Even when I lived hours away, Manhattan’s Chinatown was my family’s destination for groceries. Decades back, you couldn’t find the same variety and quality of Chinese produce, meats and dried goods in most of the Mid-Atlantic.
But that’s changed.
Cheaper options in Flushing, Queens; Sunset Park, Brooklyn; and elsewhere in the city have drawn working-class Chinese immigrants away from this neighborhood bordered by trendy SoHo and TriBeCa.
As Chinatown’s population changes, what will happen to the grocers and specialty food stores that feed the community?
“One of the reasons Chinese in our neighborhood have been able to sustain our community nutritionally is because these vendors exist,” said Jan Lee, a Chinatown resident and property owner in the neighborhood. “For gentrification, people think it’ll be $8 coffee, but before that happens you’ll displace a fishmonger or a fruit seller who is providing inexpensive food.”
“我们社区的华人之所以能够不断为维系社区提供养分,原因之一就是这些商贩的存在,”华埠居民、该社区的业主简·李(Jan Lee)说。“人们对社区高阶层化改造的想法是,一杯咖啡要8美元,但在这之前你会看到的是,为社区提供便宜食物的鱼贩子或水果商没有了。”
For several years, Chinatown has helped teach my third-generation American children what it means to be Taiwanese-American, not only because they go to Mandarin school there, but also because, just as importantly, they eat the foods, foods that aren’t pristine and sterilized, boneless and skinned.
But while New York City’s Chinese population continues to grow, by more than 70 percent since 2000, Manhattan’s Chinatown is losing Chinese residents. According to census data, and the city’s neighborhood map, Chinatown’s Chinese population has declined by 30 percent since 2000.
I spoke to some food shopkeepers, who ran first- and second-generation family businesses in Chinatown. Their answers both surprised and inspired me and suggested that while some see a neighborhood in decline, others see merely a transition.
香港超级市场的刘易斯·胡(Lewis Wu)说,超市扩大了乳制品的种类范围,以同时服务华人和非华人顾客。
香港超级市场的刘易斯·胡(Lewis Wu)说,超市扩大了乳制品的种类范围,以同时服务华人和非华人顾客。 Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times
Lewis Wu, 50
刘易斯·胡(Lewis Wu),50岁
Hong Kong Supermarket, 157 Hester Street
香港超级市场(Hong Kong Supermarket),Hester街157号
After immigrating from Burma, Lewis Wu’s father opened his first store in 1973, a small dry goods grocery on East Broadway in Chinatown.
Business was brisk, especially on Chinese New Year’s. “It was actually like a can of sardines.” Mr. Wu reminisced, “long lines throughout the whole day.”
And Mr. Wu loved it. Choosing products and seeing what sells at what price was like running little experiments for him.
So while his sisters went into medicine and dentistry, he chose the family business.
With two floors and 17,000 square feet, Hong Kong Supermarket is one of the largest in Chinatown and larger than most grocery stores in Manhattan: The store has several tanks for live fish and shellfish, a butcher section, a back wall entirely for frozen goods, and a lower level for kitchenware, herbs, rice and noodles.
在香港超级市场,作者的孩子们喜欢在地下楼层的过道里奔跑,这里往往没有一楼那么繁忙。 Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times
香港超级超市的各种零食和其他产品的一小部分。 Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times
与一些较小的商店不同,香港超级市场的某一产品往往有多个品牌的选择。 Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times
Just a few years ago, Hong Kong Supermarket expanded its selection of non-Asian products, like yogurts and cold cuts, though Mr. Wu explained that it wasn’t just non-Chinese customers who had asked for it.
While his customer base used to be more first-generation Chinese, he said now he saw more second-generation Chinese-Americans along with non-Asians.
And Mr. Wu’s family also opened stores in East Brunswick, N.J., and Flushing, Queens, to tap into growing Asian communities outside Chinatown.
“Like dinosaurs,” said Mr. Wu, “if you don’t change with the environment, you won’t be here.”
