Band on the Run: Farewell from New York’s Chinatown

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, has been keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. This is her final post in this series. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), this series offers a musician’s perspective on road life.

My final post for “Band on the Run” fittingly brings me full-circle. I started blogging for Gadling with my trip to China in April and then I came back to North America and hit the road with my band again while simultaneously starting this series, “Band on the Run.” Now that I’m planning my return to China in just under a month, it seems fitting that my last post for “Band on the Run” be about the largest Chinatown in North America: New York City’s Chinatown.

Founded in the 1970’s by Chinese immigrants, this is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in New York. It is located on the East Side of Lower Manhattan and easily accessible by car or subway. It’s full of life and colour and interesting juxtapositions of culture and architecture and smells.

I loved it!


We had the afternoon to wander around and the day was beautiful and sunny, like a rush of summer in September. Having been in and out of New York at least once a year over the past decade, it’s amazing how little time I’ve actually spent there. We rarely have the down time to actually hang out in the city and check out new neighbourhoods. It’s often just a quick arrival after fighting traffic, load-in, set-up, sound check, play, tear down, pack up and drive out (because accommodations are so expensive in the city.)

I had never seen New York’s Chinatown and I was eager to walk around, use my Mandarin and see if I couldn’t find some “su baozi” or steamed veggie buns like I’d enjoyed so much in Beijing. And, well, I was also looking forward to just enjoying the late summer sunshine and feeling like tourists for a moment.

Lyndell and I pulled up and found parking (with our big white van – that’s sometimes tough in New York!) just on East Broadway and Straus Square. We happened to find a broken parking meter, which is the equivalent to striking gold in a big city! That means that we had the right to park as long as we wanted — liberation from having to feed the parking meter all day!

We weaved around the streets and poked our heads into bakeries and shops. I had a few conversations with strangers about baozi and realized that I was saying it wrong when everyone thought I was asking about a newspaper. I corrected my tones and then mostly had conversations about why I was a vegetarian and how hard it is to find Chinese buns that aren’t meat or sweet-filled. In the end, I got no information about where to find them, but I did discover a great supermarket that was considered the center of Chinatown by several different people: the Hong Kong Supermarket.

Lyndell and I went in and I was rocketed back to Beijing. The smells, the action, the way the products were displayed, even. I found the entire environment reminded me of the shops I frequented in Wudaokou. The products were also very similar but also included products from Thailand and more American products than I ever saw in China. Still, it felt like I was back there somehow, and what a joy it was to introduce that experience to Lyndell who has yet to see China on her own.

We slowly walked through the store and I bought some necessary items to kick out my head cold (like ginger and sinus tea) and also some glutinous rice cakes and tofu products that I had never eaten back home until I’d been in China. (Lyndell was excited to try them as well and she has officially fallen in love with the sweet rice cakes.) What’s more is that two bags of groceries later and we only spent twenty-five dollars, which included a huge bottle of sweet chilli sauce that I normally find is overpriced in non-Asian grocery outlets.

We headed back to the van after that to put the groceries away and then ducked into a small bar for happy hour. Y’know, it’s been ages since I was at a bar during happy hour and it was great! This little bar, Bar 169, also hosts live music and had several old-fashioned games like a bowling game that required a small puck, pinball and a rickety old pool table. The graffiti on the walls in the bathroom marked years of philosophy during occupancy. I love these kinds of places, the small bars tucked away but opening you into a rush of history when you stumble into their warmth.

When we emerged back onto the sidewalk, it was my (tea-drinker) turn to do the driving (!) and I glanced up as I was about to pull away and finally noticed the beautiful park on the corner that we had been parked beside the whole time: Straus Square. Huge trees and wide gates marked the entrance and seemed like a shaded nature retreat from the bright afternoon sun sparkling off the city traffic. (As this area shares a lot of history with the Jewish population of New York, I mostly found information about this park through sites advertising Jewish history walking tours of Manhattan.)

I smiled then, at the perfection of the afternoon, the chance to see this part of the city and the chance to share this image of China, if only an off-shore reflection, with the person I love the most in the most in the world.

One day, we’ll do a full tour of China. I’m headed back there to try to put those contacts in place as well as to continue my pursuit of fluency in Mandarin. Until then, you’ll definitely hear from me while I’m there . I’m looking forward to digging up some interesting layers from the Beijing underground world. And, of course, I’ll share my stories.

Thanks so much to everyone who has supported this series. “Band on the Run” has reached its finish line.

Take care,

Ember Swift