Underneath the creaking blue and white trusses of the Manhattan Bridge in New York City is a beige building that spans a city block that contains a maze of shuttered storefronts. For decades, the East Broadway Mall, known as Yi Dong Lou in Chinese, was a bustling center of Chinatown, at 88 East Broadway — an auspicious address that was well-regarded as far away as mainland China. Once, it was a place for the Chinese diaspora to eat, socialize, and shop: There was a stationery store, as well as places to buy bras, stamps for collecting, and antiques. On the top floor was 88 Palace, an enormous banquet hall draped in red curtains and golden reliefs of phoenixes and dragons. It was consistently packed on the weekends for dim sum service. Now, Yi Dong Lou is largely abandoned.
But past a dingy vestibule shaggy with peeling posters, through the flickering mezzanine, down two flights of stairs, and in the back of the basement, there is a restaurant that is still bustling. The perfume of fried scallions spills from the shop, which is adorned by a red banner printed with yellow type: Fu Zhou Wei Zhong Wei Jia Xiang Feng Wei. The name roughly translates to “the tastiest Fuzhou hometown-flavor restaurant.”
In the corridor are a few tables set up for dining in. Customers rotate through frequently as workers in white paper chef hats swing around corners holding packed trays of pork buns, ready for the steamer. In the back room, workers expertly pinch together dumplings under a picture depicting a scene of cherry blossoms sweeping over a lotus-bordered lake in what looks like imperial China. Entering the busy scene is Murakami-esque — you are unexpectedly transported to a strange dimension of time and space.
The mall’s decline, brought on by rising rents, was accelerated by COVID-19, and disagreements between the city and the mall’s landlords have stalled the mall’s future prospects. Lu Yong, the owner of Fu Zhou Wei Zhong, wistfully admitted in Mandarin on a recent weeknight that “a lot of stores cannot afford rent. I really want everyone to stay open.” Lu is a reserved, sturdy man with a cautious mien, who is always moving around the space, clearing trash off tables and inspecting trays of dumplings. He came to the United States in 2006 after his father became a citizen and applied for a visa for Lu and his family. At the time, Lu felt that the mall was in good shape: There were “a lot of people, every shop was open and very clean.” He said the patrons were all Chinese people from the city and from out of state.
Back then, his father owned Fu Zhou Wei Zhong with some partners. “After coming here … we saw that my father’s business partners and him weren’t doing too well,” Lu said. Lu and his wife decided to take over the business, and they have spent the past decade working on improving the food. They also developed a wholesale menu of seven classic Fujianese xiaochi (“small eats” or “snacks”) to boost business. “We would take it out to sell by hand to local grocery stores,” he said. “Restaurants bought our bao. Even foreigners love to eat them,” he said, meaning non-Chinese people.
Until March 2020, Fu Zhou Wei Zhong had around 100 different menu items. “Congee, fried rice, stir-fried noodles, we had it all. All Fujian dishes,” Lu said. But after the onset of the pandemic, the restaurant had to close down, per city restrictions, and Lu pivoted entirely to the wholesale business, offering a curtailed seven-item snack menu; it continues to make up the majority of his business. “Right now, if we don’t have out-of-state customers, then we probably won’t be open,” Lu said. When the restaurant reopened for indoor dining, Lu decided to trim the menu back to the seven dishes on the wholesale menu. “Our seven most signature dishes,” he said.
Lu lit up while talking about his food, and he’s exacting about his standards. “Our xiao long bao is my father’s recipe… What’s most important is the skin, the dough must be kneaded well. Not too soft, not too tough,” he said. They are excellent: steamed to order, squeezed six into a basket, the filling generous and juicy, the crumb on the wrappers cloudlike. Lu said the restaurant makes approximately 3,000 xiao long bao in a day. “It must be very fresh. What goes into the meat is also our recipe that we spent a long, long time perfecting. If it’s too sweet, too salty, we change. And on and on and on.”
More interesting are Fujianese specialties like beef paste soup, which consists of drop-style dumplings made of ground beef (traditionally, the dish achieves its bouncy consistency by being whipped with tapioca flour). There are also terrific Fujianese fish balls, made chunky and wrapped around a generous pork filling. Lu’s Fujianese wontons are a textual delight, their thin skins have more snap and chewiness than standard wheat flour-made wrappers. Fujianese dumpling skins are traditionally made of pork pounded with glutinous rice into thin sheets known as yanpi (Chinese for “swallow skins”) that turn translucent after boiling. Each of these dishes is emblematic of the texture known as QQ, well-loved by those in the Chinese diaspora — soft like mochi, a little bouncy like tendon.
My favorite things on the menu, though, are the bamboo shoot cakes that pile up on a metal tray just above the cash register. They look like dim sum-style sesame balls, but they are filled with sweet and savory bamboo and pork strips. Ordering one, along with everything else on the menu, will set you back just $27.50, pre-tax — one of the cheapest and tastiest feasts you can get in Chinatown.
I asked Lu if he thought he’d ever go back to having 100 dishes on the menu. “Right now, we can’t do that,” he said. “Why not? Because you have to see what customers want. And it depends on the future.”
