What Lunar New Year Means to a Chinatown Restaurant Owner
Wilson Tang explains why supporting Chinese restaurants is so important this year.
For Wilson Tang, Lunar New Year is more than just a once-a-year celebration; it’s an everyday one. "I’m so lucky because the auspicious foods that we eat for Lunar New Year is something we do normally all the time," Wilson says. "When you talk about noodles and dumplings, those are things we eat almost on a daily basis, because we have a Chinese restaurant."
The Chinese restaurant he’s referring to is Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the beloved Chinatown dim sum spot that’s been around since 1920. Wilson took over running Nom Wah from his uncle in 2011, and since then he’s opened two additional locations — one in NYC’s Nolita neighborhood and one in Philadelphia’s Center City. He also just recently co-authored The Nom Wah Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from 100 Years at New York City's Iconic Dim Sum Restaurant.
Filled with over 75 delicious recipes, the cookbook also serves as a beautiful tribute to the vibrant community of Chinatown, which Wilson remembers frequently visiting as a kid. "I loved going to Chinatown as a child to see the festivities," he recalls while talking about the neighborhood’s iconic Lunar New Year Parade and Festival. "Back then, real firecrackers were still allowed, so there was an allure of danger. I loved burning incense, walking up to the firecracker, and with the incense lighting the firecracker and running away." These traditions also included having dinner with his father’s side of the family and exchanging red envelopes or hongbāo for good luck. "I always remember that time of the year was when I got all this extra pocket money," Wilson jokes.
Though he admits that he "did his own thing" during his teenage years and didn’t frequent Lunar New Year celebrations as much as he did when he was younger, it was during his time as a student at Pace University that Wilson once again found himself looking forward to the holiday. "I was in a school that was so close to Chinatown that I was excited again," he shares. "I really got submerged right back into my roots, into the Chinese side of me… It was almost like a 180 for me — it was like, 'Oh wow, why did I stop that during my high school years?' And now, I’m back!"
Wilson says his excitement around celebrating Lunar New Year came to him in phases, and credits both his business and his own children as the main reasons why the holiday means so much to him today. "I think in my lifetime, [I was] very into it, not so into it, very into it again, and extremely into it, because now I have a business in Chinatown for the last 10 years. I’ve got kids of my own. It’s a big thing now because there’s so many parts of my life that [are] intertwined with the community, with the celebration and now with kids." It also means that he’s able to partake in New Year celebrations twice every year — once on January 1st, and once again sometime later in the month or in February. “I think as an American Chinese person, I feel so lucky to be able to celebrate the New Year twice,” Wilson shares.
Just like his parents before him, Wilson now brings his seven- and eight-year-old to the Lunar New Year Parade to watch the lion dancing, noting that he wants to expose them to as many traditions as possible while they’re still young. "I love it because my kids get such a good kick out of it with all the drumming and all of the vibrancy that brings people into the neighborhood, which is great for business," he says. "It’s a great celebration and it’s good for promoting small business in the community. And I just love my city, and how even when everything is set and done, and you see the sanitation sweepers try to sweep up all the confetti — it’s very special for me."
While there won’t be a parade this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, that isn’t stopping Wilson from celebrating the holiday with his family on February 12th. "It’ll just be my wife and I and the kids and maybe my mom will come over and we’ll do something that is just a little more convenient. Maybe we’ll buy a bunch of stuff and just sit together and eat and enjoy each other’s company," he shares.
Buying and ordering food like Wilson plans to do is not only an easy way to make at-home Lunar New Year celebrations a little extra special this year, doing so will also go a long way in helping the restaurant industry, especially little mom-and-pop shops all across the country.
"It’s not just about supporting me and my restaurant, but about supporting the entire community," Wilson says. "And not just Manhattan’s Chinatown — it’s the Chinatowns of all different states in the U.S. These Chinatowns are all built by immigrant mentality; it’s built on immigrants' shoulders basically, and they’re all going through a tough time. A lot of these folks don’t have an understanding of the internet. [They] don’t know how to do gift cards or merch. They might not have the app that you can order from. You might want to call them instead. You might need to pay cash because they don’t take credit cards."
In addition to Nom Wah's frozen dumplings, which are available for nationwide shipping via Goldbelly, you can also try your hand at making Wilson's Scallion Pancakes recipe as a flaky appetizer (pictured above).
Whether you order from Nom Wah or another local eatery this Lunar New Year, Wilson wants you to remember that every little bit counts. "The time is now. If we don’t get together and support each other more of these intricate mom and pop shops are going to disappear and they’re never coming back. If you have the means to do so, and you are folks who are working from home, you got your paycheck, go order some Chinese food," he shares. "Go support your local Chinese food shop or American Chinese food shop. You can get the beef and broccoli and the eggroll and all of that. The time is now to support all those places.”
Photographs by Alex Lau from The Nom Wah Cookbook/Courtesy of Ecco.