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New York Diary

Eating With Harley Spiller

SARS be damned: a search for the perfect dumpling in New York’s Chinatown, guided through eight restaurants in two hours by the man known as Inspector Collector.

Harley Spiller, who may well have read more Chinese menus than anyone in New York, is simply too big for Chinatown. He is tall and broad with a pointed, handsome face; he is two heads taller than the crowds below Canal Street. His entrance into many Chinatown restaurants involves a rumbling shuffle from the sidewalk to the table, and the appearance of his ponytail many times invokes cries of Haw-lee! Haw-lee! from the chefs and hostesses who recognize him. But Chinatown is too dense for his affections—in the two hours we spend eating together, he nearly topples a stack of fish crates and a row of velvet shoes. At one point a table of green vegetables on the sidewalk barely avoided destruction. But he is loved. The neighborhood’s waiters, fishmongers, restaurateurs, and other diners are happy to see him, and when Harley is happy in return, his arms fly out like two barn doors kicked open by the wind, and people noticeably react, but he’s also just as easily flattened, struck down by small slights or changes in the weather and his face droops, his eyes harden, he’s distracted, childlike, and restless, and it’s hard to capture his attention again.

His attention is frequently tested. ‘This is some bad shit,’ he shouts as an aside to everyone. We have met on an early Sunday in April; the day is windy with a hard, frigid blue sky, and a streetfight has broken out near our meeting spot on Division street: two guys, one Chinese, one white, grapple between cars as a big crowd watches from the sidewalk. After a minute the men are pulled apart. The crowd dissipates but quickly rebuilds when the two men come back at each other, weaving through cars and howling curses in different languages.

Harley and I are on the outside and he struts away purposefully; we have a dining schedule that he emailed me a week earlier, planned down to the minute. ‘Jesus,’ he spits. ‘Was that a white guy?’ He seems disappointed when I confirm his suspicion. And besides the fighter, we are the only white men I can see.

But the distraction dies out. We walk beside a long fence outside the former Sun Sing theater under the Manhattan Bridge, a dark undercut that’s wet from drips overhead. Small stores are being built under the bridge, with their windows papered over with posters advertising Chinese DVDs. Harley stops and crosses his arms.

‘The movie theater owners left in the middle of the night.’ He nods frequently as he talks, as though to confirm his points as he hears them. His face stiffens with authority. ‘The city got the building and called the Chinatown Museum. They called me and said we don’t have room to store this stuff, do you know anybody with storage? So I do, and him and me and the museum are now partners in a vanload of movie posters, 100 short films, and 60 16-millimeter movies in the cans.’

Harley looks around, finds me again with his eyes and laughs at my surprise. His gaze skitters away.

‘I have a worker’s uniform so small, it’s gotta be child labor,’ he shouts and he cracks up laughing again, a high-pitched yelp that infects his neighbors, and then he’s off, and I jog to catch up with him, now well aware that my tape recorder will be useless.

But this is Harley Spiller: 43, exuberant, crass, very quick, and lovable. A self-taught gourmet and expert on Chinese cookery, Harley serves as a board member of the Institute of Chinese Cuisine and frequently writes for Flavor & Fortune. He and my fiancée used to work together, and last year for Christmas he presented us with a list of his favorite restaurants in New York, and I had never heard of any of them.

And then there is Inspector Collector, also Harley Spiller, his alter-ego, his Superman, coming soon to your television with autographs, neckties, and spoons. Familiar to many parents, performance artists, and curators, Inspector Collector teaches workshops at museums and schools on the joys of collecting, and personally maintains the world’s largest documented collection of Chinese take-out menus, currently numbering around 10,000, the oldest dating back to 1879, from all states in the U.S. and over 80 countries. (‘It’s one of the nicest things you can ask a friend to do,’ he tells me, ‘to bring you a Chinese take-out menu from their trip, because it’s so light-weight, and it’s free!’) He also holds large stores of maps, photos, and paperclips.

These are both the Harley Spiller whom I challenged to guide me through New York’s Chinatown in search of the perfect dumpling. And though I agreed to pick up the tab, assuming it remained under $50, we only managed to surpass our own appetites (or, at least, mine) after eight restaurants and enough food to require, on my part, a week of restorative naps.

 

Harley moved to New York in 1981, making $9,200 a year as an administrative assistant at the Jewish Museum, and has since eaten in Chinatown at least twice a week. ‘I got to New York, I was meat and potatoes. Pizza was my vegetable. I had never eaten more than half a piece of broccoli in my life. Chinese was the Chinese-American standards…you know, eggroll, wonton soup, fried rice.’