On a recent Sunday afternoon, business was steady in the restaurant. Along with delivery workers and neighborhood residents, several groups of Chinese college students from NYU and Columbia wandered in, after seeing good ratings for Fu Zhou Wei Zhong on Chinese-language social commerce apps like Little Red Book. One student brought his parents, who were visiting from Toronto. A pair of roommates in their early 20s, both originally from Vietnam, shared a bamboo shoot cake, appraising its filling compared with similar foods in their respective hometowns of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. When asked how they’d found the place, they explained that one of them had seen a TikTok about a tailor in a shop nearby and came to drop off a pair of pants. The other had smelled the dumpling shop from around the corner and wanted to investigate. She said she liked visiting Chinatown to eat and to support Asian people. “We’re Asian,” she said. “It’s in our blood.”
Non-Asians trickled in, too, some of whom were lured by designer-clothing shops that have opened in the mall across the street (including Eckhaus Latta and the vintage store James Veloria) and had seen posts about the dumpling shop on Instagram or TikTok. A pair of friends who’d spent the day at nearby art galleries said the restaurant was increasingly visited by art and fashion types because of its proximity to the Lower East Side, which has long attracted a self-consciously cool downtown set. They’d also seen the shop mentioned often on social media. “I think it’s about to blow up,” one said.
It’s inevitable that what is happening in the neighborhoods outside of 88 East Broadway creeps in and will continue to change the space — moneyed international students, Asian American culture, “foreigners,” as Lu called them. Pretty soon, East Broadway Mall and what we think of as Chinatown may not be Chinatown anymore. When I feel sad about this, it helps me to remember that it wasn’t long ago, in the 1980s, when it was Fujianese immigrants, like Lu, who were the newcomers. Unable to assimilate into the older Chinatown, established by Cantonese-speaking immigrants in the 1800s, they settled nearby in what was known as a neighborhood of Latin American immigrants, and before that, Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants. (We now think of all of this, the older Cantonese Chinatown as well as the newer Fujianese Chinatown, as “Chinatown.”) And, over the past few decades, as Chinatown has developed and housing has become pricier, Chinese immigrants have moved to Brooklyn and Queens and taken part in establishing robust outer borough Chinatowns. Lu has even said, previously, that he’s thought of moving his restaurant to one of Brooklyn’s Chinatowns, in a neighborhood called Sunset Park. Which is all a way of saying “Chinatown” is more diverse and more protean than we generally imagine. Downstairs, at Lu’s, it’s just that we’re able to observe the shifting.
Upstairs is changing, too, despite the abundance of shuttered storefronts inside. (In contrast, a smattering of shops on the street level are still in operation and seem to stay occupied, if not exactly busy — including a cosmetics shop, a jewelry store, and a bakery.) In recent wintery months, I’ve observed that the mall has, on occasion, turned into an indoor space for activities that the Chinatown community normally enjoys in nearby public parks. With the shops gone, the mall has the spacious and imaginative allure of a cave system, given its twisting, narrow hallways punctuated by open areas.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, couples looped around the mezzanine, chatting. In one dark corridor, a card game was set up on tables, and a dozen or more men crowded around and occasionally shouted as they watched. In another hallway, a few men sat on plastic stools, drinking a pot of tea, debating in Mandarin, and smoking cigarettes. Children played in the empty hallways. It’s easy enough to dwell on the mall’s dilapidation and loss, which are devastating and real. But in doing so, you risk missing the life that inevitably has come to fill in the gaps.
Still, the transformation of the space, as unexpected and as lively as it may appear to an outsider like me, is an understandable point of frustration for Lu. He sees it as a lapse in management that leads to issues of security; he says that he has experienced conflicts with the housing insecure and mentally unwell. The feeling of unease, Lu believes, affects his business and the businesses around him. “No one rents here or comes here because it’s not looked after,” he said. (I reached out to Terry Chan, the general manager of Yi Dong Lou, for comment on the state of the mall and how he considers the challenges that Lu described, but didn’t hear back.)
In November 2021, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a $20 million state grant, known as the Downtown Revitalization Initiative, to invest in Chinatown. Renovation of Yi Dong Lou featured prominently in a grant application submitted by local officials vying for a piece of that $20 million — the application featured a rendering of a community theater in the space. In December, however, East Broadway Mall wasn’t among the 11 projects that were announced as official recipients of the DRI funding, which, alongside renovations of other key public spaces in Chinatown, includes the creation of a Chinatown Gateway and funding for murals and a light-projection art installation.
Even a state-sponsored renovation of the mall may have been fraught for Lu, though, given the precarity of his business. “I do want them to renovate,” Lu said. “But the fear with renovating is that it takes too long and then customers aren’t able to come while they’re renovating. If everything has to close to renovate ... it’s not certain that there’ll be business after.”
Despite the challenges, Lu doesn’t have plans to expand or relocate Fu Zhou Wei Zhong, but he did say he’d like to move the restaurant upstairs if there were an opportunity. Being at street level, with more foot traffic, could be better for his business.
For now, he’s focused on the present. “Every day, we want to make it better,” he said. “Every day, that’s all we think about. So that is to say, every day, we pour everything into this. These last dozen years or so, it’s all we work on.”
Wei Tchou writes about food, culture, and nature, and her memoir Little Seed will be out in 2024.
Wenting Gu is a photographer and translator based in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
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