All Posts by Mitchell Blatt

About the Author

Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, The Shanghai Daily, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.

May 19

Spontaneous travel: On the pleasure of throwing away plans, wandering randomly, and finding an off-the-Google-Maps soju room

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Travel

Before I arrived at my planned destination last night, I said to hell with it. I got off at a random station instead and followed streets my eyes and intuition told me would be interesting. I found a small storefront with the sign Yaho Soju Room (야호 소주방), within which I could see three swivel bar stools, a 50’s-looking man in the middle chair, and a similarly-aged woman standing behind the counter chopping vegetables and serving drinks.

I entered.

I knew I was on the right track when I passed by this karaoke room.

“Soju room.” It’s a kind of phrase that bring to mind the many other kinds of rooms for commercial use in Korea: singing rooms (karaoke), PC rooms, DVD rooms—even cafe rooms can provide you your own private cafe-like studio. The name evoked a very Korean kind of place. A more common name for “bar” in Korean is “drinking house.” Not far off the English “draft house” or even “pub.”

Korean drinking houses today serve beer, whisky, tequila and vodka shots. They have loud pop music playing. You won’t fine good old soju, the traditional Korean drink made by distilling grain wine, on the menu.

At Yaho Soju Room, soju was the main feature—Daesun (대선) soju in particular, Busan’s local brand. Beer (Korean beer) was available in the fridge, too, and a variety of traditional liquors in the cabinet behind the bar, but no whisky or cocktails. The barkeeper was cooking the snacks herself.

Price of the soju and complimentary snacks: 4,000 won (US$3.35).

She gave me a dish of tofu with spicy sauce and plate of carrots and cucumbers, complimentary with my bottle of soju. The ajeossi next to me (Korean older man, “uncle,” or “sir”) also ordered/asked for a plate of a kind of fish. On the stove, a pot simmered.

The handwritten soju appetizers menu.

There were only four customers in there, including me. Besides the ajeossi sitting next to me, a couple were sitting in one of the three booth tables in the place.

It was not a place I could have found on Google Maps. It was not a place I could have found if I planned my destination in advance. When we go traveling, we often pore over guides and itineraries, listings and descriptions. We query Google and Tripadvisor for the “best” restaurants, bars, cafes, and attractions in a city, a city we chose based on conscientious consideration. Often such planning ends up being useful. We find worthwhile destinations to enjoy. But too much planning—Googling every morning before leaving the hostel—takes away the element of serendipity, or fate, that allows special experiences to happen. It leaves a traveler without the excitement of ‘discovering’ someplace new. A little bit of planning is a good thing, but we also have to be willing to throw away the guidebook.

A restaurant serving seafood pancakes.
May 17

A coffee and a view at Huinnyeoul Culture Village, Busan

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Korea , Travel

Visiting Huinnyeoul Culture Village today, I stopped by a popular young cafe cum bookstore, Book Coffee, or Sonmog Seoga (손목서가) in Korean. The cafe is run by a couple and serves drip coffee in an artsy environment with views of the sea, while selling Korean language versions of progressive publications. After opening in the early summer of 2018, it has amassed 4,000 followers on Instagram.

Sonmog Seoga fits with the vibe local officials were trying to create at Huinnyeoul Culture Village when development began in late 2011, turning the shantytown located high above the ocean into an arts and culture tourist attraction. The coasts of Yeong Island became home to many refugees displaced by the Korean War.

A visitor looks at one of the filming sites of The Attorney.

Eventually, the government sought to redevelop, and some of the homes became run down and abandoned. According to Kim Hye-Ran, then Director of Cultural Tourism Division of the Education and Culture Department of Yeong Island’s district government, they offered some of the dilapidated houses to artists. Soon murals got painted, the area became more famous, and it was used as a filming location for 2013’s The Attorney, about former president Roh Moo-hyun’s championing of a civil liberties case during Chun Doo-hwan’s period of authoritarian rule.

A cairn we built by the ocean.

Although it has become increasingly developed towards tourism, locals insist Huinnyeoul Culture Village is not as crowded or commercialized as the nearby Gamcheon Culture Village. Huinnyeoul also appears to have a clearer view of the sea. It is accessible via steps up from Jeolyoung Marina Trail.

