Chinese New Year in Manchester: How old is China Town in dog years?

By February 16, 2018

Food. Manchester.

There is a hole in China Town. A gaping wound, a vacuum, the empty space screams and the silence is deafening. There was a fire in a China Town building that killed two men. The building stands shrouded in scaffolding and plastic weave. But the building’s bandages can be peered through and glimpses of China Town’s hole can be snatched in all its shattered brick and broken sky nakedness.

That’s on one corner.

China Town is a system of concentric squares. At its centre is a parking lot, not a beautiful market place, but a slab of concrete where people put their cars.

One row of buildings and three streets wrap clockwise around the carpark to create our inner square. The three streets create two street corners where the eastward Faulkner Street intersects with the southern Nicholas Street, and where Nicholas meets the western George Street. The hole is on the corner of Nicholas and Faulkner.

We’ll start with this corner.

On the edge of the parking lot and directly across from the hole is Spice World. Spice World is a pagoda where people lose their minds one inhalation at a time. The pagoda will at some point have had an original purpose, perhaps a seating area for tourists or a quiet spot for elderly men to play chess. However, that purpose has long been forgotten as the pretty pagoda soon became Spice World.

Breaking news, Spice World is closed! Somebody (probably the council) has enshrined the pagoda in wire fences. It now resembles its bigger enshrined sister across the street corner, the hole.

China Town’s attitude towards cleanliness is like that of young son’s resistance to a mother’s neurotic cleaning habits, and therein lies its grace. To totally appreciate China Town one must revel in its rougher edges and juxtapositions. The Grosvenor Casino faces the Manchester Art Gallery. It’s okay if you lose all your money because gallery entry is free. The Mancunion champion of Thai food Siam Smiles neighbours the ‘discrete gentleman’s club’ Long Legs. Siam Smiles is closed in the evenings so clientele rarely cross paths. Hang Won Hong supermarket backs on to China Town’s only pub The Seven Oaks, half boozer half infamous industry lock-in destination. With an 8:00AM late license, you could finish your night and pick up some groceries on the way home.

The worst thing that could happen to China Town would be an influx of high end restaurants, potentially homogenising restoration projects or a pandering to the tourist pound. China Town is beautiful how it is, how its always been, and the current new comers it attracts want to be part of that aesthetic, not change it.

Rain City Tattoo Collective opened in Salford in 2012 but moved to the third floor of a Nicholas Street building last year, and has steadily been steadily carrying out the lords work ever since. The same building houses Ho’s bakery, always good for a pork bun, and a wonderful Chinese gift store, grab your year of the dog cards now!

Two Thousand and Eighteen is the year of the dog and Chinese New Year festivities begin on Friday the 16th of February. If there was ever a day to appreciate eating in China Town it is this.

Two years ago I took a childhood friend and surrogate brother to Happy Seasons for Chinese New Year lunching. It was one those singular culinary moments you know you’ll never forget, an ambient pool of memory in which I take dips when feeling cold. Happy Seasons is known for two things, having a line outside, and an exceptional barbecue. The quality of the later always outweighs the boredom of the former, and I couldn’t recommend a New Year’s day restaurant more.

Can’t get it in on New Years? Sick of the crowds? Want to go home and eat lobster? Simply cross the street and wobble down the stairs into Manchester Seafood, China Town’s fishmonger and purveyor of live crustaceans.

If you can’t get in to Happy Seasons, and Manchester Seafood is out of lobs, third on my list for New Years dining recommendations is Red Chilli. Go there and order a plate of mapo doufu. Perhaps one of China Town’s greatest plates, mapo doufu consists of bean curd and ground beef and a sauce born of that narcotic combination of sichuan peppercorns and chillies. “Mala” is the sensation this pairing creates, which mean simultaneously numbing and spicy, a kind of religious experience.

Mapo doufu translates to “crater-faced old woman,” and it refers to the originator of the dish, who suffered from smallpox as a child, leaving her disfigured. I can’t imagine she was too psyched about the name, but regardless, it prompts a nice metaphor about the beauty stemming of imperfection.

Happy New Year.