Having set foot in nearly 7,000 Chinese restaurants, there is a certain sameness to the premises. Yes, there are fancy restaurants, dumpy restaurants, big restaurants, little restaurants, restaurants with large fish tanks, restaurants with steam tables, Americanized Chinese restaurants, authentic Chinese restaurants, big city restaurants and small town restaurants, and so on. But after all these years, I’ve seen them all many times over. However, nothing prepared me for the shock I received when, on a cold, damp February evening in 2008, I walked into East Market Seafood Restaurant on East Broadway in the Little Fuzhou section of Manhattan Chinatown.
Actually, I previously wrote about my visit to East Market Seafood in my Menuism article on Monday night wedding banquets in Manhattan Chinatown, though I didn’t mention the restaurant by name. East Market had been my initial encounter with the Monday night banquet phenomenon, though as I wrote in the article, I didn’t recognize it at the time. It took me a few years to piece together the story behind Fujianese Mondays in Manhattan Chinatown. While I was a little puzzled by the Monday night wedding banquet, it certainly wasn’t shocking. Rather, it was the first thing I saw at East Market Seafood that evening that led me into the surreal.
Little Fuzhou is the portion of Manhattan Chinatown that lies east of Bowery and is quite different from the original main part of Manhattan Chinatown in that very few non-Chinese are visible anywhere, especially in the evening. Little Fuzhou is named after Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian province in China, where most of the Chinese in this eastern part of Manhattan Chinatown hail from. (In addition, a growing part of the original portion of Manhattan Chinatown, as well as Brooklyn’s Sunset Park Chinatown are falling under Fujianese influence.) There are no gift shops, Chinese-stylized buildings, or other tourist-inducing attractions in Little Fuzhou. Nor are there any Shanghai- or Sichuan-style restaurants towards which many tourists gravitate. Manhattan Chinatown’s only 24-hour Chinese restaurants are located in Little Fuzhou, open to serve the continuous traffic of Fujianese Chinese workers from throughout the eastern United States. These Fujianese American visitors are either looking to find a new job from one of the dozens of employment agencies in the area, or to socialize with their Fujianese compatriots on their days off. As I ultimately discovered, the latter often involves getting married and having your wedding banquet in Manhattan, even though you were currently living in Memphis, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Miami, Charlotte, or other out-of-state location.
Walking that February evening along East Broadway, I remember traversing the New York Mart shopping center on the first floor of the 75-85 East Broadway building where East Market Seafood is located. The arcade was packed with people and shops selling jewelry, foodstuffs, telephones, beauty supplies, clothing and accessories, phone cards, and who knows what else. Wandering through the shops, I forgot I was in Manhattan, as I had the sense of being magically transported out of New York into Fujian province. This feeling was tempered only by the fact that so many of the people were dressed in North Face jackets (or replicas thereof).
So making my way upstairs to East Market Seafood, I continued to have the feeling that I was some place in Fuzhou, China, that is, until I noticed “Hillary Clinton for President” posters in English and Chinese lining the walls of the stairway to the second floor restaurant. I walked up to the restaurant’s front counter and even before I noticed that the restaurant was being set up for a wedding banquet, I spotted a picture of Clinton herself, posted on the wall behind the restaurant’s main counter. In it, she is standing next to a person who turned out to be the restaurant manager. Another photo reveals that she is addressing a large crowd of Chinese diners. Obviously, I wasn’t in Fuzhou anymore. But I was transported back to Fuzhou when I was given a large menu that was almost entirely in Chinese. Indeed, if there weren’t a small number of pictured items with English captions on the inside cover of the menu, I don’t think if I would have been able to order anything to eat that evening.
Of course, I was now very curious as to why Hillary Clinton would have come to East Market Seafood, where there was no English language menu and no English speaking diners. When I returned home, an internet search quickly cleared up the mystery. Clinton had raised $380,000 at a fundraiser at the restaurant. But finding the article raised more questions than it answered. As this article and a subsequent article by Time detailed, that event drew numerous $1,000 donations to her 2008 presidential campaign from a motley legion of Chinese waiters, dishwashers, cooks, cashiers, sewing factory workers, street hawkers and other low-income residents of Chinatown. It’s not that Little Fuzhou had been a bastion of Democratic party fundraising in the past, as John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign raised a grand total of $24,000 in contributions from New York Chinatown addresses. John Edwards, one of Hillary Clinton’s rivals for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, cried foul, sensing a violation of campaign donation limitations through the use of proxy contributors. Investigative articles uncovered inexplicable anomalies, but the controversy died after Barack Obama wrested the Democratic nomination away from Clinton.
2016, of course, is another presidential election cycle, and this time Clinton is in the lead. She’s already been to Flushing Chinatown for her first boba drink. Will she be appearing at more New York Chinatown banquets later this year? Or will the spectre of the investigative reporting from 2008 cause her to not repeat her fundraising efforts in the neighborhood? It will be interesting to see.
And for me, this visit to East Market Seafood was the most Twilight Zone episode in my life. In a manner of moments I thought I had been whisked away to Fujian province, was introduced to the fascinating world of Fujianese Americans traveling from all over the US to Manhattan to attend Monday weddings and wedding banquets, and at the same time discovered the Hillary Clinton/Chinese restaurant connection. What more can you ask for from just one visit to a Chinese restaurant?
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.