Walking along the marina trail.

Book Cafe succeeded in its goal of creating a charming environment with pleasing aesthetics, quality coffee, and erudite selection of reading material. The magazines were mass market high-brow. Feminist (Womankind, Australian), secular science (Skeptic, U.S.), Korean literature (Littor, Korea), and politics/society (시사in, Korea). Not independent and not entirely local, but not found in the convenience store either.

Crowded as it is, and not huge in terms of space, it charges high prices for its coffee. Most cost 6,000 won (US$5 at present conversion).

One thing you will find a lot of at Huinnyeoul Culture Village.
May 16

I visited “the most beautiful temple in Korea,” where I bought squid, then went on a hike

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Travel

“Is this the #1 temple in Korea?” a foreign visitor with whiting grey hair asked his Korean guide as he walked into the Haedong Yonggungsa temple.

“No,” the Korean man said.

“Why does it say that?”

Over the gate to the temple stood a sign that says “the most beautiful temple in Korea.”

Haedong Yonggungsa temple Summary

Location: The end of Yonggung-gil (용궁길), off Gijanghaean-ro (기장해안로)
Transportation: From Jangsan station (the final subway stop on the green line), a taxi costs about 6000 won, or you can take bus no. 100
Price: Free
Tips: Get there early (before 10 am). When it gets crowded starting in late morning, it is loud and difficult to move around.

It may be the most heavily-self-promoted temple in Korean (and honestly, it is pretty damn beautiful). Many a tourist putting up some quick photos to social media takes the title (“called the…”) and uses it. Now if you Google the phrase, you’ll find a YouTube video, a Lonely Planet tour entry, and multiple TripAdvisor reviews (it is the #7 highest rated attraction in Busan).

The path into the temple takes you past a line of restaurants, shops, and street food stalls; even Ediya Coffee, one of the largest chains in Korea, has a location there! Since long ago, markets have organically developed around temples to provide worshipers with necessities like incense and food, but the way the market street was situated leading into Yonggungsa reminded me more of the placement of a gift shop at a Disneyland ride. Or the market streets leading into AAAAA Chinese tourist attractions. I’m not complaining; I bought a grilled octopus there and some instant coffee from Ediya. But if they had put up a sign calling it “the most commercialized temple in Korea,” I wouldn’t question it.

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Make no mistake, Haedong Yonggungsa offers numerous feasts for the eyes. A line of zodiac animals greets you when you get past the tempting snack stalls. As you walk down the steps into the main body of the temple, bamboo forests to each side, the finely-painted buildings come into view alongside the cliffs and the sea. (Those steps become single-file when it is too crowded.)

The dancheong-painted (red and blue-green decorative coloring, 단청) eaves of the main building include a dragon’s face carved into the wood. There are two opportunities to toss coins for good luck. From the bridge, you can try to hit the shot into a bucket held by a young girl sitting on a lotus in the water below. Yonggungsa is a real working temple. As I was sitting, watching, and feeling, a family came inside, laid out prayer mats, and offered two bags of rice to the bodhisattvas.

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By the time I had seen all of the buildings, it was past 11 am, and it was getting more and more crowded. The tourist buses had rolled into the parking lot. I bought myself some fried squid from the market and would have headed back if I had not noticed a trail leading into the woods of the hill behind the temple.

Inside the temple complex, there is also a cafe–it’s not a chain.
A visitor from China tosses a coin from the bridge.
Guanyin

So I bought some squid and took it with me in its convenient bag to the trail.

Hiking Along the Coast
The 3.5 kilometer (2.1 mi) trail follows the coastline, next to open views of the sea for the first half, shrouded by pine trees for the second half.

Also available on RedBubble.

When I got out on the other side, I came into an intersection beside the parking lot and a road to a construction site where the DoDo J mobile cafe truck was parked. Enjoying an iced coffee, I chatted with some Korean women on vacation from Seoul.

When they left, a group of men in suits came over from the direction of the construction. Mr. Heo showed me a video of a condo complex that will be going up. “It looks beautiful,” I said.

