Ng Pak squints past the shelves of miniature Buddhas and Chinese thermoses as he looks out the window. It's ten below with the windchill outside his herb store in Chinatown, and there's nothing but three inches of snow on Wentworth--no traffic, no pedestrians. And no news. The daily Chinese newspapers haven't arrived yet, and it's almost noon.
"The papers are published in New York," he tells me in Cantonese. He speaks almost no English. "Today snow, bad weather. Maybe airplanes can't land. No papers."
The thin, withered herbalist at Chinatown's Wah Hon Herb and Gift Store turns back to his abacus and examines the receipts he's laid on the counter. His assistant, Mei, who usually takes care of the video-rental section, tidies up the herbs and medicines on the dusty shelves.
The door opens, the door-chime tinkles, and an old man in a down parka pops in.
"Today's papers not here?" he asks in Cantonese.
"Not here yet," Ng Pak answers, gesturing at the snow outside.
A chubby gray-haired woman comes in with two men, speaking Mandarin. She pokes around the store, picking up and looking at dehydrated Chinese black mushrooms ($48 for six pounds), tea in multicolored tin and cardboard boxes, cans of condensed milk, White Rabbit candy, electric rice cookers. One of the men asks for gau leng sun, a Chinese herb that is supposed to energize you and protect you from viruses.
Mei points to a box in the cabinet under the glass counter. Inside it are what look like fat dark brown twigs. "This box, $12.50," she says in Mandarin tinged with a Cantonese accent. "This kind is not that strong. Take it if you have nothing really wrong with you."
She points to another box. "This is stronger--$18. Boil one hour with some chicken, red dates, and longan berries."
Wah Hon--Wah means Chinese and Hon means healthy--is 15 years old, one of the oldest herb stores in Chinatown. Its owner, Sonny Lau, has another store and two restaurants as well.
Unlike some of the newer herb stores that stock brand-new boxes of pills and herbs behind sterile glass cases, Wah Hon is homey, personal, almost messy. The store is so cramped that two people cannot walk down an aisle at the same time.
A dusty bittersweet smell hits you when you walk in and then slowly fades away as your nose adjusts. It's the scent of 1,000 kinds of herbs and medicines--the legacy of hundreds of years of Chinese tradition, science, and superstition. There's everything from Brand's Essence of Chicken, a black salty-sweet extract that's supposed to speed up your metabolism, to po chai yun, a tube of tiny pills the size of large grains of sand for stomach ailments, to pei pah gou, a sweet, thick, black cough syrup.
At the far end of the store more than 40 large jars of herbs in every shade of cream, brown, and black occupy the four shelves. There are more in the small oak drawers on the side.
While Mei chatters with a woman who has come in with her toddler to return some videotapes, Ng Pak quietly tidies the medicines under the glass counter.
"Hey," Mei says to the toddler, who's swaddled in a winter coat and a woolen cap. "Say Auntie. Say Auntie and I'll give you candy."
The two women try to coax the boy into talking, but he remains quiet.
Ng Pak is almost as quiet as the boy.
"Do you like Mei Gok?" I ask him. Mei Gok, which means "beautiful country," is the Chinese word for America.
"I'm here now. I have to like it even if I don't like it," he says stoically.
"Why did you come here?"
"Lots of people from mainland China come here," he says, not looking up from his work. "I came here from Canton 12 years ago with my family. Now they are all big."
Big, grown-up, adult all mean the same thing in Chinese.
"Two boys, one girl," he says after a while. "All more than 30 years old now. One works in a grocery store on Argyle, one in a restaurant, one no work to do."
He doesn't want to talk about his kids.
"What's this?" I ask, pointing to a bag of tiny dried red berries.
Like a father telling a child the important things in life, his eyes light up. The wrinkles on his face disappear. "Gei ji," he says, picking up a packet and dusting it for no apparent reason. "Good for your eyes. Boil with lean pork and drink it like soup."
I wonder if the bespectacled Ng Pak drinks the stuff, but I don't dare ask.
He points to a box of herbs that look like thin white tongue depressors.
"Pak kei. That makes you breathe better," he says, making circular motions in front of his chest with his left hand. "Boil with gei ji and fong dong and lamb or pork."
And there's yong sum, or ginseng, which is supposed to keep you generally healthy and alert. "There are two types of ginseng: wild ones and the type you grow. We can get them from America and Canada. Ginseng from the Big Red [mainland China] not good quality. Canada also not so good. This store we only carry top quality herbs," he sniffs, adding that the best ginseng is from Wichikanshin.
"Where?" I ask.
"Wichikanshin. An American state. A big American state," he says, looking at me like I'm an idiot.
Mei is a little more conversational. "Go home, get married and have children," she says to me. "Look at me. I'm way past 30, and my children are only two and five. Some of my friends, their kids are already in college."
Mei is the one who chats with customers. When a Chinese woman walks in with three Caucasians and starts to browse, she tells her, "Buy some of those sweets for your friends. Packed specially for Chinese New Year. They taste good."
The Chinese woman translates for her friends, then picks up a packet of dried bok choy, looking puzzled.
"That's the same as you get at the supermarket," Mei says. "Only it's dry. Boil two stalks with lean pork, dried red dates. One packet, six servings."
The woman puts it down and buys some mushrooms and sour plums instead. "Next time," she says. Then she asks Mei how business is.
"Snow keeps people away," Mei replies. "But for a winter day this is not bad."
Mei rings up her bill and then goes back to mixing some herbs to make chut seng yok--seven-star medicine--a baby tonic that's supposed to do everything from improve the appetite to cure a cold. Ingredients include wheat and dried locust shells.
A young Chinese woman in jeans and a parka walks in looking for the papers.
"Not here yet," says Ng Pak again. He goes back to doing his accounts. They chat awhile about the weather, and then she leaves.
Just after noon Ng Pak bends down behind the counter, opens the lid of an electric rice cooker, and shakes his head. "Forgot the salt."
He pulls out a plate of bok choy and some luncheon meat he's been steaming with the rice in the cooker and scoops some rice into a white procelain bowl with a phoenix on the outside. He opens a bottle of oyster sauce and sloshes the thick black goo on his vegetables.
"Why are you making it so salty?" asks Mei a little disapprovingly.
Finally an old Chinese man wearing a gray cap and dark blue parka comes in carrying a pile of newspapers and hoists them onto the stand near the door. It's the Chinese-language World Journal, which today includes news about Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China, as well as a story on AIDS in the U.S., a review of The Last Boy Scout, and the usual essays, short stories, and serialized novels about love, politics, and kung-fu heroes.
"Aiyah, the cold," the old man says to Ng Pak, who nods in agreement.
Ng Pak walks slowly over to the pile of papers, picks one up, goes back behind the counter, and gently spreads it open, flicking away the specks of snow. His brow furrows in concentration.
The door chimes tinkle, and a middle-aged woman comes in, brushing snowflakes from her sleeves.
"Are the papers here yet?"
Ng Pak gestures to the pile. She smiles, pays for the paper, and walks out into the snow.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.