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Lost and Found in Chinatown

Although most of my sketching happens on the train, I’ve gotten a little bolder about sketching out and about in the city. I made these sketches one afternoon last week while I was out for a little meander in Chinatown.

The beautiful traditional Chinese embroidery on this jacket caught my eye

Wandering around Chinatown is a wonderful use of an afternoon, but to be honest, I really have no choice but to wander as I have no sense of direction once I’m below Houston. I navigate to my favorite spots in Chinatown, like an old explorer might have guided themselves along the shoreline by recognizing a particular tree or a bluff, I remember how to find my favorite shops by finding familiar sights and following a trail of visual breadcrumbs until I arrive where I wanted to go. For example, this was sketched at one of my favorite bakeries which I know how to find because it is located just above the Canal Street NQR subway stop. I like to go there first to orient myself and, of course, to eat.

The wall at the back of the bakery is lined with plastic cases filled with all different kinds of buns. Hanging next to the cases are pairs of tongs which you can use to lift each pastry out of the case and place it onto a parchment lined tray. They make at least twenty different buns here. My favorite bun is a one with a full hot dog wrapped inside it, but there are many more to choose from, including one that’s topped with crispy dried pork crumbs, another that’s filled with bean paste, and another that is split in half and stuffed with ham and cheese and a slice of perfectly rectangular omelet. No matter the filling, they are all wrapped with the softest, sweetest, squishiest bread you’ve ever tasted. The crust of it shines a golden yellow with tanned spots where the oven toasted the very top to a sleek perfection.

Behind the counter are other delicacies; sesame balls, coconut dusted rice cakes filled with bean paste and little cakes iced with glistening frosting and filled with slices of fresh fruit. But my favorite of all is the fluffy cake that comes rolled into a cone. It’s like an angel food cake, squishy and sweet, but also eggy and fluffy. And if I am feeling particularly in need of emotional support in the form of carbs, I will find the bags of “cake scraps” which are filled with the trimmed edges of this particular cake which the bakery would otherwise toss. These bags weigh several pounds, which is impressive considering how light and airy the cake stuffed inside of it is. I may or may not have been known to eat an entire bag as an accompaniment to a long walk through Chinatown.

Once I’ve sated my stomach, I’ll wander into the side streets, looking for my favorite trinket shops or just window shopping from store to store. I find it equally interesting to look at the jade and diamonds and gold in the jewelry shops as it is to look at the sparkling scales on the fresh catches in the open-air fish markets. It is a miracle that much of this little town within a city has remained unchanged and that, with just a quick subway ride, you can travel to a place where everything is a bit foreign; the signs, the language, the culture. It’s a good place to get lost again and again, especially when it is so fun to find your way back.


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