in the street a lot and don’t ask questions. Look and listen.Never ask.A silent man learns from observing. A man who asks questions learns what others want him to know. Good luck with your film. I wish you the best. If you need an actor give me a call. Take care.