NEW YORK -- The country's largest and liveliest Asian community, Chinatown is now arguably Manhattan's most visitor-friendly neighborhood, too. It's especially welcoming during the two-week Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations, which began yesterday and climax next Sunday with one of the city's most colorful parades.
''After 9/11 people wanted to do something for this community," says Steven Tin, president of a Better Chinatown Society, sponsor of the parade. The hundreds of restaurants and shops in Chinatown lost their Financial District clientele and were cut off from uptown patrons in September 2001. The following February, New Yorkers showed their support by thronging to Chinatown in unprecedented numbers (250,000, five times the previous year's count) for the annual Lunar New Year Parade.
The parade itself has ballooned to include some 5,000 marchers, more than a dozen floats, and, for the first time this year, several hours of performances on stages at its East Broadway terminus. Festivities welcoming in the Year of the Rooster begin with a large flower market this weekend and a firecracker ceremony (to ward off evil spirits) as well as stage and street performances Wednesday. Throughout the celebration, restaurants are featuring special New Year's dishes, and neighborhood hotels are offering special rates.
The idea of Chinatown as a place to stay is, admittedly, novel. Consider, however, how recently Bostonians began arriving here by bus, taking advantage of competing Chinese-owned companies that were offering $10 Boston-to-New York fares. Then, last summer, the Fung Wah bus company moved into Boston's South Station, now also the departure point for Lucky Star Bus Transportation (formerly Travel Pack).
Never mind that the Chinese buses are relegated to Gate 13. The Chinese consider four, not 13, unlucky. Never mind either that the fare is now $15 and that tickets are sold at tables by the gate. The new setup is more convenient than the old routine of buying tickets at a Chinatown bakery. Buses also now depart on time, full or not.
One recent Thursday, my full-size, half-empty Fung Wah bus backed out of Gate 13 precisely at 9 a.m., and despite a leisurely pit stop midway, pulled up at 1 p.m. on the dot beside the Mahayana Buddhist Temple at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge.
On past arrivals here, I had been met by New York-based offspring who shouldered my bag. This time, I was on my own, headed for a midtown business meeting. Off I walked, rolling my bag along wide, busy Canal Street, past discount and curio shops, up narrow, crowded Mulberry Street, formerly the heart of Little Italy, now a mix of Italian and Asian restaurants. Turning west on Grand Street, I almost walked right by the Solita Soho. The sleek, 12-story hotel, one of several Chinatown hotels, is just a storefront wide. It opened last summer, on a site recently vacated by a live chicken market.
The advantages of my lodging location soon became apparent. From the subway stop around the corner I was at my Park Avenue appointment in 20 minutes. That evening, again because of good subway connections, my family, with members scattered between Manhattan and Brooklyn, could gather easily and choose from dozens of reasonably priced, nearby restaurants. We settled on big, noisy Joe's Shanghai (known for dumplings) at 9 Pell St. and then moved to Winnie's (104 Bayard St.), a small lounge, quiet and family-oriented enough for my 5-year-old granddaughter to make her karaoke debut. On weekends, of course, this wouldn't have been possible.
Friday and Saturday are big karaoke nights at a half-dozen Chinatown lounges (check out Asia Roma and Yellow on Mulberry Street by Columbus Park), and on Fridays, the Teabag Open Mic, downstairs below the Silk Road Mocha CafÃ© (30 Mott St.), is free.
''This community has to express itself and it won't through [just] karaoke," Teabag founder Telly Wong, 27, explained, about the mix of music, comedy, hip-hop, and poetry that draws weekend crowds.
Like many of his generation, Wong does not speak fluent Chinese. His family moved while he was a small boy from a Lafayette Street apartment to their own home in Brooklyn. It was as a student at nearby New York University that he became fascinated with Chinatown, its mix of new and old, its boutiques, trendy cafes, and martini lounges shouldering longstanding restaurants, barbershops, and traditional markets. Wong now works for Explore Chinatown, a two-year campaign dedicated to promoting Chinatown as a multifaceted destination.
