You can find just about anything in New York City. Most of the world’s cultural exports end up here eventually, from bubble tea to bike lanes. But Japanese culture has only made its way selectively into this city’s cultural landscape. Despite the growing popularity of Japanese pop culture like anime and manga here in the U.S., the Japanese have largely left the weirder stuff back home, until now. The first Maid Cafe has just opened in Chinatown. Theme cafes are big in Japan, and especially hostess cafes which are a special blend of fantasy and female degradation where waitresses dress up in elaborate and often skimpy costumes and flirt with their, mostly socially awkward, male customers. In the Akiharaba district of Tokyo, young waitresses dressed as French maids, school girls and manga characters in platform pumps and thigh highs hand out invitations on the busy streets to passing potential customers. They were all too happy to pose for pictures too, as I found out.
At the maid cafes in Japan, waitresses greet male guests as “master,” listen dotingly, flatter and giggle behind menus. It’s an exaggerated femininity of the kind that feels uniquely Japanese. But, in some ways it’s familiar. What is Hooters if not a fantasy bar where buxom waitresses serve atomic wings instead of matcha? There is one small, but significantly disturbing difference though. There is no mistaking the Hooters waitresses for girls. Whereas the primary look of waitresses at many hostess cafes, and the popular look for Japanese woman in general, is kawaii, meaning cute, as in young, often a little too young. Hence, the popularity of the school girl look. At the Maid Cafe in Chinatown the French maid outfits are maintained but the rest of the experience has been finessed for the American crowd. The cafe holds special events where “traditional” maid service is offered. But regular service involves no references to guests as”masters,” or cartoonish flirtations, just young women in frilly maid outfits serving chicken curry with heart-shaped rice for $6.95.
I have never properly paid homage to Pearl River Mart until this weekend (though I do have a vague memory of wandering in one day and scurrying out upon realizing the sheer scope of the place). Set aside two hours of your life and about $50, and just let the amazing cheap Chinese crap wash over you. Want paper lanterns in every shape, color, size and pattern imaginable? They have them. Looking for ceramic dishes for your tea, rice and even non-Asian food needs? They have tons. Sweater vests? Yes. A jade cabbage paperweight chachke thing? They have that too. Also, swords. They have fabric and beautiful paper, embroidered slippers and a silicone mustache mold for your next ice sculpture party. So yeah, everything you could ever want from a store. I bought a floral mini paper parasol for $4.50 that is making the 5-year-old girl in me very happy.