By Ashley Wu, Editor in Chief
The first thing I remember about China Chalet is the sidewalk. Cigarette butts and loose sequins scattered the pavement outside of the Financial District dim sum restaurant. The week of Halloween 2019, New Yorkers clad in angel wings and harnesses stood on the sidewalk together, their laughter bouncing across the scaffolding. It seemed they were all hurling towards the same bright, silver future: a future with darker rooms than the ones we were in, with more laughter, more costumes, more extravagance. We were frozen in time.
Then, during the pandemic summer, China Chalet shut its doors permanently. The news sent shockwaves through the local community. China Chalet was a spot that encompassed the city’s duality. By day, it was a restaurant frequented by office workers and friends who inhabited the glowing pink booths, poring over the traditional Cantonese dishes on the menu. At night, the back room was stripped of tables and chairs; the dingy restaurant became a spot populated by drag queens, NYU students, celebrities and miscreants.
The dance floor was borderless. Under the pulse of warm strobes, people of all genders, sexualities and races coagulated into one shifting mass. As a transfer student who sought out the confines of a nonjudgmental community, I found China Chalet to be utopian.
Growing up in the suburbs of Georgia, I did not have the terminology for the things I felt. I was a person inhabiting the space between spaces, an amalgamation of femininity and masculinity and nothing at all. In China Chalet, I saw there were still spaces for me to inhabit. The people there were beautiful and defied categorization. They placed more emphasis on their humanity and less emphasis on trying to define it.
I will always have a soft spot for the people I met at China Chalet, even the ones I never saw again. Collaged in my mind, they are characterized by small things: a gesture in a gloved hand or a coat brimming with feathers. I will always remember the old Chinese man who twanged at the erhu in the back of the dining room. He looked like my grandfather, and when we talked, he gave me words of advice.
The dance floor hollowed out eventually. Near the end of the night, when everyone started heading home, there was a reverence that hung in the air. And then the artefacts were all that was left. Lost jackets and bottle caps strewed the floor like bastions of a lost century. I wonder if they’re still there now.
Yi Fang Fruit Tea and a bad GPS
By Caitlin Hsu, UTA Managing Editor
I don’t know how to explain how an appointment at the Fifth Avenue Microsoft store led me and my friend Danny to a boba tea shop in Flushing, except perhaps through a combination of kismet, free will and bad GPS signal on the E train.
The glass panels of Yi Fang Fruit Tea’s kitchen backsplash have a design identical to that of the windows in my grandmother’s home in Taipei. I remember noticing this similarity for the first time on my last trip to my parents’ home country. I excitedly pointed it out to my mom as we stood in line for boba in the sweltering summer sun. The franchise had a location only a couple blocks away from wai poa’s apartment. I often caught the faint scent of citrus and honey lingering in the air as we passed by on our way to Taipei 101, Ximending, Shilin Night Market, or whatever destination we chose for that day.
I stood in line at Yi Fang’s Flushing location a couple of months later, excitedly telling my friend Danny about the glass panels. The sight of a stranger on the subway holding a beverage from Yi Fang, paired with Danny’s flair for spontaneity and my constant craving for boba tea, had led us to take a detour from our way back to campus. I didn’t know Yi Fang has locations in the United States, much less a location only 20 minutes away from my dorm. What’s more, on our journey there we had passed by Tiger Sugar, another Taiwanese boba tea chain that I also didn’t know existed in the United States.
We passed by Chinese supermarkets, Chinese restaurants, street vendors and unexpected Taiwanese boba tea chains on that late September afternoon in Flushing. But it was the lingering smell of citrus and honey that instantly brought me back to my family’s home country on the other side of the world.
(Author’s note: When I looked up Yi Fang on my GPS that day, at a subway station on Fifth Ave, the closest one that popped up was in Flushing. In fact, Yi Fang has a location on St. Mark’s Place, five blocks away from campus. I choose to believe that fate led us to Flushing that day because the alternate explanation is that my phone GPS simply sucks.)
By Alexandra Chan, Managing Editor
I am a diaspora kid and I found a bit of home in Chinatown, but not because I wanted to reconnect with my roots.
Home is a concept I can’t hold onto. Home falls out of my fingers like sand, leaving minuscule cuts when I try to clench my fists. I’ve moved more than 15 times and I’ve made and lost connections everywhere. New York was the only move that I chose; as a child, I had no agency in family decisions. I grew up in Hong Kong, lived in Shanghai and Los Angeles, and yearned to experience the biggest city for college. The winding transfers of the subway and the crush of narrow sidewalks are almost comforting.
Last November during my sophomore year, I walked half an hour from The Battery — where my dance team had wrapped up filming for a cover — to Chinatown, where we decided to get food. My boots started to pinch and it was still early in the day, earlier than I would have liked to be physically active, but I barely noticed. My ears tried to listen to everything at once. I was distracted by pockets of eager conversation as I cautiously floated from person to person, from group to group of my teammates whom I wanted to call my friends.
We reached Chinatown and melted off in pairs and trios to get food before reconvening in Columbus Park. I stabbed my Yaya Tea boba and relaxed in the urban pocket of artificial green. We laid jackets down on the turf between the battered soccer goals and the sprawling criss-cross fences that reached up to the blue sky. We ate and wheeze-laughed and talked for hours on that gentle Saturday afternoon.
Sambal and peanuts in a plastic takeout box caught my eye. I gasped and asked my friend where she got the nasi lemak. She lit up and all our nostalgia and feelings about Southeast Asian food came tumbling out. Some time later, at a dance practice, she brought me a cold, sweet milo drink lightly dusted with milo powder from the cafe where she worked.
That day felt like a stolen moment of peace in the city that refuses to allow me any peace, but it’s a fight where I’m a willing participant. I loved that our laughter was real; it bubbled up from our insides and hung in the air long after the joke was over. I felt comfortable as cars, bicycles and pedestrians sped past outside the gates. This feeling didn’t need to happen at Columbus Park, it could have happened anywhere else in the city.
I don’t know what home means to me, and maybe I never will. I find home because I want it, but maybe home is not find it. Home can be created. Home can be chosen. I want — and choose — to make my home out of organic joy and deliberate kindness.