Thursday, October 2, 2008

Chinatown Tunnels

I wrote about Doyers Street here, and its impending demise, thanks to its discovery by the gentry. In a way, you might say things haven't changed very much.

As Julia Solis writes in New York Underground, "In the 1890s...the area had become a popular destination for adventurers from the city's more affluent quarters who wanted to go on slumming tours." With the opening of Apotheke, we see a similar trend, though you no longer have to be very adventurous to venture here. The hatchet-wielding crimps are gone and the bar comes with a "friends only" hidden entrance, a slummers' homage to Doyers' rich history of being tunneled.

There is still a real adventure to be had beneath Doyers, I'm sure of it, but I can't quite figure out how to access it.

I ventured down into the one open tunnel, a revamped relic from the Tong War days. It is nothing like my fantasy of it, something close to Portland's Shanghai Tunnels, a dreamy, dark place filled with opium bunks, dust-covered masonry, and trapdoors. No, the Doyers Street tunnel is a business arcade. Kind of a mall.

To get to it from Doyers, enter through a wall of Chinese signage, the Wing Fat arcade, and step down into the underground. Beneath a dropped ceiling lit by fluorescent bulbs, you'll find an assortment of businesses: a philatelic shop displaying old postcards from Shanghai, acupuncturist offices, English-language schools. On the other end, you exit by the OTB beneath the Wing Fat Mansion building.

the geomancer and the Donald

Most interesting may be the metaphysics office of a geomancer, feng shui master Tin Sun. Donald Trump asked them for advice when building the Trump International Tower. They've since been "adapting the ancient nature-based modern glass-tower life," says CNN. They also feng shui'd the offices of Smith Barney and Morgan Stanley. (Maybe that's what's kept those houses both alive through the current Wall Street carnage.)

So far, nothing very exciting, but off this main corridor of subterranean Wing Fat are several locked doors. Some have Chinese writing on them, others state in English "Keep Out" and "Do Not Enter." Stand at these doors and dream of what lies beyond--dusty corridors hiding opium artifacts, cloisonne pipes lying in ash next to wooden bunks, ghosts of tong soldiers drifting like smoke among velvet curtains, the skeletons of their captives buried inside hollow walls.

If anyone knows anything about what's back there, please tell me. My heart speeds up just to think of passing through those doors to discover a hidden lost world.


Anonymous said...

the tunnel has been blocked up for a few years already, with that door you saw. they changed it for some unknown reason when the shops closed. it was quite boring to go through, despite the allure of history etc, and yes you do emerge into the lobby of the building next to the otb.

Anonymous said...

I find the gambling parlors more interesting and some probably had tunnel escape routes.

Jeremiah Moss said...

boring to go through? you mean the now-blocked-off parts? what were they like?

Anonymous said...

it was just a walk through from one space to another, a strange and sort of scary kind of throughway because it was so unknown and unused. there were no people going through it when i was there the several times. when i walked through, the storeowners looked at me strangely (though i am chinese). anyway, it was on my "tour" of chinatown when i brought people and showed them around- you know, secrets and all that. there were no signs of old things, or hidden things, or past things. it was not dirty, it was just like a staircase of an office building. sorry, no secret tong stuff there for you

for your information, all the tidbits on chinatown gathered in luc sante's interesting but derivative book lowlife is blatantly ripped from louis j. beck's chinatown (1898), a copy of which was in the last few years stolen from the reference library of chinatown's library (but now easily available in reprint form on amazon).

best regards,
chinatown man.

Anonymous said...

FYI Smith Barney doesn't exist independently anymore, its a division of Citigroup now.

JakeGould said...

Hmmm. Aren't there even more tunnels that connect a lot of the bootlegger stores in the neighborhood? I'm positive they existed as far back as the Civil War era and now even house some low level manufacturing outfits for counterfeiters.

MA Shumin (馬淑敏) said...

here's a video about Doyer's Street and the tunnel