But he added that despite the relative higher rent in Chinatown, the volume of sales at the Hester Street store still made it the most profitable.
Muoi Truong, 51
张梅(Muoi Truong,音),51岁
Sidewalk stand on Mulberry Street near Canal 
桑树街(Mulberry Street)上离运河街(Canal)不远的街摊
张梅(Muoi Truong,音)说最繁忙的时间是周末,来自全城各地的人都来到华埠购物。
张梅(Muoi Truong,音)说最繁忙的时间是周末,来自全城各地的人都来到华埠购物。 Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times
On a recent December afternoon, Muoi Truong could be found wearing six layers of clothing and three hats.
In front of her was a rainbow of fruit from the tropics — pink-red lychees, ruby rambutans, yellow mangos, pale green Taiwanese guava and fuchsia dragon fruit — sitting atop three tables on the sidewalk of Mulberry Street near Canal.
One shopper considered a box of strawberries and asked, “Is it sweet?”
“Sweet like you,” replied Ms. Truong, 51, almost instinctively.
Karlin Chan, a community activist in Chinatown, introduced me to Ms. Truong, who has sold fruit with her husband for over 20 years at this location. Her sister and brother run a similar stand around the corner farther east on Canal.
华埠的社区活动人士陈家龄(Karlin Chan)把张梅介绍给了我,她和丈夫在这个摊位卖水果已经20多年了。她有兄弟姐妹在运河街往东更远的拐角处经营着一个类似的摊位。
张梅摊位上展示的火龙果,它们的内部可以是白色或深粉色的,带有类似猕猴桃的黒籽。 Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times
柿子是作者两岁孩子的最爱。 Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times
Ms. Truong usually starts at 8 a.m. and works until 10 p.m. (Her mother, 83, often spends the day outside as well.)
But she says her business has declined, and standing all day has started to wear on her. She pointed to her bowed legs and said her knees had been bothering her.
Would she want one of her four children to continue the business? “Of course not, I’m hoping they’ll go to medical school!” she said. Her two oldest are in college, at Columbia University and the University of Richmond.
她会让四个孩子中的一个继续这个生意吗?“当然不会,我希望他们都能上医学院!”她说。她的两个最大的子女正在上大学,一个在哥伦比亚大学(Columbia University),一个在里士满大学(University of Richmond)。
My 80-something-year-old uncle in Missouri said that before he died, he would love to be able to eat cherimoya, a fruit closely related to the soursop and brought to Southeast Asia from the Americas. We sent one from Ms. Truong.
Paul Eng, 51
伍启芳(Paul Eng),51岁
Fong On, tofu store, 81 Division Street (opening early 2019) 
伍启芳举着他家族的最后一家商店“宏安”的牌子。 伍启芳计划在以前制作豆腐的地点开一家新店。
伍启芳举着他家族的最后一家商店“宏安”的牌子。 伍启芳计划在以前制作豆腐的地点开一家新店。 Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times
Paul Eng really wants to appeal to everybody.
His new shop will offer riffs on Asian foods to attract younger customers who are into the “snacking, foodie culture,” basically, quick bites, usually novel and Instagram-able, that could be sweet or savory.
The store will also sell conventional tofu, other soy-based products and sticky rice cake to serve older Chinatown residents.
“I still want to serve the community,” Mr. Eng said.
Though Mr. Eng has a family history in the tofu business (his father owned Fong Inn Too on Mott Street, the oldest tofu and noodle shop in the city), this new store is a somewhat surprising turn for him.
虽然家里一直经营豆腐生意(他的父亲曾拥有勿街[Mott St]的宏安[Fong Inn Too],那是纽约最老的豆腐和面条小食店),但这家新店对他而言多少是个意外的转折。
He had long disliked working at his family’s store. “Any little thing that needed attending to, it had to be done right away, seven days a week,” said Mr. Eng, who was the youngest child.
So a few years ago, when his parents and older brothers asked if he wanted to take over the business, he had no interest.
