Sitting huddled around a computer screen with eyes half shut and mouths wide open, Wilson Tam, Richard Tam and David Chen, marveled at the phenomenon that Thailand called, “street food”: rolled ice cream. Whether it was a pang of late-night hunger or destiny that aroused entrepreneurial dreams pointing to an empire of foodie fandom, history was unassumingly made that night, awaiting ascension from three of Chinatown’s realest.
Wilson Tam was working as a pharmacist when it all started. Currently a native Chinatown resident and second generation Chinese American, opening an ice cream shop with his younger brother and David sounded more like a plan for retirement than a plan for the present.
The Tams grew up in the Smith Projects right on the edge of Chinatown before moving to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Like many other second generation Asian Americans, Wilson and Richard were made aware of sacrifices past. “Our parents work very hard so that we could go to school and pursue higher education. I’m sure a lot of Asian kids could relate, it was their dream for us to be a doctor or a lawyer, or in my case a pharmacist.” said Wilson. Therein lies the irony as it’s been over 2 years since the guys have claimed their throne, opening 10Below Ice Cream, an artisanal, rolled ice cream shop boasting a following with upwards of 60,000 followers only a few blocks away from where the Tams grew up in the Smith Projects.
Chinatown today is filled with fidget spinners, tourists seeking faux Vuitton and Chinese school dropouts playing hooky and drinking bubble tea. It is a muddled amalgamation of those trying to hold onto their culture and those trying to make it their own. As Wilson explains, “It’s where a lot of first generation immigrants really came into their own. They couldn’t get a high paying job without higher education, so what do you do? You save up as much money as you can and open your own business hoping that it will work out. That’s kind of what the cultural fabric is.” The Chinatown of old is slowly sinking into the realm of nostalgia, accompanied by mixed feelings from its residents who know it to be home because of one thing: familiarity.
Keenly 10Below is a part of that change, a change brought on in part by many of those who are second generation who were “born and raised here, college- educated but also wanting to do something [in the community] and to open their own business,” said Wilson before collecting his words, “in many ways it felt like home; and in many ways it felt different because we’re coming at it from our own perspective.”
As 10Below adds to the growing food scene in Chinatown it joins an unsung legacy of Chinese restaurateurs that have been feeding the people for the past decades. “The irony isn’t lost on me that three Chinese kids ended up opening a thai inspired rolled ice cream store. I really think food is culture. I grew up eating a lot of Chinese food but also grew up eating a lot food from all different cultures. I grew up traveling much of Asia and I was fortunate to be able to travel and other countries growing up. Even today, Chinatown is filled with food from many different cultures. It might be a stretch but 10Below is one interpretation of just that. It’s tough to ‘represent your culture’, the most I can really do is represent my community.”
LUCKYRICE walked around Chinatown with Wilson as he shared with us some of his favorite restaurants, hole in the walls and stories that have made Chinatown home:
The Smith Projects
For my family, this building was more than just any building. When my grandma and grandpa immigrated to America they lived in a tenement building not far from Smith. They were here for about 2 or 3 years at that point with my mom and her 3 brothers when a huge fire burned down the whole building. Naturally like most immigrants with a language barrier, they didn’t use banks and kept everything at home. They literally lost everything, all their money and really walked away with the clothes on their back and that’s when they moved into Smith.
My grandma lived here until she passed away. As my mom and her siblings became more economically stable, they all moved out to brooklyn and queens. We moved out to Brooklyn in Bensonhurst but I ended up going to Stuyvesant High School, which is right next to Chinatown. It’s interesting that once we moved out, I probably ended spending more time in Chinatown than before. We came out every weekend and it became tradition for the whole family to have dinner with grandma every weekend.
In Chinatown you have your Chinese schools, which I wasn’t good at, your music lessons, which I was good at but didn’t enjoy (it was the piano) and then sports, which I was good at and did enjoy. I mostly played basketball and that’s its own separate story but there are these Chinatown teams or leagues where people grow up playing basketball and all the different Asian communities come to Chinatown to play basketball.
L: Tell us a little bit about this joint
W: This is the dim sum parlor that we go to most often. I’m all about the old school, no frills, old people sitting around having tea dim sum place. That’s what I grew up with and that’s probably where my comfort level lies
L: How often did you guys used to eat here?
