The Nom Wah Dynasty

Morning is hardly a rush on Doyers Street. Cars are rare on the narrow Chinatown backstreet; shirtless octogenarians do calisthenic stretches on the sidewalk; a barber takes a 45-minute cigarette break; and neighborhood mainstays play cards and sip cups of hot oolong tea at Nom Wah, New York City’s oldest tea parlor.

Nom Wah has been on Doyers Street since 1920. At first glance, the restaurant seems unchanged since then. A faded red sign with yellow script still covers its awning. Yellow walls and red, vinyl-padded booths continue to line the walls. Patrons hang their jackets, blazers, and trenchcoats atop the same tableside racks. A rusty metal fan still blows wall-to-wall air on hot summer days, just as it did nearly 50 years ago.

But the restaurant has changed over the years. Today’s average lunch-hour consists of more non-Asian guests than Chinese ones. While most who sit down at the restaurant know how to use chopsticks, a growing number are either tourists or new to the area. And they have yet to learn. One of the headwaiters, between taking orders, cleaning tables and working the register, gives ad-hoc lessons to patrons struggling to use chopsticks.

Nom Wah is, in many ways, the face of a changing Chinatown. Just down the road, on Hester Street and Bowery, one of the area’s last Chinese-language movie houses is now a Wyndham Hotel. And not long after a 2009 fire destroyed Pike Street’s Hong Kong Supermarket, Hotel 91 took its place. As gentrification passes through New York, worries about the future of the city’s legendary ethnic enclave are rising.

“Chinatown is teetering,” said Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership local development corporation. “We need to take action and provide medicine that will keep our community in the game.”

Nom Wah has had three proprietors since opening its doors almost 93 years ago. Wally Tang started working there in 1950, at age 16, eventually buying the place in 1974. He retired last February, but sold the restaurant to his nephew Wilson Tang, who remains determined to move into the future without forgetting the past.

Despite largely maintaining the restaurant’s old appearance, Tang, 33, has renovated much of Nom Wah’s interior. Modern, more sanitary tools have replaced the half-century-old kitchen equipment. Revised menus are written in both Chinese and English, and they feature more food and beverage choices. Customers can now eat newly added dishes like roast pork buns, fried sesame balls and sweet and sour spare ribs. The drink selection has also widened to include Westernized teas, like Earl Grey. On a recent afternoon, some patrons are greeted with a fist bump from Tang as Adele’s “Rumour Has It” played on the kitchen stereo.

“My uncle made this place a family business for chatting, card-playing and family,” said the younger Tang. “I want to make this place clean and updated while keeping that old-school charm. Chinatown is current, although it is not Disneyland.”

Tang may not want to see Chinatown become a Disneyland version of itself. But if real estate developers wanted to build an 80-foot-tall replica of the Sleeping Beauty Castle across the street from him, few regulations would stop them. This example may be extreme, but the danger of real estate moguls running amok is real. The City Council has addressed the issue in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, where the heights of buildings built after 2008 must not exceed 80 feet. Chinatown has no such standards.

City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, whose district represents Chinatown, hopes that her neighborhood’s lack of building height caps will not chase away its tradition.

“As new residents move in, it is important that they respect the long history and struggles Chinatown has weathered,” Chin told the Free Press. “Old-timers are the ones who built this neighborhood, and we must ensure that [they] can stay and prosper in this community. Without them, you lose what gives a community character.”

Chin has spent most of her life in Chinatown. She arrived from Hong Kong in 1963, when she was nine years old. As a member of the City Council, she has expressed support for Business Improvement Districts, which provide public sanitation, safety, and tourism funding to select city neighborhoods. Chinatown became one such community last September, following unanimous support from the City Council. Despite luxury high-rise developers turning their eyes southward, she hopes the district designation will keep her community’s revenue flowing without abandoning local business.

“This is not a community where we begrudge anyone’s success,” Chin added. “But when you lose long-term residents, you lose the anchor of the community.”

Hubert Liang, a 17-year Chinatown resident, hopes this legislation will protect residents. After spending 15 years in a third-floor walkup apartment on Mott Street, Liang, 43, stepped into his bathroom last November and turned his sink’s hot water knob, only to find the water ice cold. Liang believes his landlord deliberately shut off the hot water to chase him out of the building and redevelop the property into higher-priced units.

Once his pipes finally froze over and burst, Liang packed his bags. But he was determined to find another apartment nearby. His friend soon told him about a vacancy on Worth Street. He stepped inside and signed the lease.

“They couldn’t kick me out of this neighborhood that easily,” he said.

Chin worries that not everyone will be as resilient as Liang. For every frozen pipe, leaky faucet or wall crack, a Chinatown resident’s monthly rent skyrockets.

“Entire families are living tripled and quadrupled-up in incredibly dangerous living situations because rents are increasing,” said Chin. “Real estate speculation and the driving up of rents do not help anyone – old or new residents.”

One year into Chinatown’s transfomation into a Business Improvement District, Tang’s views on its impact still fluctuate. He is paying hundreds of dollars more in taxes this year, primarily as a result of the project. But he admits that graffiti and trash are less of a problem than they were a few months ago.

Cleaning up graffiti was hardly a priority for Doyers Street – or the rest of Chinatown – during Nom Wah’s early years. The 200-yard lane held such a violent reputation back at the turn of last century, locals deemed it “the Bloody Angle.” Hatchet-toting gang members would cut across from Pell Street or Chatham Square and hide inside the lane’s curves, pouncing whenever their rivals passed by. Opium dens lined the tenements. Author Herbert Asbury wrote in a 1926 edition of The American Mercury that “there has never been an excuse” for Doyers to exist. Former New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia once predicted that a crime-ridden Chinatown would never see the 20th Century’s end.

A lunch hour concluded one recent afternoon at Nom Wah. Tang’s wife stopped by the restaurant with their three-month-old son, asleep in his stroller. Tang strode across the dining area, kissed his wife and adjusted his son’s blanket. While he was appointed to Community Board 3, Chinatown’s mediation council, in April, he carries no political inspirations. He simply calls himself a family businessman, focused on modernizing while maintaining character in his community.

“I just want my kids to play and grow up here,” he said, standing behind his sleeping son.

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The Big Apple That Feeds

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Against the coffee house’s window-side ledge, a poet labors over her verse. The words just don’t sound right, she thinks. She repeats the lines to herself until her city talks back.

“Excuse me, miss,” says an on-the-go latte drinker. “You have a very distinctive voice. Where are you from?”

“New York,” the poet answers. “Born and raised.”

She gets ready to leave the coffeeshop roughly 15 minutes later. Her purse spills, and her driver’s license hits the floor. She did not always live in New York. She admits she has only spent two years in the city. But she believes her life began here.

How could anyone live in that place? Old friends and family from out of town will never stop asking. No matter how annoying the question might get, it’s understandable. New York is, after all, a city of bright-eyed advertising and subtle criticism. People seldom admit their flaws. Colleagues overreact to their co-workers’ slightest quirks. Landlords charge way too much for that shoebox of a first apartment. Cashiers sometimes hand patrons the wrong bagel order, de facto a mistake. And the streetlights always turn red too soon.

Continue reading The Big Apple That Feeds