We are waiting for dumplings in our first restaurant, Min Jiang, on East Broadway. Harley’s backpack has its own chair—deservedly, since it carries his tax forms—and his rainjacket hangs off the back of his own. The restaurant is a ship’s hold, narrow and dark. Besides us, there is only an old man browsing a Chinese newspaper and the chef, who is eating breakfast beside us at one of four tables. A woman appears in a back doorway occasionally.

‘Maybe some pork or shrimp?’ I ask.

Harley laughs and waves away the suggestion. ‘No, not for us. But shrimps and lobster sauce for my dad, sure, even though he’s Kosher. Like somehow, by him combining two distinctly non-Kosher foods, two wrongs will make a right.’

His body rocks and jiggles when he laughs. ‘But dim sum, for me, was the way to try 18 different things, in one meal period, for 10 dollars. When I got here, those vegetable piles on the street were a complete mystery to me. Now I know every one of them, I can say half of them in Chinese, I’ve cooked them all.’

He stares off, and I probe a bit further but the conversation stalls for a moment. He is reluctant to speak about himself, and I learn why: there is a plague outside the door. SARS has him worried and I begin to understand why he’s agreed to our morning of gluttony: like many business owners in Chinatown, Harley fears the specter of SARS more than its contagion, that it will inspire New Yorkers and their tourists to stay above Canal Street. Though there has been no reported outbreak in Chinatown, Harley notes the many newspaper articles reporting on decreased business, and a thin flame of repugnance lights under his voice.

Leaning forward, he confides his part: ‘I walked into this restaurant on Mott Street. It was Thursday and the place was empty, which was weird because it’s good and famous. I didn’t understand what was going on, so I went to talk to the owner, the mother, only she’s sitting at a table being filmed for Chinese TV. So I wonder, what’s up? Then her son, who I’ve known since the place opened in the late ‘80s, he comes over and goes, ‘Why’d you come today?’ ‘Because,’ I say, ‘I haven’t been here in a long time and I missed your soup!’ And he says, ‘Oh, haven’t you heard? I’m dead!’ Turns out all the Chinese newspapers reported that he died of SARS and now nobody’s going to that restaurant. I got home that night and my Chinese-American dentist has sent me this email that had been forwarded from 90-million people saying ‘Don’t go to Chinatown,’ ‘I’m not going down there,’ ‘Did you hear what happened,’ blah blah blah.’

Harley looks disgusted, the same wrinkled face he’ll make later at any perceived trespass against his own private Chinatown, but our food finally arrives and his mood is restored when the dumplings are set down roughly between us.

‘But,’ he tells me jovially, pouring hot sauce for both of us, ‘the son said a year ago, his father was coming back from Vietnam and died in customs when they told him he couldn’t bring $3,000 back into the country. He had a heart attack because he had declared $5,000 going out and for some reason he couldn’t bring back the $3,000, so he flipped and died.’ He laughs and forks a dumpling. ‘So maybe that story got conflated with his son getting SARS, I don’t know.’

The dumplings are simple and delicious. We ordered suey jao, dumplings stuffed with chives and pork with a dipping sauce of soy and vinegar. The dough breaks easily, without any meal sticking to my teeth, and the seams are tidily rippled. The pork is flavorful but mild, tempered by boiling. The total comes to $2.50. Your basic pork dumpling, but done very well.

On our way out, Harley points to a lump of pink meat in a dish. ‘That’s my name. How-Ley. Roasted pig tongue.’ His laugh fills the restaurant as we leave.

 

Our second stop is a yard sale of tables and stoves clustered in the basement of a mall near the Manhattan Bridge. We are going for noodles, Harley explains, and the deviation from our day of dumplings will be explained by extremely good, Northern Chinese sesame noodles. It’s important, he explains, that I try something that is normally destroyed in Chinese-American restaurants (in this case, usually lathered with peanut sauce) to see how it should be prepared.

Inside the mall a man selling phonecards wears a surgeon’s mask, now a common sight in news footage of Beijing, Hong Kong, or Toronto as each city confronts the SARS epidemic. Harley notices the man and grunts, turns away and hops on the escalator. Is SARS getting a foothold in New York? ‘All Chinese do that when they’re sick. It doesn’t mean anything.’