W: It’s ironic because as we got older we started eating here more because we never had the luxury to do so and every time we came out on the weekend it was packed but now that we make our own schedule, we come here at like 11 and it’s like, “yo let’s meet at Hop Shing.
Old Granny Custards
So this is the place around the corner right here. What happened here was there was this old grandma and there’d be a line down the block, this is the original line up spot. This little stand right here was open for as long as I can remember and they sold for a dollar, gai daan jai, which is the little egg thing. She was super old and she’d be by herself making it. When you walked by you could smell the aroma up and down the street and she’d open when she felt like it so you never knew when they were open, she’d close when she was done working meaning when she sold out. The gates would come down and you’d be like aww man, I missed out.
What happened was she actually forgot to renew her permit. She’s been grandfathered in over and over because she’s been open for so long but once she forgot to renew her permit she had to reapply and when you reapply they were like, oh you don’t have a bathroom. They then made an agreement with Shanghai Asian Manor and said she could use the bathroom here. Then they said oh, you don’t have a handwash station, then they were like you don’t have enough space for permitting for a full food business and it got to the point where she said screw it and shut it down. I know the landlord, tried to convince her to sell the recipe and the business and she was like no I don’t want anything to do with it. This spot has been mostly vacant for a while now but my friend who makes these custom macarons, Stache Of Goods (friend’s business name), is about to open here in September and she also grew up in the Smith Houses.
So this is a Vietnamese spot that services mainly rice and noodles dishes. It’s not quite traditional Vietnamese, it’s probably more Chinese/Vietnamese if anything. Everyone speaks Cantonese when you walk into the restaurant. Vietnam actually had a large Chinese population living there and a good number of them immigrated here and kind of brought that unique mix of culture with them. When you think of a traditional vietnamese restaurant you’re thinking about pho, banh mi, they’re different. They are famous for their country style duck, but the one thing you must get here is the Curry Chicken Noodle Soup, which is the bomb. Bonus points if you go for the flat noodles. They’ve been open ever since I could remember.
This is probably the OG spot for your chinese bbq, char siu and rice, congee, noodles and stuff like that. I used to eat here all the time and still eat here a lot actually. The thing about this place is that it’s a no frills chinese spot. You sit down and they’re like what do you want? The second you order, within 5 minutes of you sitting down, you will have your food on your table. They are not here to chit chat with you, they’re here to take your order, get you your food asap and get you out. In my mind, that’s the best service you can get.
So 69 used to be thee drunk spot and they’re open till 4 am but the old owners sold it and you can tell because there’s the new banners here. It’s a restaurant, open till 4 and that’s the thing too, Chinatown is a drunk food destination and the entire wall used to be covered in dollar bills. It’s still good and worth checking out but it’s not quite the same anymore. Maybe it’s because the Nostalgia is gone a little bit for me and I’m being biased.
W: Now there’s another spot that is open late that we go to that’s open super late and when we first opened we worked until 1 AM even on a weekday and on weekends we’d be open until 2 AM because we’d cut off the line at 11:30 but the line was still an hour and a half long so you don’t stop serving till 12:30/1. Then, you have to clean, prep everything so we wouldn’t get out until 2 AM and you’d be hanging out with all the drunk people, everyone’s tired and exhausted.
There are 2 Wo-Hop spots, the Wo Hop downstairs and Wo Hop upstairs. All the tourists line up here in the stairs [of the downstairs Wo Hop] to eat and all the chinese people eat here [upstairs] at 15. You still get a good mix of people upstairs too but upstairs has 2 menus, they have a Chinese menu and an English menu. They’re not the same menu, they’re completely different, there’s the chinese food that we know and we order off the asian menu and their food is actually pretty bomb and completely different.
L: That’s an interesting commentary on the whole by us for us thing and then there’s the by us for you guys thing. Is 10Below a by us for us thing?
W: Honestly i think they [Wo Hop] evolved because that’s what the population or their patrons dictated. You had one group of people with a certain taste and another group with another. When we opened we were like everyone should love this, it’s ice cream. It’s awesome so I don’t know if we had a target demographic other than obviously the younger generation and we get a lot of asian people, we get a lot of white people, a lot of locals and people traveling, tourists, it’s like hey man, your money is good to us no matter where you come from.