NYC's Downtown Party Scene Is Good Again (Here Are A Few People To Thank)

In cities around the world, downtown isn’t just a geographical destination. It’s an entire vibe that separates preservationists from progressives and squares from subversives, attracting legions of misfits, weirdos, transgressors, and provocateurs who eventually become a community. This is especially true for NYC, where you can map so many of the past century’s youth movements via its downtown party scenes. Here, staying south of 14th street isn't just a preference, it's a statement about your values.
But when The Misshapes retired their Don Hill parties in 2007 and The Cobrasnake started going by Mark Hunter soon afterward, the party scene migrated to Harlem and Brooklyn, leaving downtown Manhattan to be overrun by blue-shirts. But a group of Asian-American creatives have recently worked to make Manhattan's Chinatown feel like the center of the world once again.
Advertisement
At party venues that double as Chinese restaurants by day, places like China Chalet and 88 Palace transform once dinnertime ends, bringing together folks with Big Downtown Energy, but this time with an Asian flavor. Thanks to creative groups like Bubble T, Canal Street Market, Banana Mag, and more, Asian-Americans are reigniting the magic of downtown, and nurturing a scene that’s unabashedly Asian, queer, and radically inclusive (you don’t have to be Asian to hang, but having an appetite for the food certainly helps).
We spoke to a handful of individuals that have been integral in waking this sleeping giant. Grab a can of Wong Lo Kat — you’re going to want to stay up for this.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY LENNE CHAI.
Kathleen Tso, content strategist, co-founder of Banana Mag; Vicki Ho, publicist, DJ, co-founder of Banana Mag (Issue 5 is now available to purchase here)
What’s your Asian-American story?
Kathleen: My parents are both from Taiwan. My grandparents immigrated from China to Taiwan right before the cultural revolution. I’m Taiwanese-Chinese-American, and I grew up in Texas.
Vicki: Both of my parents are from Guangzhou. I grew up in Brooklyn as an only child. Kathleen and I had been friends for a bit, and we connected on our shared experiences as Asians in America. We looked into our network of friends and realized that there were so many Asian creatives who we wanted to work with and showcase on some kind of platform. There are other Asian publications, but they weren’t covering the subcultures that we grew up with. We started Banana Mag in 2014.
Advertisement
Kathleen: The Banana community is catered to the creative Asian. It’s a safe space for us to celebrate each other. We want our community to feel a sense of pride. Every Halloween, we have an Asian Glow party, which was inspired by a story we did. This was our way of celebrating and embracing it, instead of trying to cover it up.
What’s fun about partying in NYC today?
Kathleen: That area around Essex and Division was such a big part of the beginning days of Banana Mag. Beverly’s has a special place in our heart. We constantly met there for work, and threw our first party there. There are so many new Asian collectives coming together (Bubble T, Rooted, Burdock Media), and it’s really exciting to see more safe spaces.
What’s your ideal party night?
Vicki: I would probably say that our go-to party is karaoke. Everyone loves it. We’ve done two karaoke events: the first was during Lunar New Year with Win Son in Brooklyn. We cleared the dining tables for singing. We did another this year and partnered with Bubble T and Moma PS1. We took over their cafe space and turned it into a Banana Bungalow. We were so surprised because everyone was so talented when they went on stage!
PHOTOGRAPHED BY LENNE CHAI.
Sandy Liang, founder of fashion label Sandy Liang
What's your Asian-American story?
My parents were born and grew up in southern China in villages around Hong Kong. They came to New York in their 20s, and had my brother and me here. My parents lived in Ridgewood briefly before moving to Bayside where we grew up.
Advertisement
All my clothes are extremely personal to me, and it's important it all comes from a genuine place. I'm always thinking about what makes me happy, and a lot of the time it's my childhood when my imagination ran free, and I just got to play and create all day without any true understanding of the beauty of it. A big part of that is also how I was raised and what that meant for me culturally as an Asian American.
As someone who’s always known that Chinatown has been cool, what's cool about it?
Everything. The bakeries. The stores with Sanrio goodies. The fresh fruits and veggies. The fashion. Also, Asian grandmas’ attitude and the fact that they so don't care! Their prints and combos are the best. They’re truly the most interesting people to look at in my neighborhood!
I get incredibly homesick very quickly. When I’m away, I miss my apartment and Congee Village. I live on top of Congee Village so it feels like a part of my apartment at this point!
How has the downtown party scene changed since you were younger?
The LES I remember is very different from what it looks like today, but I find a lot of the same people who were here back then probably still live here now. I think that's special for a neighborhood in NYC.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY LENNE CHAI.
Richie Shazam, photographer, artist, model, party person, self-described “NYC Bollywood Princess”
What’s your Asian-American story? I’m Indian. My parents are from Guyana in South America. I was born and raised in New York City. I identify as being a first-generation American, but culturally, my heritage would be West Indian. The work ethic and hustle to survive were values that were built in me. A lot of who I am is not casually seen in my culture. I’m obsessed with Bollywood and the Indian experience, and all of the things that encompass it. They’re things that I’m always trying to keep a hold of. I’m breaking ground just by being myself. So many people are afraid to take risks and live outside of the box. I’m so proud to be where I’m from and I’m trying to find ways to merge things together within my narrative.
