Chinese immigration to NYC
NYC’s Chinatown holds a long a rich history. Stories of immigration, combating racism, community, and success.
Just in time for Lunar/Chinese New Year! This year would’ve been the 22nd Lunar New Year Parade in NYC. But Chinatown has been around for well over a century.
As we walk down the streets of New York’s Chinatown, we see women and men selling ethnic produce on the streets. It’s the perfect place to get reasonably priced lychees or pomelos in the summer. And in January, red decorations are hanging in every other shop in preparation for Lunar New Year. The area is filled with bubble tea parlors and famous hole-in-the-wall spots like Super Taste. It’s a favorite neighborhood for many locals.
As you may know, there are a few Chinatowns around the world. NYC’s has the “largest concentration of Chinese in the western hemisphere.” Chinese immigrants, mostly from the over-populated Guandong Province, start coming into the states in the mid-1800s during the Gold Rush to the West Coast, specifically to San Fransisco.
We know of the first immigrants in 1848. Men came here during the Taiping Rebellion, which lasts 14 years and kills thousands. The Rebellion is led by a man who Christianity inspires; he thinks he is the son of God and the brother of Jesus. Others immigrate because they live in extreme poverty and want a better life. So they go to America and send money to their families back home.
In an episode of the podcast, 99% invisible, they talk about San Fransisco’s Chinatown’s racial tension. White laborers are afraid that immigrants are taking their secure jobs.
To address these rising social tensions, from the 1850s through the 1870s the California state government passed a series of measures aimed at Chinese residents, ranging from requiring special licenses for Chinese businesses or workers to preventing naturalization.
While some Chinese immigrants move out East, others stay and fight racism. A local businessman named Look Tin Eli hires one white architect and one engineer to make Chinatown look how they think China looks. They place pagodas on top of buildings along with dragon gates. The result is a neighborhood where the American middle-class feel safe and take an interest in the area’s exoticness. This aesthetic echoes through all the other Chinatowns around the country.
Moving to the East Coast, we’ll find ourselves in NYC’s Chinatown, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. By the 1880s, the notorious Five Points Slums on the lower east side is now home to about a thousand Chinese immigrants, who are mostly men. People work in opera houses, as cigar rollers, launderers, or in restaurants. There are more than 1,000 Chinese laundromats around the city by the 1880s.
The Chinese Exclusion Act passes in 1882, and the growing racism forces Chinese men to find ways to survive. There is support in helping people find jobs. Immigrants who have settled offer room and board as well as jobs to newcomers. But there’s a dark side. To feel protected and survive, illegal work and organized crime becomes part of the underground culture in Chinatown.
There are hidden brothels, gambling spots, and opium dens controlled by the “tongs” or gangs. They are mostly employed and visited by white men and women. These gangs are very violent towards each other. Here is an excerpt of the story of a bloody night at the local Opera House on Doyer’s Street (a.k.a. the Bloody Angle) in 1905:
Suddenly, a Hip Sing gangster lit a string of firecrackers and threw them onto the stage. This drew the attention of the unsuspecting audience, and allowed 10 other Hip Sing members who were in on the plan to pull pistols out of their pockets and sleeves, and spray bullets toward four off-guard On Leong Tong members.
If you want to hear more about the old Chinatown, there is an excellent podcast episode of the Bowery Boys.
After the Chinese Exclusion Act is lifted in 1943, the violence ceases, and more people migrate into the country, including women. Chinatown is now ever-expanding.
Walking through Chinatown, you can see remnants of the old neighborhood. With the original streets of Mott, Pell, Bayard, and Doyer’s Street. You might recognize Doyer’s Street on your favorite travel Instagram, photographers, and even movies.
A few things have changed from the old 19th century NYC Chinatown. There are more areas where Chinese immigrants live. Like Italians and Irish, they move from the Lower East Side to the outer boroughs and even further into Long Island.
My friend Peter is a first-generation Chinese American who grows up in south Brooklyn in one of the smaller Chinese neighborhoods. There are a few of these neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn and Queens, and they are continuously growing. However, they feel aesthetically different from the original Chinatown in Manhattan.
These neighborhoods offer them essential products such as Chinese veggies and cuts of meat. But for specific items, like tea or soup, Peter’s family would go to Chinatown. He remembers his grandparents go there to visit the Buddhist temple. Chinatown remains a significant center for Chinese immigrants to find products from home.
Similar to the early immigrants, Peter’s family is also from Guangdong. Taishanese, the rural accent of Cantonese, is his first language. He explains that many people speak both dialects in these areas, and knowing them bodes useful for his current job in the center of Brooklyn’s Chinese area, 8th avenue. He also has to learn Mandarin because newer immigrants are from the Fujian region in China, which is right above Guangdong.
With a population of approximately 114 million people, Guangdong is China’s most populous province.
The Chinese community is always self-supporting by finding ways to offer new immigrants jobs and start governing associations. In 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act is passed, the Chinese community bands together and helps fellow immigrants. This is still true today.
Peter’s mother comes here to marry his father. Before that, she only knows him from a distance. They’re introduced to each other by a mutual friend, and they start to exchange letters. Getting married seems to be the practical thing to do. 13 years down the line, mom becomes a single mom.
She finds help through the CPC, the Chinese Planning Council, who act as social services for the Chinese community. His mom gains access to English classes and employment training. With this, she’s been able to support her entire family. She’s even become a home-owner since.
There are other examples of how the community is helping its people. The Headstart program helps immigrant children prepare for school by giving them the tools to start their education. Peter went to the one in Chinatown.
And today, there is Send Chinatown Love that supports the locals in the area by raising money for small mom and pop shops, giving meals to the elderly, and “lighting up Chinatown one lantern at a time.” This mission exists mainly because of the pandemic; as tourism goes down, businesses start to decline. And these guys swoop in to help. It’s beautiful to see this kind of pride and willingness to help in the community.
Writer’s Note: As someone who grew up in NYC, I never really liked Chinatown. A few years ago, I did a college project on the neighborhood and learned so much about its history. It was a defining moment for me as it sparked my curiosity about the rest of NYC’s history. You can expect a few more articles about the different immigrant cultures here in NYC, as they shaped our culture.