Apr 18

Shaxi, Yunnan: Let me tell you about the first time I ate bugs

By Mitchell Blatt | China , China Travel Tips , Living in China , Travel

It was during my final week in Yunnan, the far southwestern province bordering Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. I had just been hired to write a guidebook about Hong Kong and only had a short time to explore before moving there for good.

I had been living in Dali Ancient City and spent most of my time those three months around Er Hai Lake in Dali County. But Dali County is just one of twelve counties in Dali Prefecture, which covers 11,370 square miles (29,450 sq km). I wanted to see some more far flung places. So I got on a small bus and rode over mountains and around steep curves until I arrived in Shaxi.

Halfway between Dali and Lijiang, Shaxi is one of the towns on the ancient Tea Horse Road to Bengal that is still in relatively good condition. The scenery is amazing. The architecture is beautiful. The town has a laid back vibe. I walked through the fields and saw local people wearing their traditional clothing. Children who had just gotten out of school celebrated summer break by tearing their papers up and flinging them in the air. A local music group was practicing, and they let me watch. Then at night my fellow hostel stayers and I sat outside on the square and drank beer.

Compared to Dali, it was less crowded and more relaxed but just as worthy of visiting. I would have stayed longer, had I time, but I had just a few days there, and in that time I had to try its local food. 

Shaxi, like Dali, is a town with a population that is majority Bai ethnicity. Shaxi is about 90 percent Bai; Dali 60 percent. The Bai are one of the 56 recognized ethnic groups in China. Eighty percent of them live in Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, which was the base of the Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms. At its peak, Nanzhao had conquered northern Burma and defeated the Tang Dynasty in battles, expanding all the way to Chengdu. Only the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty could eventually conquer the Dali Kingdom and integrate Yunnan into China. 

So they are the same ethnic group, from the same prefecture, sharing much of the same history and culture. Do the Shaxi Bai eat the same foods as the Dali Bai?

“Do you eat huangmen chicken here in Shaxi?” I asked. No, one of the Bai people working the desk at the hostel said. That’s Dali people’s food.

I went to a small family-owned restaurant out down the road away from the square to see.

“I want your most authentic, most te se (‘characteristic’) local food,” I said.

I went to take a look at what they were cooking, and I was clueless. There were some colorless, thin round things in their wok. They didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen cooked before.

“What is this?” I asked.

The chief said a word I didn’t know.

“Is it a vegetable?”

“It’s not a vegetable.”

“What kind of meat is it?”

“It’s not meat.”

What could it be if it wasn’t meat or vegetable?

When they delivered it to my table, I admit my first instinct was disgust–disgusted intrigue. Fried, oily, segmented things whose bodies plump at one end. It was served with fried crunchy strips of rice cake.

Looking at it, I thought, why would you go to a small town in rural China and order the most te se dish on the menu? Not even on the menu. You didn’t even look at the menu! They gave me just what I ordered. Not like a restaurant that doesn’t trust the foreigner can eat their food and makes something tame, Americanizes it for them. I did want to experience something authentic, didn’t I?

I took one between my chopsticks and lifted it towards my mouth. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t bad. It really didn’t taste like anything. It was just crunchy and had a little bit of a texture.

The dish was bamboo worms—the things that grow up to be moths. Cut open a stick of bamboo, and you can find a feast of these. Omphisa fuscindentalis is the name of one of the most popular of the bamboo worms served in Yunnan and Thailand.

A year or so later, I was back in Shanghai visiting a Chinese friend, and I took her to a Yunnan restaurant. I ordered her bamboo worm larvae, as well as other things. She did not end up eating any, but I enjoyed it. The bamboo worms there were cooked with mint leaves and spices. It seems the restaurant in Shanghai did a more elaborate recipe than the one in a local person’s home cooking restaurant. 

The fried worms were minty and fragrant; they take on the taste of whatever they are cooked with. The restaurant is called Yunshang—Beyond the Clouds—and it’s located at the end of the Nanjing East Road pedestrian road and Henan Middle Road. I would recommend it. (I say, eating larvae at a local restaurant when you aren’t expecting it is more exciting than going to a restaurant with the plan already in your mind and time to mentally prepare.)

