Award-Winning Activist Grace Young’s Guide to Manhattan’s Chinatown

There’s no place on Earth that Grace Young loves more than Manhattan’s Chinatown—here’s her guide to the iconic neighborhood.

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Young is an award-winning cookbook author and specializes in writing about preparing meals in woks.

Photo by Alex Lau

New York City actually has nine different Chinatowns scattered throughout its five boroughs, but the most famous one is arguably Manhattan’s Chinatown. Established in the mid-1800s, this Chinatown is home to the largest concentration of ethnically Chinese people outside of the Chinese-speaking world, with about 55,000 people of Asian descent living in the area.

Perhaps no one knows Manhattan’s Chinatown better than award-winning cookbook author Grace Young, who published her first collection of recipes, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, in 1999. Originally from San Francisco, Young moved to New York City in 1979 and almost immediately fell in love with Manhattan’s Chinatown. “For me, Chinatown represents what’s best about New York,” Young said. “I love that there are moments where Chinatown transports me to another world—and I appreciate being able to eat all my favorite comfort foods.”

During the peak of the pandemic, when many businesses in the neighborhood were affected by lockdowns and dips in customer traffic, Young documented Chinatown’s tussle with economic hardship with her video series Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories, which was produced in collaboration with videographer Dan Ahn and Poster House Museum. For her efforts of preserving Chinatown, Young was given the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2022, received the Chinese American Museum DC Gold Lantern Award, and heralded as one of EatingWell’s American Food Heroes.

Through her work, which is discussed in Bonnie Tsui’s piece “What Chinatown Means to America—and Me,” Young has developed close relationships with many of the businesses throughout Manhattan’s Chinatown. Here are some of her favorite places to visit:

Ting’s Gift Shop

Location: 18 Doyers St.
Hours: 11:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Started in 1958 by matriarch Tam Ting, Ting’s Gift Shop is an old-fashioned souvenir store that sells vintage Asian trinkets and is proudly run by two generations of Ting women. Inside, visitors will find tchotchkes like exquisite porcelain pieces, mahjong sets, hand-painted snuff bottles, paper dragons, Japanese dolls, and more.

Hop Lee

Location: 16 Mott St.
Hours: 11:00 a.m. – 12:00 a.m.

Hop Lee, one of Chinatown’s legacy restaurants, is well-known for its old-school Cantonese cooking. Be sure to order its famous Stir-Fried Lobster with Scallion and Ginger, Peking Pork Chops (fried pork served with a sweet, savory sauce), and Stir-Fried Clams with Black Bean Sauce. For special occasions, Young recommends celebrating with a whole Peking Duck.

KK Discount Store

Location: 78 Mulberry St.
Hours: Temporarily closed

KK Discount has been in business for more than 30 years and is fondly known as “Chinatown’s Mom and Pop Target store.” It’s where locals shop for woks, traditional Chinese dishware, rice cookers, and basic houseware items. Sadly, there was a fire in April in the building, and the brick-and-mortar store is currently closed but hopes to reopen soon, though an official date has not been set yet. However, KK Discount also has an online shop. In addition, there is a GoFundMe, which fans of the store are welcome to donate to.

Mee Sum Cafe

Location: 26 Pell St.
Hours: 5:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.

In Cantonese, mee sum translates to “beautiful heart” and that’s exactly what this beloved old-fashioned café—which has been serving classic Cantonese fare since 1968—symbolizes to longtime patrons. Some of Young’s favorites at Mee Sum Cafe include the Stir-Fried Flowering Cauliflower with Chinese Bacon, its steamed shrimp rice rolls (cheung fun), ginger lemon tea, and decadent homemade glutinous rice balls (tangyuan) that have been stuffed with ground roasted peanuts or black sesame seeds and sweetened with sugar for dessert. Mee Sum is also famous for its boiled zongzi, a Cantonese specialty featuring glutinous rice and a savory filling that’s been wrapped with bamboo leaves—these are made fresh daily.

47 Division Street Trading Inc.

Location: 47 Division St.
Hours: Monday–Saturday, 8:00 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.

47 Division Street Trading Inc. is Chinatown’s oldest butcher shop. Started in 1995 by the Li family, the store offers quality meat at affordable prices and has been an important part of the community since its founding. However, during the pandemic, the shop was forced to shut down for a few months and has struggled to regain its footing.

Mae Hamilton is an assistant editor at AFAR. She covers all things related to arts, culture, and the beautiful things that make travel so special.
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