postcard; FROM NEW YORK

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Asiatown: For a long time now, New Yorkers have whispered about the inexorable advance of Chinatown, gerrymandering its way into wider territory, popping up in ever more far-flung districts. The invasion has taken several forms. First, it broke out in controlled locations above 14th street, such as the infamous "Szechuan Hunan Cottages" on the Upper West Side, Upper East Side, midtown and Gramercy Park, where identical menus boast that the cooking is done by "Madame Chiang Kai-shek's ex-chef." Diners nibble nervously on their scallion pancakes, suspecting a plot, and wondering how one man can cook in four places, and why Mrs C sacked him (a guess: moonlighting?). Then it moved laterally, from Mott Street to Spring Street and beyond, and to the Bowery, First Avenue, and Clinton Street. Beginners rely on the obvious evidence to chart Chinatown's spread; gasping fish on ice, and orange plastic bags stuffed with durian. But varsity city watchers look for subtler signs, and not all are Chinese.

The last decade has seen Chinatown evolve into Asiatown - with Korean bul gogi sputtering raw on grills, Burmese potato dumplings hopping in woks, Tibetan tea slippery with salt and butter, Vietnamese sugar cane seeping shrimp mousse, and sushi and pad Thai selling on every corner. The hybrid Asiatown may soon make cutlery extinct on this island, in favour of the chopstick. Once, it would have been possible to drape a London- style archway over Canal Street and to pretend that the jaunty red trestle signified some kind of focus, an x-marks-the-spot, a limit. But in New York today, every road leads to Mandalay, and if it's not simmered in coconut milk and steeped in lemongrass, New Yorkers aren't eating it. It was only a matter of time before the monsoons arrived, which they have done with a vengeance this summer (Hurricane Fran only last week) and then, of course, came the rickshaws. Last year, an enterprising company called Ponycab released a fleet of pastel-lacquered bicycle-propelled pedicabs on the city, aiming to attract a politically correct, fuel-economising, downtown-visiting public. At first PC downtowners balked at making a grown man cycle his legs off but lately, weakened by the late summer heat, New Yorkers have succumbed, and are falling damply into Ponycabs everywhere, journeying from their favourite dim sum hangouts to their most trustworthy condensed-milk-with-bean-sprout-and-jelly-candy dessert drink spas for 50 cents a minute (cheaper than a cab). Riding in cushioned, open cabs at a pace that allows window- shopping and shameless ogling, clients let the breeze blow away the guilt of making some poor sod Fred-Flintstone them around town.

"It's really not that hard," Bill Sennett insists, as he pedals. It's 35 degrees and the back of his T-shirt simmers with sweat. Cars honk and screech, swerving to dodge his baby-blue cycle as he pedals a sloppy arc across six lanes of traffic. "People think we're suffering," Sennett continues. "Who's suffering?" Apple-cheeked, light of hair, dressed entirely in blue - shorts, sneakers, sunglasses - he doesn't look mournful. "This is exercise. It's theatre on wheels." He tells of the time a passenger surprised his wife at work with a pedicab ride, a rose, and two glasses of wine. Then he jingles a bell on his handlebars. "The ladies like the bell," he confides. "I gotta watch out, though; if I do it too much, the kids come up wanting ice cream." Apart from confused children, Sennett's job has only one other hazard: garrulous Asian clients. "Every time, they tell me: "Hey, we use rickshaws in my country." He harrumph:, "I'm like, I know already!"

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