Bamboo worms were not my favorite dish in China. Not even close. But larvae and dragon flies and scorpions are the best dish to have with your friend who is visiting China for the first time.

Apr 16

Urban parks: We need more greenways like Nanjing’s

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Living in China

With the coming of spring, kites fill the sky in Nanjing. Parents take their toddlers to run around in the grass, old folks walk along the path while listening to music of their youth, and young people run and bike along the Yangtze River.

Kites being flown from Yangtze River Greenway in April 2016 (photos by Mitchell Blatt).

Nanjing’s Greenway is a long stretch of interconnected parklands and trails that follow along the Yangtze River, the Qinhuai River, and Nanjing’s 21-kilometer ancient city wall. The benefits it brings to urban beautification, public health, and even transportation (I biked to work along it) are immense.

A study of urban parks in Los Angeles published in 2014 found that people who live nearby public parks display significantly better mental health states, as measured by responses to the MHI-5 mental health inventory, than do people who live far from public parks. Other studies in other countries have found similar results. Parks can stimulate people to exercise, facilitate social interactions, and bring people closer to nature. This has led policy planners to advocate for community-focused measures to help create environments relatively more conducive to positive mental health.

It’s not just about mental health. Urban parks and urban park networks are beneficial to the environment as well as just being good and enjoyable for their own sake.

Nanjing Ming City Wall (photo by Mitchell Blatt).

Chinese urban planners and researchers have made urban greenways an important part of their strategies for years. As far back as 1998, the Nanjing government envisioned a plan for preservation of the Ming Dynasty City Wall based on the creation of urban parks around the wall. For at least 15 meters around the walls, there would be no construction at all; just green grass, trees, and trails. The height of nearby buildings would also be limited, with no buildings allowed higher than the wall for at least 50 meters and up to 200 meters in some places, according to a case study by Yao Yanqi and Li Zhenyu, a student and professor, respectively, at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning of Tongji University.

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Mar 28

Flowers of Nanjing: Plum blossoms and rapeseed flowers in bloom

By Mitchell Blatt | China , China Travel Tips

Spring brings the flowers across China.

The flowers of Nanjing are plum blossoms, peach blossoms, and rapeseed flowers. Plum blossoms (梅花 – mei hua) have been chosen as Nanjing’s city flower, and the annual plum blossom festival is taking place now at Plum Blossom Hill on Purple Mountain. It is near the end of plum blossom season, which lasts from February through the end of March, but some flowers remain, and you will have missed the crowds.

”The fragrance of the plum blossom pierces the bones on the bridge.”
– Cao Xueqin, Dream of the Red Chamber

The plum trees, with some other kinds of trees mixed in, are arranged all over a field and hill near the Ming Dynasty Tombs. The gardens and nearby mansion are inspired in part by Cao Xueqin’s classic novel Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦 – Hong Lou Meng). Cao was born in Nanjing and grew up in the privileged home of a scholar-official. In the book, Cao made frequent references to plum blossoms.

During the festival, the plum hill is open free to the public. To visit, take line 2 on the subway to Muxuyuan (苜蓿园) station and follow either Lingyuan Road or Mingling Road into the park.

Purchase this image as a poster or post card at Mitch's RedBubble page.

Purchase this image as a poster or post card at Mitch’s RedBubble page.

Purchase this image as a tee shirt or art board from Mitch's RedBubble page.

Purchase this image as a tee shirt or art board from Mitch’s RedBubble page.

Purchase this image as any of 47 different products from Mitch's RedBubble page.

Purchase this image as any of 47 different products from Mitch’s RedBubble page.

See other images of China at Mitch's RedBubble page.

See other images of China at Mitch’s RedBubble page.

See other images of China at Mitch's RedBubble page.

See other images of China at Mitch’s RedBubble page.

Rapeseed Flowers

South of urban Nanjing, the fields have just turned blazingly yellow this month. Rapeseed, which is used for cooking oil (canola) and cattle feed, is one of the major agricultural products of the fertile Jiangnan (江南, which means “south of the [Yangtze] river”) region. China is the number two producer of rapeseed in the world (behind Canada), producing 15 million tons in 2016. Taking the high speed train between Nanjing and Shanghai, I would see the yellow go by every spring.