Downstairs a long kitchen is built under the rafters of a storefront, lost in a maze of stalls. It’s hard to imagine we’re still in New York. Harley approaches the first woman who seems to be part of the staff and orders our noodles in abrupt Chinese. She doesn’t understand. Leaning forward, he repeats what he said a few times, holding up his finger to indicate one serving for us to share. She calls another woman over and repeats what he’s said, but Harley, going red with frustration, corrects her Chinese by talking over her. Eventually our order goes through.

‘Those ladies are the worst,’ he confides as we sit down at a card table in a hallway. ‘They’re always so mean.’ Our conversation continues in sputters—he is too frustrated to focus. Our noodles arrive a minute later, with a bowl of fish-bone soup, and the woman who took our order slaps down the plates.

‘You’re not going to like that,’ Harley says, eyeing the soup, but he relents and begins telling a story about a recent date with a Chinese girl, and after some hesitation, I ladle myself some of the pale yellow broth. And oh, it’s excellent, sweetly paired with the noodles, which are sticky, buttery, and light, with sesame fragrances and a creamy texture. Satisfied at my enjoyment, Harley lets me eat most of the plate.

We finish in two minutes. The bill this time is $1.50. On our way out Harley buys a bag of sesame-encrusted cakes stuffed with mustard greens. We finish one between us outside the mall—it’s like a beaded jelly donut stuffed with mustard but quite delectable—and the other is zippered into his backpack as a gift for his accountant.

Though my stomach is at least half-full, the noodles are restorative and I have to move quickly to follow Harley to our next restaurant, though we pause by a hair salon. Wind flutters down the street from uptown; we’re on a quiet interlude, alone on a sidewalk for the first time that morning. Inside the storefront, a woman is having her long, black hair washed out behind her. Harley cups his hands around his eyes to see through the window glinting with sunlight. ‘Oooooooh,’ he croons, in the same tone he used to appreciate mustard greens, ‘Looooove the hair salon girl,’ then he smiles at me, a wide valley across his face, and starts off again.

 

‘Now we’re going to see the single most gorgeous restaurant owner I’ve ever seen.’

We have stopped one block south of Dumpling House, restaurant number three. Harley has recently noticed a sign that read ‘Fish Balls’ and prompted a block’s worth of laughter.

‘She’s got a sister who’s running another restaurant, which is prettier, but this is the original one.’

The restaurant’s prettier or the sister’s prettier?

He giggles. ‘The restaurant’s prettier. The sister’s a lot more shy compared to this one. This one speaks really good English, and she’s gorgeous, and you’re like, what?! And she’s really friendly too, so you’re like, you’re not supposed to have all three!’

And she owns a restaurant.

‘Oh yeah…’ he continues rapturously, ‘She hooks me up. She gave me dill buns one day. I was like, dill? Dill and pork inside. Big wads of dill. Delicious.’

There are no tables inside Dumpling House; customers stand at a wooden bar chest-high in front of the stoves. The room is packed with customers. There are three cooks behind the counter, plus a handsome, muscular man chopping tofu to one side in black jeans, a black leather jacket, black T-shirt and a black belt with a yawning, toothy alligator on the buckle. The tofu falls apart at his cleaver. (‘Do not want to fuck with him,’ Harley later intones.)

‘Haw-lee! Haw-lee!’

Harley grins widely. Vanessa, the owner and chef, dusts her hands on the apron folded over her waist, eyes me, then peers over the counter. ‘Where have you been?’ This is a frequent question from owners and chefs who seem to fear, not unreasonably, being dropped from Harley’s collection of friends. (‘I get friendly with a lot of restaurant people,’ he tells me, ‘and they chastise me—Where you beeeeen?!—but they don’t know I’m friendly with a hundred other restaurants.’)

‘Haw-lee, I saw you on the TV. Why you eating at that place with SARS?’

‘What?’ he stammers. ‘What TV?’

‘I saw you. My sister did too. She say, I saw Haw-lee on TV.’

‘Was this Chinese TV?’ he asks.

‘Yeah, Chinese station.’

He grins and tells her the story of the restaurateur suspected of SARS, though it’s obvious he didn’t know he had been caught on film at the time. ‘Oooh, that’s terrible,’ Vanessa says when he describes the father’s heart attack in the airport; she pouts quickly then recovers: ‘So funny,’ she reminisces, ‘my sister say she saw you on the TV.’ She turns away to resume cooking and he whispers to me, ‘Did you hear that? She saw me on TV! Her sister saw me on TV!’

