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Many New York City residents and visitors will be celebrating Chinese New Year by watching the dragon parades and eating out in one of the many restaurants in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The stores are adorned with red and gold, and the sound of firecrackers, now illegal in New York City, can sometimes be heard from a pair of boombox speakers. Tourists who are curious about Chinatown and excited to be part of the festivities embark upon tours that guide them through the narrow streets.

But beyond the facade of revelry that typically cloaks Chinatown during the Lunar New Year lies a world that is unseen to most visitors. It reverberates with the steady chugging sounds of industrial sewing machines and the clanging of metal spatulas tossing rice noodles in heavy metal woks.

Bayard Street

The basement in one of Chinatown's restaurants.

Much of the labor that goes into Chinese food remains invisible to the public eye with workers barely making enough to support their families. If you peer through open cellar doors, you might catch a restaurant worker hoisting whole pigs onto hooks, ready to be roasted into delectable morsels for take-out later in the day. A woman sits near a mountain of ground pork and chives, deftly folding the filling into dumpling wrappers. They will be sold four for a dollar.

My father in front of a wok range, circa late 1960s.

If your family lived or worked in a Chinese restaurant or garment factory in the 70s and 80s, watching this 1976 film by Jon Alpert will make you want to hug your parents and feel an outpouring of gratitude towards them. As I was watching it, I almost couldn’t believe that someone over thirty years ago could have captured the daily life of New York Chinese immigrants so succinctly, and on video.

If you’ve only engaged with Chinatown as a visitor, I hope this film gives you a greater appreciation for what goes on behind closed kitchen doors. The experiences of today’s newly-arrived Chinese immigrants is not that dissimilar from those depicted in the film. Jon Alpert created a touching tribute to the mamas, babas, gung gungs, and popos who paved the way for future generations to have their own good luck life.

Watch Chinatown: Immigrants in America by Jon Alpert on SnagFilms.

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