Gaochun is one of the best places to see the flowers in easily-accessible fields. Walk or take a bike along a paved road through the fields, and get off to walk within the fields. Nearby, white-walled homes complement the timeless aesthetic.

There is now a subway line going from downtown Nanjing all the way to Gaochun. Buses also run from the South Nanjing Station.

See other images of China at Mitch's RedBubble page.

See other images of China at Mitch’s RedBubble page.

See other images of China at Mitch's RedBubble page.

See other images of China at Mitch’s RedBubble page.

Gaochun, a good place to bike.

Gaochun, a good place to bike.

Tea is harvested in the hills nearby the rapeseed fields.

Tea is harvested in the hills nearby the rapeseed fields.

Mar 18

Restaurant Review: Wu’s Wonton King in New York City (Manhattan)

By Mitchell Blatt | Chinese Restaurant Reviews

Wu’s Wonton King is a banquet-style southern Chinese restaurant on the east edge of Chinatown in Manhattan. It specializes in roast duck, bbq platter, and seafood, as well as wontons.

IMG_4119

The wontons with noodle soup ($6.99) were fresh-tasting, and the soup was salty like the taste in China. I requested pepper oil to go with it, because I like my wontons spicy.

IMG_4124

Looking at the menu, another item that looked tasty was fried rice. There are nine types of fried rice on menu ($10.99-$15.99), including crystal crab meat fried rice, salted fish & diced chicken fried rice, traditional Yangzhou fried rice, and Fujian fried rice (which I was told featured seafood).

Restaurant: Wu’s Wonton King

Address: 165 E. Broadway
Subway stop: East Broadway Station (F line)
Review: Worth coming from afar for wontons.

Mar 17

What to do in China, Korea, and Malaysia this spring and summer, according to national travel promoters – Day 1 of Travel & Adventure Show

By Mitchell Blatt | Travel

The 15th Annual Washington DC Travel & Adventure Show opened today at DC’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

IMG_6694

Approximately 260 vendors, including the China National Tourist Office, the Korea Tourism Organization, Tourism Malaysia, the East Japan Railway Company, Turkish Airlines, Visit Philadelphia, and many travel agencies, tour providers, and national and local tourism promotional offices, operated promotional tables. The expo also included national dance routines and cultural programs and presentations by authors, photographers, and travel specialists.

China-maps

The China National Tourist Office’s representatives enthusiastically offered me travel maps and espoused the benefits of visiting Gansu province in summer, where you can see the breathtaking rainbow mountains of Zhangye National Geopark. Gansu, of course, is also the home of Lanzhou beef noodles (兰州拉面 – lanzhou lamian).

The rainbow mountains in Zhangye National Geopark. Trains depart to Zhangye city from Beijing West Station and Chengdu. Photo from Wikimedia.

The rainbow mountains in Zhangye National Geopark. Trains depart to Zhangye city from Beijing West Station and Chengdu. Photo from Wikimedia.

One of China’s biggest summer festivals, Dragon Boat Festival, falls on June 7 on this year’s Chinese lunar calendar.

The Korea Tourism Organization promoted some vibrant festivals, including the lantern festival coming up in May to celebrate Buddha’s birthday. The festival is celebrated in Seoul from May 3 to May 5 this year. On May 4, the procession of lotus lanterns will march from Dongdaemun Gate to Jogyesa Temple starting at 7 pm. Dances and cultural performances follow later that evening and the next day in the surrounding area.

Photo from Korea tourism agency.

Photo from Korea tourism agency.

Malaysia emphasized its natural beauty and rich traditional and ethnic culture. Sabah state on the north part of Borneo Island is home to 32 ethnic communities, including the Murut, who live in the hills of southern Sabah. During the final week of March, they will celebrate Pesta Kalimaran Festival, which includes the Miss Kalimaran Beauty Pageant and a wedding ceremony with consumption of tapai rice wine and dancing.

malaysia mags

Malaysia also celebrates Buddha’s birthday, Wesak, in May.

Wesak observance at Buddhist temple. Photo by Kamal Sellehuddin, Wikimedia/CC license.

Wesak observance at Buddhist temple. Photo by Kamal Sellehuddin, Wikimedia/CC license.

