I am balancing myself on the sidewalk—a narrow, icy path shoveled between piles of snow along Arch Street. I forgot to change into boots at the Convention Center, so I am wearing well-worn sneakers that slip on the slush. It’s February, 1996, in the middle of what will be known as the worst blizzard ever in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My husband, Tony, is showing and marketing his handmade sterling silver tableware and jewelry at the Buyers Market of American Crafts show. It is also the week of the Chinese New Year, and I’m one street behind the Convention Center, getting takeout.
I’ve always liked Philly’s Chinatown, a dense core of restaurants, shops, and residences covering about seven city blocks. When we first met in 1963, Tony introduced me to the South China Restaurant, which stayed open until 2 or 3 a.m. Lots of artists gathered there, not all of them choosing from Column A ($1.95), B ($2.95), or C ($3.95—a feast at that time). Besides being cheap (each meal included wonton soup, tea, and fried noodles), the waiters were no more testy than those in other places. Wesley, the jeweler and metalsmith with whom Tony was apprenticing, and Manny, who cast their wax carvings into silver and gold, would sometimes order in Cantonese, which upset the waiters even more because then they had to watch what they said around these hairy white dudes.
The 1990s have had an economic “push” for all us former flower children, and Chinatown thrives as well. People of many other Asian ethnicities (such as Thai, Cambodian, and Vietnamese) have spread into this area as well as into South Philly, where we live, so the question of getting “takeout” for the several people helping us is as problematic as my balance. Tony wants Singapore noodles from Lou’s Imperial Inn, while Doug (our apprentice) wants Thai spiced yellow curry rice and pork from Bangkok Cuisine. Chuckie wants only chow mein. I just want wonton soup, maybe a gallon of it, because the cold that numbs my toes is rapidly creeping upwards.
The Imperial Inn is a whole block north of me, and Bangkok Cuisine two blocks east. On every block, banners and decorations festoon the buildings, all red and gold and glittering, to welcome the New Year. Teenage boys set off firecrackers that will chase away evil spirits and guarantee good luck and fortune in the coming year. They are also having great fun scaring pedestrians and conventioneers. I suspect these same kids shoveled the paths on the sidewalks—a skinny track that you had to pick your way through one person at a time.
I am terrified of firecrackers. As a kid the blast debris of a cherry bomb hit my leg, causing scorch pockmarks that hurt like hell for a week. I need to get through this gauntlet without breaking a leg on ice while evading exploding packs of firecrackers. And then I see it, just across the street and to the right: Mr. Wong’s “Nine Nineteen” restaurant, the answer to my dilemma.
Mr. Wong is the epitome of a shrewd business man. His restaurant, the Nine Nineteen, is so clean that it was the only place we ate when our kids were little and needed to potty. (That was the single criterion for my choice of eatery, anywhere, for several years.) And when my youngest at two managed to flip a dish of noodles onto his head as he scrambled up to his seat, a waitress provided cloth napkins to help clean him up.
Wong thoroughly understands that his customers are Americans, not epicures, who wouldn’t know authentic Chinese food from that of a corner hot dog vendor. Nor would they want to. And as a founding member and chief of the “Chinese Benevolent Association,” no one dares to cause a problem in his restaurant. Once when, late at night, a group of rowdy bikers started to harass a young waiter, Chuckie and his brother asked: “Eh, Mr. Wong, you need help with this situation?” Even as Wong deferred, three limber, muscled Asian youths appeared at the door—Wong had already called the Benevolent Association.
Across the street then, and the entire block is shoveled and salted in front of Nine Nineteen. All the banners and dragon trims are flying, but no packs of firecrackers are exploding from the fixtures. And two fit Asian youths stand at either side of the door, discouraging teenage boys with mischief in their pockets.
Chuckie has his chow mein, Tony has General Tso’s chicken instead of Singapore noodles, and Doug has something with three stars denoting how very spicy it is. And I have my soup, my fingers curled around the paper container, tips melting with the warmth. Now if only our luck holds out in silver sales.