Fong Inn Too, known as 宏安, closed in February 2017.
Now though, at 51 with two young children, Mr. Eng is looking for a steady job instead of freelance photography. He had spent 10 years as a commercial photographer in Russia, where he met his wife.
伍启芳在家里制作豆浆。制作豆浆、豆腐和豆奶冻的步骤都是从浸泡干大豆开始,之后煮沸和过滤它们。 Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times
伍启芳的家族店面是作者的母亲偏好吃豆奶冻配姜糖浆的地方。 Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times
But unlike the original shop owned by his father, the new shop will serve foods like soy custards topped with red and mung beans, boba or grass jelly, a combination he was introduced to while visiting Taiwan.
“Who knew?” Mr. Eng’s eyes brightened. “I’ve eaten all this stuff in separate parts my whole life, but together? Oh my God!”
The name will still be 宏安, this time transliterated as Fong On.
店名仍叫“宏安”,不过这次音译为Fong On。
“I’m going to put everything that I know into it,” Mr. Eng added. “The photography, the marketing, the art direction.”
I asked Mr. Eng what his father, who has died, would say about his return to the tofu business after so many years of resistance. His answer: “I told you so.”
Zee Ying Wong, 73, Steven Wong, 39, and Freeman Wong, 42 
Aqua Best Seafood, 276 Grand Street 
 格兰街(Grand Street)276号福旺海产(Aqua Best Seafood)
弗里曼·王对于社区的转变并没有过于感伤。“时代在变,”他说道,“我记得华埠小得多的时候。” Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times
The customers, and even the vendors, call her “Mommy.”
Though she’s not in charge anymore, Zee Ying Wong, 73, manages the register at Aqua Best and enjoys chats with longtime customers.
“It would be boring to stay home,” she said.
About 30 years ago, after Ms. Wong’s husband passed away, she built up the current business, now managed by her two sons, Freeman, 42, and Steven Wong, 39, along with other family members.
But she still comes every day “to point out the things they should pay attention to and how to solve problems,” she added.
One entire wall of this spacious store is occupied by glass tanks, filled with barramundi, spotted shrimp, whelk, Dungeness crabs, King crabs and lobsters. In the center are trays of razor clams and other shellfish next to several types of iced fish, and a bucket of frogs near the back (so as not to scare the non-Chinese customers, Steven Wong explained).
Freeman Wong spent 10 years in the finance industry. But when his job required a move to Ohio, he decided in 2004 to dedicate himself full time to Aqua Best.
“I needed a little bit of time to figure out what I wanted to do,” he said.
福旺海产的整面墙几乎都装置了蓄水池。华埠的商店经常供应活海鲜。 Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times
在出发前往华埠买杂货时,作者有时会和她的孩子开玩笑,说他们要去水族馆。 Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times
The business and its block have changed a lot since then. Its neighbors used to be a handful of other Chinese-owned seafood shops, now replaced by an ice cream shop and a Vietnamese restaurant among others.
And wholesale makes up 90 percent of its revenue now, with restaurant clients like Blanca and Del Posto, along with nearby Chinese restaurants.
另外,有了Blanca和Del Posto这样的餐厅客户,以及附近的中餐馆,批发现在占到了它收入的九成。
Steven and Freeman Wong have partnered with a former executive chef from the restaurant Talde to open a seafood market and restaurant called Essex Pearl. It’ll be ready next spring at the new Essex Crossing, an enormous development on the Lower East Side.
史蒂文和弗里曼·王跟Talde餐厅的前行政主厨合作,打算开一家叫埃塞克斯珍珠(Essex Pearl)的海产市场和餐厅。餐厅将在明年春季就绪,位于新的埃塞克斯路口(Essex Crossing)——纽约下东区一片巨大的开发项目。
The menu won’t be strictly Chinese, but rather a mix of Jewish, Hispanic, and Asian cuisines, a homage to the neighborhood’s history.
Freeman Wong said, “The second and third generation, we’re bringing our own ideas of what Chinatown should be.”