While 90 percent of Chinatown's 150,000 residents remain Asian, many traditional staples of life, once found only in Chinatown, are now easily available in large satellite neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens. Still, Wong argues, Chinatown's 40 square blocks remain the showcase of Chinese (from Canton, Shanghai, and Taiwan) as well as Vietnamese, Malaysian, and other Asian cuisines and cultures.
''So much here is hidden in plain sight," Wong said, advising us to take the 90-minute walking tour sponsored by the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, or MoCA. The museum itself is hidden on the second floor of a massive 19th-century former school building on the corner of Mulberry and Bayard streets.
MoCA's current special exhibit, ''Have You Eaten Yet?", traces the history of Chinese restaurants in America through vintage menus, cartoons, and other materials offering insights into the life of owners and staff of these restaurants spanning the country and century.
Designed to suggest the shape of an 11-sided lantern, MoCA's permanent exhibit gallery displays artifacts ranging from a vintage sewing machine (the neighborhood still houses hundreds of garment factories) to a yellowed letter from a wife in China, sweetly asking her husband in Chinatown if he has secrets to tell her.
The full import of that letter struck us on our walking tour. Tricia Sung, our docent, had come armed with 1890s photos and, standing on Pell Street, asked us to identify the biggest change we could see. Her point: The buildings were identical, but in the 1890s everyone in the photo was male.
The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), Sung said, prohibited men from bringing their families; only after the elimination of the immigration quota, in 1968, did families seriously swell the size of Chinatown. The mammoth, high-rise Confucius Plaza apartment complex looming at the eastern end of Pell Street is a dramatic monument to that breakthrough.
History aside, the walking tour opened our eyes to much that is ''hidden in plain sight," ranging from the rich interior of the vintage 1801 Church of the Transfiguration to the warren of Chinese employment and insurance agencies in the Chinatown Tunnel, accessed through an unpromising door beside Coco, a small Doyers Street boutique, masking the former entrance to a defunct Chinese theater.
Chinatown insights can now begin at the pagoda-roofed information kiosk that opened in December at the intersection of Canal and Walker streets. Between 10 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., staff members dispense maps and booklet guides, and patiently duck the perennial question: ''What's the best restaurant?"
The answer, it turns out, depends not only on taste (more than 200 Chinatown restaurants offer more than 15 types of cuisine) but on the time of day.
Start the morning with coffee or milk tea and a sweet bun at Fa Da Bakery (83 Mott St.) and join a walking tour or wander with a map or guide until you are hungry for dim sum. Literally ''a little bit of heart," dim sum are bite-size dumplings, steamed dishes, rice rolls, and sweets served from trolleys wheeled between tables.
According to Peter Yau of the justly popular Golden Unicorn (18 E. Broadway), dim sum restaurants have proliferated in recent years -- and it's easy to understand why: Patrons can see what they are getting and share many small dishes in an atmosphere that encourages lingering to try just one more.
Leisurely dining is the hallmark of the Chinese Lunar New Year, a celebration equal to Christmas and Thanksgiving combined. Families and friends gather for 10-course banquets at Chinatown mainstays like the Oriental Garden Restaurant (14 Elizabeth St.) and Peking Duck House (28 Mott St.) and take advantage of reasonably priced set menus at smaller eateries such as Sweet-n-Tart Restaurant (20 Mott St.). Specialty Lunar New Year dishes include braised lobster with watercress sauce, sautÃ©ed shrimp with orange sauce, and winter melon soup.
The weather during my stay began benignly enough, but then temperatures plunged, and we took advantage of numerous bakeries and tea shops, sampling the elaborate tea ceremony at Ten Ren Tea & Ginseng Co. Inc., a pilgrimage point for tea lovers.
Everywhere we heard the greeting ''Kung Hei Fat Choy!" or ''Happy Lunar New Year!" Streets were decked in the New Year colors of green, gold, and red. Open storefronts were hung with red lanterns and stacked with glittering red gift envelopes. Unquestionably, this is the season to explore Chinatown.
Christina Tree is a freelance writer in Cambridge.