What’s fun about partying in NYC today?For me, there’s such a strong support network with downtown creatives. I walked in Sandy Liang’s fashion show, and I love working with Gia Kuan — those are my girls. And the support is vital. I’m grateful to be able to work and collaborate with my friends whether it’s URL or IRL. We’re all very supportive and want to push each other. We have to motivate and align with each other. There’s such a strong work ethic.
How has the downtown scene changed?
People come in and out of the scene. They contribute and leave, but the constant is that I’ve been growing. I have always been in this sphere. The scene is global now, and people want to contribute to it because it’s a melting port of strong forces.
I constantly want to bridge people together. We’re in the heartbeat of gentrification and this class divide. It’s all about accessibility and connecting people from all walks of life. I think that will always be a pillar of who I am.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY LENNE CHAI.
Gia Kuan, founder of public relations firm Gia Kuan Consulting
What’s your Asian-American story?
My family immigrated to New Zealand in 1995 when I was very young. I moved to Australia for college. When I eventually moved to New York City, I always loved that feeling of home in Chinatown. For me, I couldn't live in any other city that does not have my local Chinese offerings and knick knacks. I didn’t know anyone when I first moved here, but I found my family through the downtown scene when I eventually started working.
Every challenge has been a blessing. I learn so much from my own mistakes. It’s been great, but there are things that I didn’t realize I had to do on my own like accounting and being smart with finances. It forced me to balance my different skill sets that weren’t purely creative.
I am always cautious that there’s easy pressure to take on something for money, but I’m very picky about which brands and artists I work with because they have to be someone I really believe it — there’s a balance at the end of the day: How do I keep on doing what I’m doing without losing my voice that sets myself apart in the first place?”
What’s fun about partying in NYC today?
There’s more of this idea of a family aspect of downtown. It’s a little more diversified. A lot of the different areas in Manhattan don’t have that! But it’s not just that, it’s also that everyone is doing something creative whether it be entrepreneurial or within the fashion and lifestyle industry. This gives it a new life.
Chinatown is the first place I lived when I moved to New York in 2010. At the time, there were only Chinese vendors at Two Bridges on Henry St. It was so much more segregated. Chinese businesses are being recognized and supported. It’s a huge influence on New York City.
What’s your ideal party night?
What makes a good party is the people. I enjoy making an eclectic guest list that is unpredictable. It’s a mish-mash of everything, and the idea is to bring like-minded people together into one space. It’s not the same crowd over and over again. Part of what I do and enjoy is almost playing a-behind-the-scenes matchmaker. Two people might be so different from each other, but if I sit them across the table from each other, they might become great friends.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY LENNE CHAI.
Dae Lim, founder of fashion label and cannabis brand Sundae School
What’s your Asian-American story?
I immigrated from Seoul, Korea when I was 13. I lived in various parts of the U.S. for short periods of time — California, Virginia, and New York — and I went to boarding school in Connecticut. That was my first real introduction to America. Nobody looked like me, and I felt inadequate being Korean. I wanted to be white. But when I went to college, all of that changed. At Harvard, it was all about connecting with my identity and who I am as an Asian American beyond simply being good at math and jump rope (we were required to as a kid!). I don’t feel totally Korean and I don’t feel totally American. That journey started there. It was really when I started smoking weed that I became more connected with my place in the world. That’s when the idea of Sundae School came to fruition.
Sundae School is a thought experiment. We play around with the idea of what the new-age “high” fashion looks like and love participatory events where we can interact with consumers and learn about where we should be heading through observing the zeitgeist. I think one thing that’s clear is that we get a lot of influences from the vibrant NYC nightlife scene and the Korean street scene.
What’s your ideal party night?
Having my friends over for a pregame. We smoke some weed, and then we go dancing, or out to eat. I absolutely love drinking while eating. Right now the downtown scene is reggaeton to the max. It’s so fun.
Where’s your favorite place to smoke a joint?
One of my biking routes is up in the Cloisters. Right around Columbia, there are these columns that look like an abandoned Parthenon and looks out over the river and trees. Smoking there after an eight-mile bike ride is so nice.
What’s fun about partying in NYC today?
The concept of downtown NYC has expanded so much since the early 2000s (like Jake Gyllenhaal downtown). Now the whole city feels like it’s expanding, and downtown encompasses the thriving scenes in Brooklyn and Queens as well. We see more people of color. We see so much communication and inspiration being swapped. New York manifests that cultural amalgamation.
In #NotYourTokenAsian, we take on the pop products, stereotypes, and culture wars that surround Asian-American identity. Follow along as we celebrate our multiplicity during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

More from Celebs & Influencers