Celebrate the Year of the Ox with a journey through Chinatowns across the US.
Every year, throngs of people pack the Chinatowns of San Francisco, New York and Chicago
for lively Chinese New Year celebrations. And aft er that last paper dragon float parades by, many proceed to a local restaurant for some General Tso's chicken or a souvenir shop for a pair of meditation balls.
But, of course, the restaurants and curio storefronts don't represent the full scope of Chinatown. Rather, they sprang up mostly out of necessity because, until the passage of Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s, many Chinese immigrants had a difficult time assimilating into mainstream American life.
"Most people don't realize that these populations had been marginalized," says Charlie Chin, an artist-in-residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. "Chinatowns as tourist attractions were built on the premise that the only way to make money was to take advantage of the fact that outsiders were very curious about Chinatown itself."
While many visitors are content sticking with the tried-and-true Chinatown clichés, those who want to truly honor the Year of the Ox this month may want to consider taking a rewarding spiritual journey through these historic neighborhoods.
"The religious beliefs, the history, the architecture… it's a different experience than just going out to eat," says Susan Ng-Harroun, executive director of the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. "Chinese people are traditionally spiritual, and it's an important part of our culture. If you want to understand this ethnic group, then this is part of it you might want to get to know."
The oldest continuously inhabited Chinatown in the country, the one in San Francisco was rebuilt aft er fires triggered by the 1906 earthquake reduced much of "Old" Chinatown to rubble.
One of the structures destroyed was a Buddhist temple first established in 1852. Fortunately, the Tien Hau Temple (125 Waverly Pl) found a new home in 1911. To see this beauty firsthand, climb a narrow staircase to the fift h floor of a fairly generic-looking building, and look for the wooden shrine, brightly colored walls and carved Buddha statues. If you so desire, feel free to present a small off ering to Mazu, the 10th-century goddess (and protector of those in trouble) for whom the temple is dedicated.
For a great view of the action down Stockton Street, one of the two main drags (the other is the more popular tourist destination of Grant Avenue), head to the fourth floor of the Kong Chow Temple (855 Stockton St; 415-788-1339) and make your way to the front balcony. After placing a dollar in the donation box, and admiring the red-, green- and gold-colored altars, take a few minutes to examine the wooden statues-survivors of the 1906 quake.
A slightly lesser-known sacred space is the Gold Mountain Monastery (800 Sacramento St), which offers lectures on Buddhism as well as Sutra recitation classes. If the building is locked, patiently knock and one of the Buddhist nuns should let you in (assuming you're not interrupting a chanting or meditation session).
In many of the nation's Chinatowns, you'll notice a large number of churches. According to Chin, that is because, during the years of restricted immigration after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, missionaries often traveled to Chinatowns to convert the local populations. "They thought it was a pagan enclave in the middle of a Christian city and wanted to correct that," he says.
Among the first churches established by missionaries was Old St. Mary's (660 California St). Originally built in 1854 by Chinese laborers, the cathedral was destroyed during the 1906 earthquake, but rebuilt in 1909. Today, it stands as part of a more harmonious example of religious and cultural cross-pollination: a statue of Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China, stands in the square across from this Catholic landmark.
Located in Lower Manhattan, New York's Chinatown boasts the largest Asian community in North America, and its spiritual history extends beyond the Buddhist beliefs of the first wave of Chinese immigrants who settled here in the 1800s.
For one thing, it's where you'll find the famous Five Points (Mosco, Worth and Baxter streets). Named for the intersection of the five streets that converged in what is now Columbus Park, this is the location of the first tenements built to house the influx of German and Irish immigrants starting in the 1820s; the then-notorious slum was immortalized in Martin Scorsese's film Gangs of New York.
"I can tell you, there are a lot of spirits [at Five Points], because this is where everybody's great-grandfather came from," says Wellington Chen, executive director of the nonprofit Chinatown Partnership. "We are part of something bigger, of all the ethnic groups that came to New York."
It's one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, which makes it a treasure trove for the cultural tourist. Landmarks built by more recent Chinese immigrants are interspersed with remnants of the Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants who once inhabited the area. For example, the 325-year-old First Shearith Israel Cemetery (55-57 St. James Pl) is just a short stroll from Chatham Square and the Kim Lau Arch, which was erected in 1962 in honor of the Chinese-Americans who died in World War II.
Also nearby is the crooked Doyers Street (which runs between Pell Street and Bowery), one of the more interesting side alleys and the former center of commercial life. According to Chen, the street is bent at a 90-degree angle to help ward off evil spirits. "In the Chinese tradition, evil spirits cannot fly any direction other than straight," he says.
The largest and best-known temple is the Mahayana Buddhist Temple (133 Canal St). Look for the gilded lions guarding the entrance, and step inside to see what some call the "city's largest Buddha." There's a gift shop on the second floor, and on some days, a donation will score you some vegetarian treats made by the resident monks.
Located on the gritty South Side, the massive Chinatown Gate-an arch decorated with handpainted tiles- welcomes you to the main commercial district, anchored by the Pui Tak Center (2216 S Wentworth Ave).
Built in 1926, this landmark structure features striking green and red pagoda towers, walls with terra cotta flowers and majestic lion carvings. Th e neighborhood's only designated historic landmark, this building has served a number of purposes: Once the On Leong Merchant Association Building, and then Chinatown City Hall, it currently serves as a local Sunday school run by the Chinese Christian Union Church, as well as an orientation center for recent immigrants.
More examples of the aforementioned intermingling of Chinese culture and Christian faith can be found at St. Therese Chinese Catholic Mission (218 W Alexander St). Inside the church, Chinese characters adorn the altar, while two dragon statues sit out front. Masses are conducted in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, plus Indonesian and Italian once a month. In fact, one of Chicago's most infamous Italian-Americans, the gangster Al Capone, is said to have attended Mass here with his mother.
Make your final stop the traditional Buddhist Temple (2245 S Wentworth Ave). Th is non-descript storefront resembles a gift shop from the outside, but inside you'll discover monks deep in meditation and some interesting statues, including one depicting the 1,000-armed goddess or "enlightened being" of compassion known as Guan Yin Bodhisattva. If Chicago's cold winds are blowing, ask her for mercy as you trek back to the hotel. It certainly can't hurt.
Whether you travel to San Francisco, New York or Chicago, one thing's for certain: After engaging on a more extended level with these lively communities-visiting historic sites and learning about the spiritual elements- that General Tso's chicken will taste a little bit better next time.
CHINESE NEW YEAR
The Year of the Ox starts Jan. 26, but the party lasts for weeks.
CHICAGO: The Asian American Coalition of Chicago's 26th Annual Lunar New Year Celebration (Jan.24) incorporates traditions from 16 cultures, including Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese. Get your tickets early-this banquet sells out fast. www.aacchicago.org
NEW YORK: Highlights include a fire-cracker ceremony in Chatham Square (Jan. 26) and Lunar New Year Parade (Feb. 1), complete with more than a dozen floats, cultural performers and hundreds of thousands of spectators. www.explorechinatown.com
SAN FRANCISCO: Purchase traditional flora while enjoying cultural displays at the Flower Market Fair (Jan. 24-25). The highlight is the parade (Feb. 7), which is the biggest celebration of its kind outside of Asia. www.sanfranciscochinatown.com