Our order is prepared as we stand at the counter: eight fried dumplings stuffed with pork and chives (gwor tip), alternately fried and steamed until they are crisp with a delicate, browned latticework around the edges and wet, papery skins. They are perfect dumplings, the best of the day, every bite its own dumpling, meaty, rich, and wholesome. Vanessa finishes with another customer, a young woman with a baby on her back, and returns to watch us eat.

‘You should try my sister’s restaurant.’ (Tasty Dumpling on Mulberry Street.)

‘To have the dumplings you don’t have?’ Harley asks.

‘Yes, the special dumplings.’

‘I don’t know,’ he says, and mimes a yank on his ponytail, ‘I may have some competition.’ He explains in a whisper: ‘I’m scared of her sister’s husband. He has a ponytail too.’

A minute later, our mouths full of the last dumplings from our plate, Vanessa screams ‘Haw-lee! Haw-lee!’ The front door swings close. Her sister’s husband, with a long, shiny ponytail, claps Harley on the shoulders and Harley looks away and blushes bright pink. The man says something in Chinese then jostles by us to the back of the restaurant. Harley translates reluctantly, ‘No good, no good.’ Vanessa laughs with her hand over her mouth and refuses to let us pay.

Out stomachs are now noticeably distended. The cold air helps keep the nausea down. We pause outside to catch our breath and Harley points across the street at a store. His voice comes out in a huff.

‘Wouldn’t it be great if we went over there and dropped our pants in front of that sign?’ He trails off, giggling, and starts north toward our next restaurant. I rub my stomach and consider going home. The sign, of course, reads ‘Hung Hung.’

 

Gluttony requires disappointment as penance, and it is meaningless unless you eventually stop eating. Quitting early seems attractive to me on our way to Yogee Noodle (85 Chrystie Street) especially when any smell of food turns my stomach (and Chinatown at Sunday lunchtime is a rank, open market), but the thought of our stomachs being twice as full in an hour is perversely nourishing, and Harley is unstoppable.

Inside the door, two young Chinese guys, both big though not as large as Harley, are waiting for their food. A man at that moment is paying at the register. ‘We ordered before that guy,’ one says loudly to the other. ‘This is bullshit.’ When our food arrives two minutes after we have ordered—Harley is again a friend of the owner—they don’t say anything but we avoid their eyes.

We take our fu chow yan pi won ton (fish wontons) to a park across the street. A different type of dumpling, Harley points out; you have to appreciate that, he explains, and though I try—they are, in fact, adequately good—nausea is a mean judge and I’m not up to his sermon. The broth is salty when I would prefer something plain, and the dumpling skins explode in my mouth with cartoonish bursts. After two bites each, we leave the container of wontons to a bum on a nearby bench. (‘I’ve seen this guy here so many times—I’ve left food for him before too.’) The bum looks up and adjusts his hat but doesn’t say anything.

Harley looks tired. His normal bustle has slowed down and conversation between us falls after halting starts. In the wide-open sunlight, Chinatown has won: it gleams with kitchen supply shops, bicycle stores, one-light closets for job-notice boards. SARS is out there somewhere; we have failed. Then a few blocks away, Harley notices a poster of an Asian girl, pretty with red hair, outside another hair salon. We stop. There is something jarring about the poster—the girl’s shoulders, too creamy and angular, are off-kilter.

‘What do you think,’ he asks me and everyone around us, his volume restoring itself, feeding on the traffic noise. ‘They airbrushed that on? Come on—they had to put that shoulder on. I mean, look at that!’ The big grin returns. Behind us, and as if on cue, someone shouts at Harley from a large black truck with tinted windows: ‘Man, you don’t want to go in there!’

Harley looks back with slight confusion: a man in the shotgun seat is gripping his own ponytail through the window, pointing at the hair salon, and laughing.

 

We’re shown to a group table at our fifth restaurant, Joe’s Shanghai (9 Pell Street), notorious for its terrible service, and Harley is clearly displeased. (‘You see the treatment we get?’ he hisses. ‘They just don’t care about us.’) We are visiting for the soup dumplings (shao lung bao)—the only reason to suffer a visit, he explains, even though he was there for a dinner-date the night before. The host doesn’t recognize him.

Six people are already sitting at our table, a family of four and an older couple. They don’t seem to know each other. The couple eats their food in silence while the family digests separately: the son picks at his plate, the daughter sits quietly, the father stares off in silence while the mother serves herself from a mound of red, sticky pork flakes.

