1. Please introduce yourself and what is your biggest connection with Chinatown?
Hi. I'm Chez Bryan Ong. Though I grew up in Jersey, I've spent almost every weekend since I was a child in Chinatown. My family would come here to shop, run errands, and eat. When I was younger, I'd spend my summers in Chinatown Daycare Center. I also attended the New York Chinese School every Saturday. These days, most people know me to be a part of the New York Crimson Kings Drum, Fife & Bugle Corps and co-founder of spoon+fork.
2. How did you get involved with the Crimson Kings? How long have you been teaching there?
I first got involved because I wasn't doing so well in Chinese school. I had been attending classes on Saturdays, but one fateful Sunday my mom brought me to the school for what I thought was going to be two consecutive days of Chinese classes–the horror! Instead she dropped me off with the Crimson Kings who are based in the New York Chinese School to learn an instrument. I suppose it was my parents' way of making sure I got involved in the community. It was 1989 and I was 12 years old. I've been hooked ever since having learned many life lessons and building life long friendships. I eventually was asked to teach the drum line while I went to college until 2000. I then returned in 2008 and have continued to be a part of the team ever since.
3. Favorite Chinatown memory.
Every Chinese New Year. The fireworks (of the 80s and early 90s), the lively vibe, the smell of incense, the laughter, the food, the people, the parade, the lions dancing, the ripped up lettuce, the dragons flying, the color littered streets, the brisk air, the banging drums, the closed streets, the oranges everywhere, the vegetarian food at the temple, the red envelopes, the smoke in the air,... it's perfect.
4. Favorite thing to eat in Chinatown.
Spare ribs with black bean sauce (with hot pepper) over rice from 69 Bayard. This is my favorite dish. It's my comfort food. Depending on who's working there I can walk in and they will just know that's what I want.
5. How do you feel about gentrification in the community?
Gentrification will always be a part of the New York fabric, and it's hitting Chinatown like it has hit every other neighborhood in NYC. It's a part of progress and modernization for any sprawling city. We can't avoid it, but we can definitely sway it towards a direction that benefits those that are moving in, and those that already live here. Perfect example are new coffee shops creeping down Mott Street and becoming neighbors of long lasting old school Chinatown bakeries. You can either spend $7 for a cup of coffee and a pastry at the new spot or $2 at the old school bakery. It's about coexisting and not about taking over. When it becomes about taking over, then it's not good for anyone. The community must remain vocal and support the businesses they prefer. So if going to the $7 spot is not your preference, you better go to the $2 spot all the time and not wait to support them when they are on the brink of closure.
6. I DO LIKE seeing people living, working, socializing, shopping, going to school, running errands, and eating in the Chinatown community. Unlike many other Chinatowns, ours is special in that it's not just a tourist destination, but instead, New York Chinatown is a real vibrant community. Despite the central parts of Chinatown becoming more touristy, the community still grows towards the east sides of Chinatown. I love seeing how Eldridge Street, East Broadway and even down towards Knickerbocker are still residential areas. I love Columbus park in that it is a perfect snapshot of old world and modern world living and playing in the same space. Most parks around the city don't capture that like how Columbus Park does.
7. I DO NOT LIKE seeing hotels being built all over Chinatown. We don't need hotels. We need schools, local small businesses, youth & senior centers, recycling centers, and public facilities. Chinatown is a community first and a tourist attraction last. We should not just cater to tourists and foreign investors.
8. Favorite ice cream flavor.
Butter pecan is my go-to. But when in Chinatown, it's always CICF Black Sesame.