The DC Travel & Adventure Show continues on Sunday, and shows will be held in San Francisco on March 23-24 and Dallas on March 30-31.

Carpathia Folk Dance Ensemble performs on the Global Beats stage. Photo by Mitch Blatt.

Carpathia Folk Dance Ensemble performs on the Global Beats stage. Photo by Mitch Blatt.

Mar 13

An interview with travel writer Alec Le Sueur, marketing manager of the first international hotel in Tibet

By Mitchell Blatt | Book Reviews , China , Culture , Travel

Alec Le Sueur spent five years as the marketing and sales manager of the Holiday Inn Lhasa, the first international hotel to be opened in Tibet after China reformed and opened to the world.

Barkhor Street in 1993, by John Hill. Wikimedia, CC.

Barkhor Street in 1993, by John Hill. Wikimedia, CC.

The Holiday Inn was known as “the hardest hardship post.” Nicholas Kristof once wrote an article about it titled “A Tibetan Horror Story.” It was two flights away from Hong Kong on the chaotic state-run Civil Aviation Administration of China Airlines, and for long periods of the year, the only meal to be had was spam. But the sights on mountains, Buddhist temples, traditional markets, and streets with yaks wandering freely were another thing.

Le Sueur chronicled the beauty of Tibet and the absurdities of running a hotel, where management duties were duplicated between a Chinese party and a foreign party that rarely saw eye-to-eye, where staff didn’t know how to use the new, technologically-advanced washing machines, where teaspoons went missing and a guard was hired to protect the toilet paper, in his book The Hotel on the Roof of the World.

Boeing 707 with Civil Aviation Administration of China Airlines, from Wikimedia. CAAC Airlines was not separated into private airline operators until 1988.

Boeing 707 with Civil Aviation Administration of China Airlines, from Wikimedia. CAAC Airlines was not separated into private airline operators until 1988.

Le Sueur’s witty and conversational style brings the place to life. Some of the scenes will look familiar to people who have spent time in China recently (Chengdu taxi drivers racing to the airport, rice wine banquets), but much else is lost into the past. Tibet has changed much. China’s airports are still chaotic masses of people, but they have changed, for the better, with modern airplanes and functioning logistical processes. The Holiday Inn has been taken over by the Chinese government’s managers, and new international hotels have opened up in Lhasa.

Le Sueur was also in Tibet at a time when pro-autonomy protests and riots broke out between 1987-89, and Tibet was under martial law for about a year, with no tourism. He mentions the political situation in so much as it impacted daily life and hotel operations, but he did not dwell on politics as a main subject.

Nicholas Kristof's 1990 column on the hotel and photo by Kristof.

Nicholas Kristof’s 1990 column on the hotel and photo by Kristof.

After five years, he left Tibet with his wife, whom he met while both worked at the hotel, and went with her to Belgium, which was the subject of his next book, Bottoms Up in Belgium: Seeking the High Points of the Low Land. He also left the hotel business and got an MBA in law firm management. He continues to contribute to travel magazines, including Food & Wine.

Following is my interview with the author:Continue reading

Jan 23

New York City in black and white: A webzine of my travels

By Mitchell Blatt | Photos , Travel

I visited one of the world’s great cities outside of Asia this past weekend. That would be New York City. One need not be told that New York City is a hub of culture. I sought out dive bars of Brooklyn, art galleries and zine shops of Chelsea, underground sake bars, Chinatown dumpling restaurants, pork bone soup in Koreatown, crowded Cuban restaurants with tiny tables crammed closely together.

I’m going to list some of the highlights, some of which are included in the photos, below the toggle.

See highlights

Sake Bar Decibel at 240 E 9th St; Café Habana at 17 Prince St; PanYa, which serves Japanese breakfasts with fish and miso at 8 Stuyvesant St; Totto Ramen at 366 W 52nd St; Famous Xian Foods, a chain serving real tasty Xian noodles that started out in Flushing’s Chinatown and now has locations around the city; and Printed Matter, Inc., where the zine stockpile I photographed is located.

I thought the best way to present such a city is in black and white scanned photography.

New York in Black and White by on Scribd

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