Harley glares around the room and finally secures a waiter to take our order. Every seat in the restaurant is taken and the noise is nearly unbearable, but our table is quiet and it wears on Harley. After a minute, he leans his head forward. ‘So where are you guys from?’

‘Connecticut,’ the mother of four says, and then mentions a town I can’t understand for the food in her mouth.

‘Is that near Stamford?’

‘Sort of,’ her husband says, staring blankly. It takes me a moment to realize that one of his eyes doesn’t move.

Harley turns on the son who’s busy eating. He is wearing a blue-and-black Hawaiian shirt, a thin gold necklace, and has his hair gelled up in points.

‘Do you have any collections?’

The boy looks up. ‘I don’t know,’ the boy says then turns away.

‘Like that shirt,’ Harley presses on, ‘That’s a cool shirt. Do you have any more of those?’

‘Yeah he’s got a whole collection,’ the mother says, but it’s all Harley needs to know to interrupt her: ‘Because, we need kids with collections to come down and be on television.’ He pulls a flyer out from his jacket, announcing the casting call. The show, currently in production, will be called Show Your Stuff with Inspector Collector, an Antiques Roadshow of sorts for children.

‘On television?’

‘Did you hear that?’

‘Cool,’ the boy says and now looks at Harley without looking away.

‘You know, I was the one who started the shirt collection,’ the father says.

‘You did not!’ the boy yells. ‘You just steal mine!’

The mother is staring at Harley; she shouts over both of them, ‘He must have over 200.’

‘That’s great,’ Harley says, and ends the conversation when he turns to address the boy. ‘You just bring them down, that’s perfect, you’ll get right on TV. As long as you say something intelligent.’

‘He’s very smart,’ the mother adds, but Harley ignores her, concentrating on the boy’s shirt. ‘So what is that, silk?’ he asks.

‘No, it’s rayon,’ the boy brags, a little insulted, then thinks better: ‘But I’ve got silk ones too.’

The man from the other couple pipes in, ‘I gotta vodka bottle collection but you probably don’t want it.’

‘What,’ Harley laughs, ‘are they full? Cause that’s the kind of collection we could use!’

The waiter finally arrives with our dumplings, shaped like small balloons with their necks tied. Harley demonstrates how to eat them by gripping the dumpling with chopsticks, then biting off a hole to slurp out the hot soup inside.

The broth that spits out is pungent and nearly too rich to enjoy, with the same sort of clashing bitter flavors as black truffles when they’re misused. We both finish our bowls in two minutes—besides the soup, which is both gruelish and triumphant, the dumplings are stuffed with pork and crab, and are difficult to enjoy once the broth is sucked out.

As I pay the bill (our most expensive of the day, close to $14), Harley tells the table about a guy in New Jersey who collected baseball jerseys and later sold them for millions.

‘That’s so cool,’ the boy says rapturously, unable to take his eyes of Harley. The whole family says goodbye when we leave and repeats their promise to be in Stamford the next weekend. The little girl frowns at Harley’s back.

Once we’re outside I ask if Harley was able to tell that the boy was a collector.

‘No,’ Harley chastises me, ‘I could see he had a cool shirt.’

‘But then he says he has 200 of them.’

‘Well I know—what a break! And that will look great on TV right? Those shirts, all colorful like that? And the kid was good looking too,’ he says coolly.

He stops on the corner, consulting something in his head, and turns north towards our next restaurant. He stops again and turns to me, grinning at everything around him, and points to a sign across the street.

Does Chinatown know it has such an enthusiast? Can it ever love Harley Spiller as much he loved it first?

‘Hey,’ he shouts. ‘Can you tell me where mei dick is?’

The sign is small, set above a door, barely noticeable among the neighborhood’s opulent advertising. Harley doubles over with laughter and struggles away.

 

Our second-to-last restaurant is the brightly-lit Tart-n-Tasty (76 Mott Street) just below Canal Street. As we wait inside for a take-out order of watercress dumplings stuffed with shrimp (which turn out to be skeletal, lifeless, and entirely boring, though it’s difficult to say my judgment wasn’t impaired by 18,000 previous calories) Harley notices a small family eating similar soup dumplings as we have just enjoyed at Joe’s Shanghai. The woman, holding a toddler on her knee, has split open her dumpling and squeezed the soup into her bowl.

‘See,’ he whispers, ‘she’s eating it the wrong way. She’s squishing it. It was like this date I was on last night, she was sucking it out of the top.’

‘Was she Chinese?’

