Discovering the scene, scents and flavors of China in America

Writer P. K. Greenfield entering Hong Kong harbor circa 1993 during colonization and prior to the handover from British rule back to China.

Many crescent moons ago, I was traveling the globe and working as an international courier — a job that no longer exists, to my knowledge. Through a company in New York’s Greenwich Village called Now Voyager, anyone could sign up to travel the world inexpensively by simply giving up their cargo space on the aircraft for international companies. We transported legal products like computers and computer parts from one office to another and I carried a small leather pouch with the documentation for someone to claim the cargo.

International couriers gather in Yangzhou, China with P. K. Greenfield (kneeling).

It was a glamorous job for people with a flexible schedule — I often had to travel with less than a 24-hours notice and not knowing where I’d be going. It was also a time when people got dressed up, behaved humanely at the airports and passengers were pampered while flying the friendly skies.

I’ve traveled all over Europe and parts of Asia for pennies on the dollar plus the perks of frequent (high paying) flyers. More than often I was escorted onto the aircraft and given a vacant first-class or business-class seat — New York to Tokyo, Tokyo to Hong Kong, Honk Kong to Singapore, etc. My fellow couriers were from Japan, Indonesia, Ireland, New Zealand and India. I traveled on many assignments from the United States of America. During this time, I took pride in representing the U.S. as a reputable citizen, a self-appointed civil ambassador and student of other cultures.

A hydrofoil boat from Hong Kong continues to transport people to Mainland China.

The vibrant colors of lanterns and pungent scent of incense mixed with oranges, lychee and roasted meats — fragrant flowers lined the roads leading to several markets while water buffalo roamed on the unpaved streets. I was in the most southern part of the country —the Guangdong Province with it’s now booming city of Guangzhou. When I arrived there, the factories, skyscrapers and tech sector did not exist. I remember a haze covering the sun, more mud than greenery and people staring at me in the commons; the elderly looked at me with fear and suspicion while young families with children would point and explain to the child why I looked so different from them. I quickly learned that I was the first Westerner they had ever seen in the flesh.

The Li River flows throughout the south with a spectacular stop under the Guilin Mountains — this is just one of many.

To say I was young and adventurous would be an understatement. My naiveté was at its peak. Above all, I soon learned that I was not able to communicate, my travel books were of little help as everything was written in Chinese and my uneasiness of being alone made me search for the nearest hotel/travel agency. I joined a group. It was a smart decision. We traveled for 7 days together and I learned a lot from our tour guide and the locals.

Farmers, field workers and cooks greeted us in various rural towns within the province.

From city to farmland, we traveled mostly by bus. The families who welcomed us into their villages supplied all of our meals. Unlike the hermetically sealed packaging of western supermarkets, our meats, fish and poultry were kept in the yard of banquet halls (you saw the livestock). Fresh vegetables and fruit were delivered to our tables from the view of their farm and garden just a few yards away outside the dining room windows.

Fanned duck breast with grapes, roasted potato and haricots verts at Gaddi’s Restaurant.

The 7-day excursion came abruptly to an end and I landed back on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong — an island where the east dovetails seamlessly with the west as many international workers fill the corporate offices in the area called SAR (Special Administrative Region).

After a week of consuming only Cantonese (Yue) cuisine, I must admit that the American in me made me run to the nearest McDonald’s. It’s true. I did. However, few days later I splurged on a gourmet meal created by ex-patriots from France. The Peninsula Hotel is still home to Gaddi’s Restaurant. The neon signs continue to glow and reflect off the nearby Pearl River Delta — for me it is a juxtaposition of the classic and traditional French culinary arts. The hotel and restaurant remain in business today.

Gaddi’s Restaurant

Main Street Flushing, Queens: Festivals, Authentic Cuisine and Shopping.

Flash forward to today. I recently made a trek to my old neighborhood in Flushing, Queens. This was my first home in New York before moving to Brooklyn and subsequently Manhattan. I boarded the #7 train for the first time in over 30 years. Instead of me going to China, my memories of China flooded back to me in New York City. This bustling neighborhood is about as close to the land of the dragon as you can get without a passport. Boisterous, colorful and inspiring, I explored the streets, local businesses and discovered a few hidden gems.

Quietly tucked away on 37th Street and away from the congested Main Street is Emperor Seafood. I was the only Caucasian dining on this day and I must tell you that no English was spoken aloud by anyone, including the hostess — a manager assisted me. It is a banquet hall but they accommodated me alone at a table for 10 — two Asian businessmen dined at the next table built and set for a large family or party. The Emperor Seafood lunch menu is reasonably priced and includes traditional plates like Szechuan Style Shrimp, Salt & Pepper Chinese Noodle Fishes, Sautéed Clam and Black Bean Sauce, as well as vegetarian options and Filet Mignon Chinese Style. Spicy!

I chose their Lobster with Ginger and Scallion. It is served with rice and they offer western soft drinks but I recommend their house tea. This dish is unlike any lobster I’ve ever had, including the popular roll from Maine. The sweet introduces tangy with a touch of spice that blends perfectly with enough heat from the ginger to make me turn a light shade of red. My only disappointment was the portion size as I could have devoured two of these. The reasonable price made it a good value but if you are hungry, I suggest you order a soup or side dish or the dim sum from the traveling carts.

Note: The price for lunch ranges from $14 – $16 and cash is preferred but a credit card is fine if you spend $30 or more. This is a great place for families and large parties.

Emperor Seafood Restaurant

Fresh fish, meats, produce and every brand of popular to peculiar Chinese products line the shelves at JMart.

After your lunch I recommend you return back to Main Street and check out the local shops including JMart, located in the basement of the mall and Macy’s. It’s like stepping into another time and another country. While the majority of the youth speak several languages and they are Asian Americans, you are more likely to hear several dialects of Chinese.

Families shop with children and grandparents in tow. The majority order fresh fish, seafood and live ocean creatures in shouts and presumably negotiations by pointing over ice-packed counter tops. The spacious market and well-stocked shelves stretch on with a nod to the big box stores and sell everything from Asian snacks and candies, rare shapes of noodles (the Chinese invented pasta), dried seaweed, pots & pans, pottery, toys and good fortune lotteries. I was in awe of the various types of bok choy, herbs and mushrooms. I purchased vegetables, ginger candy and dried goji berries that are allegedly a super-health food and help with sleep, weight loss and boost the immune system. I also recommend their vast selection of teas.

Subway ride. Street views. Synergy.

The holiday travel season is just weeks away. Most visitors to New York City will stay in Times Square and visit our landmarks and touristy events. While that is all fine, I recommend you hop on the #7 train for the 45 minute ride from 42nd Street and discover this enclave of Asia in Queens.

The experiences, flavors, and sites you’ll encounter are worth the journey. In the coming weeks I will be reporting from and about more melting “hot” pot culture and cuisine in various New York City boroughs.

JMart Flushing

Photo Credits: P.K. Greenfield