Village Voice 05.10.2017 : Page 7
SCENES 9 May 10 -May 16, 2017 VILLAGE VOICE.com MAY 5, 2017. A SANDSTORM IN CONEY ISLAND CATCHES A JOGGER ON THE BOARDWALK. PHOTOGRAPH BY LUC KORDAS FORGET IT, JAKE from p5 ingly prescient Chinese Exclusion Act. As for Lee, a second-generation Taiwanese academic who grew up on the West Coast, she has spent her career compiling a massive database of Chinese restau-rants of the past. Part of Lee’s scholarship In the early 1900s, an entire network of tunnels coursed through Chinatown has explored how the American govern-ment’s anti-Chinese immigration laws — inadvertently, perhaps — gave rise to the proliferation of Chinese restaurants across the country. As she explains over a bowl of fried eggplant as crispy and sweet as a churro but with a can-can pepper kick, in 1915 a federal court ruled that Chinese restaurateurs were entitled to a merchant-status exemption from the blanket exclusionary acts. “As a result,” Lee tells me, “the Chinese have a much greater interest going into the restaurant industry. In the early twentieth century, there was an explosion of Chinese restaurants.” Today, there are more than 45,000 across the country. Most of the early restaurants weren’t fancy, but some were. One, in fact, was famous: Chinese Tuxedo. The original version opened in 1905 on the corner of Doyers and the Bowery. It was a cushy spot, judging from postcards, filled with what Lee calls “slummers,” gussied-up white folks looking for a little bit of the Other. (It is now, naturally, a Chase bank.) As for its reincarnation, “I think the nam-ing of this place is really clever,” says Lee, looking around the room. But the existence of the current Chi-nese Tuxedo, and really any restaurant in New York, would be unthinkable if Trump had his way with our borders. First of all, like all restaurants, it runs on immigrant labor. Add to that the fact that co-owner Eddy Buckingham, who looks like an elongated Patrick Swayze, is from Australia, weirdly among our new neme-ses, and there’s simply no way Chinese Tuxedo would ever get going in the first place. Even more fundamentally, without immigration we would have neither the original template for Chinese Tuxedo nor the flavors for Chinese Tuxedo’s chef, a Scotsman named Paul Donnelly, to play with. There would be no bigeye tuna in strange-flavored dressing or char siu pork with a glaze sticky like Grandma’s no-sit furniture. “Overgrown fear of immi-grants means that not only are we depriv-ing others of their opportunities,” says Lee, “but we’re robbing ourselves of our own opportunities, too.” Other than well-done steaks, what would we have? Doyers Street itself tells the story. The growth of the tongs and the burrowing of their tunnels was also, par-tially at least, an outgrowth of the govern-ment’s relentless persecution of Chinese immigrants. Without legal means of pro-tection, many Chinese turned to illegal channels such as the tongs . These, of course, turned against one another, and for a while Doyers Street was called “the Bloody Angle” for the death that flowed along its crooked hundred meters. In 1905, where well-heeled Tinder date shtuppers and trendy noodle slurpers now dine, the street ran red after a deadly massacre. As any historian worth her salt knows, you need to mine the past for the veins of the future. So, after dinner, we entered into any promising doorway on Doyers that looked like it led to a deeper story. Eventually we ended up here, stumbling past Metro shelves in sub-basements laden with nixtamalized corn flour. “I think this is it!” exclaimed Lee, ever the optimist. For my part, I was going over in my head what I might say to a startled barback, if we ran into one. Eventually, Lee and I ended up in a dead-end closet that petered out into nothing. We turned around, retraced our steps, and headed up a narrow flight of stairs and back into the dark night of the present.