‘Yeah.’ He pauses, then continues: ‘The thing is, I know a lot more about Chinese food than most Chinese people. I didn’t realize this until a year ago.’ This hangs on him for a moment. He gazes at the toddler who is staring around, open-mouthed.

‘What do you think, is that a boy or a girl?’

‘A girl,’ I say.

‘Yeah, it’s a girl. God, she’s adorable.’ He pauses for a moment and stares wistfully. ‘I gotta make me some of those.’

We eat the dumplings on the steps of a health clinic in the noise of Canal Street (Harley chats with two old people going inside, and translates a Chinese pop song booming from the open window of an S.U.V. parked across the street) then we leave to enjoy our last stop, New Oriental Pearl (105 Mott Street).

New Oriental Pearl is enormous, Harley’s crown jewel for the day, a palace for dim sum with many tables spread through a large room, and push-carts weaving through them with baskets and tubs of hot food. The noise is piercing. Every table is packed. The host, an older man in a large blazer, laughs when Harley marches in and points us to the back. Harley flys by, barely acknowledging him. ‘We’re going to go find my friend,’ he says tersely and spots a younger guy and bears down on him.

‘Haw-ley! Haw-ley!’ the waiter says wearily.

We are given our own table, then joined by two older Chinese people at the other end. Harley lets out a big sigh of relief, sets down his bag, and collapses, but only for a minute until he’s up again to pull his friend aside and place our order.

He comes back and explains what he’s learned: they’ve run out of shark-fin dumplings (yu chi gao)—the real reason that we’re there—but they do have the bitter melon balls with black bean and peanut filling (leung guar gao) that he requested the day before.

‘I came in yesterday and asked for them to have it ready and the host starts laughing and all the waiters and waitresses are laughing. ‘The big white devil wants bitter melon,’ the host said in Chinese. Like I don’t want it. But I know, when they tell me I don’t want something, that’s what I want. I’ll wait there five, ten minutes until they bring it. That’s how I eat.’

Two bowls of bitter melon arrive quickly—each one looks like a rubber tennis ball dyed fluorescent green.

‘This is hot and noisy,’ he proclaims, and when I don’t understand (the balls are anything but hot or spicy—they’re sweet and bitter, with a mealy chocolate texture, surprisingly dense and chewy; they are complicated, delicious, mysterious desserts) he gestures with his eyes, to say in a brief flutter that the restaurant, that life, that food itself should be hot and spicy. A dim-sum cart stops by our table and our neighbors order noodles; the cart-woman takes a bowl and slams it down in front of them. ‘See?,’ Harley whispers excitedly, ‘See how the she just threw down the bowl? That’s reinao! It means hot and noisy! It’s how the Chinese look at life,’ he explains. ‘Not just the food; everything. They like lots of noise and spice. It scares away the ghosts.’

He gets the cart-woman’s attention and says something in Chinese; she bangs a small dish of beef spare ribs down in front of him. He nods to our neighbors and tucks in. After a minute, he offers me a rib, but I’d have to remove one of my own to fit it in. He gives me a look; have I refused it because I was afraid? Because I was weak? With his mouth full he says loudly, ‘See how at Joe Shanghai they sit us with all the white people? That’s fake friendliness. I hate that. These guys, they’re my friends. They call me Chickenfoot here.’

It takes him a minute to finish the spare-ribs, then he sits back and grins at me. We watch the crowds of people eating around us, large families with a dozen or two dozen plates and bowls filled with food. We consider getting the check when the dim sum cart comes by again, this time driven by a man who has rushed past other tables to find us. He lifts up a bowl with ceremony: shark-fin dumplings.

We both laugh. ‘Bow-la,’ Harley moans, which means too-full. In his collection of Chinese words, it’s the first I’ve heard him pronounce comfortably. We both agree that Dumpling House was the best for dumplings, but almost everything was excellent. A white couple sitting at a table nearby gaze around stonily for a waiter—they have been food-less since we arrived. Harley’s friend the waiter shows up with our bill and asks where we’re going next.

‘Well I’m going to see my accountant. To do my taxes. You do your taxes yet?’ The waiter, with his thin handsome face, black vest and white shirt, laughs under his breath, shakes his head and walks away. Harley bursts out laughing and bangs the table. On our way out, the host slaps him on the back.

‘Haw-lee!’ he exclaims, and sips from a cup of hot water, ‘we’ll see you when next?’

‘This week,’ Harley answers with a laugh, ‘Maybe next.’ He couldn’t be more serious.