The History of New York’s Chinatown
Written by Sarah Waxma
New York City’s Chinatown, the largest Chinatown in the United States—and the site of the largest concentration of Chinese in the western hemisphere—is located on the lower east side of Manhattan. Its two square miles are loosely bounded by Kenmore and Delancey streets on the north, East and Worth streets on the south, Allen street on the east, and Broadway on the west. With a population estimated between 70,000 and 150,000, Chinatown is the favored destination point for Chinese immigrants, though in recent years the neighborhood has also become home to Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Filipinos among others.
Chinatown is born
Chinese traders and sailors began trickling into the United States in the mid eighteenth century; while this population was largely transient, small numbers stayed in New York and married. Beginning in the mid nineteenth century, Chinese arrived in significant numbers, lured to the Pacific coast of the United States by the stories of “Gold Mountain” — California — during the gold rush of the 1840s and 1850s and brought by labor brokers to build the Central Pacific Railroad. Most arrived expecting to spend a few years working, thus earning enough money to return to China, build a house and marry.
As the gold mines began yielding less and the railroad neared completion, the broad availability of cheap and willing Chinese labor in such industries as cigar-rolling and textiles became a source of tension for white laborers, who thought that the Chinese were coming to take their jobs and threaten their livelihoods. Mob violence and rampant discrimination in the west drove the Chinese east into larger cities, where job opportunities were more open and they could more easily blend into the already diverse population. By 1880, the burgeoning enclave in the Five Points slums on the south east side of New York was home to between 200 and 1,100 Chinese. A few members of a group of Chinese illegally smuggled into New Jersey in the late 1870s to work in a hand laundry soon made the move to New York, sparking an explosion of Chinese hand laundries.
From the start, Chinese immigrants tended to clump together as a result of both racial discrimination, which dictated safety in numbers, and self-segregation. Unlike many ethnic ghettos of immigrants, Chinatown was largely self-supporting, with an internal structure of governing associations and businesses which supplied jobs, economic aid, social service, and protection. Rather than disintegrating as immigrants assimilated and moved out and up, Chinatown continued to grow through the end of the nineteenth century, providing contacts and living arrangements — usually 5-15 people in a two room apartment subdivided into segments — for the recent immigrants who continued to trickle in despite the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Immigration and Chinatown
The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), to date the only non-wartime federal law which excluded a people based on nationality, was a reaction to rising anti-Chinese sentiment. This resentment was largely a result of the willingness of the Chinese to work for far less money under far worse conditions than the white laborers and the unwillingness to “assimilate properly”. The law forbids naturalization by any Chinese already in the United States; bars the immigration of any Chinese not given a special work permit deeming him merchant, student, or diplomat; and, most horribly, prohibits the immigration of the wives and children of Chinese laborers living in the United States. The Exclusion Act grew more and more restrictive over the following decades, and was finally lifted during World War II, only when such a racist law against a wartime ally became an untenable option.
“The Bachelor’s Society”
The already imbalanced male-female ratio in Chinatown was radically worsened by the Exclusion Act and in 1900 there were only 40-150 women for the upwards of 7,000 Chinese living in Manhattan. This altered and unnatural social landscape in Chinatown led to its role as the “Bachelor’s Society” with rumors of opium dens, prostitution and slave girls deepening the white antagonism toward the Chinese. In keeping with Chinese tradition — and in the face of sanctioned U.S. government and individual hostility — the Chinese of Chinatown formed their own associations and societies to protect their own interests. An underground economy allowed undocumented laborers to work illegally without leaving the few blocks they called home.
An internal political structure comprised of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and various tongs, or fraternal organizations, managed the opening of businesses, made funeral arrangements, and mediated disputes, among other responsibilities. The CCBA, an umbrella organization which drafted its own constitution, imposed taxes on all New York Chinese, and ruled Chinatown throughout the early and mid twentieth century, represented the elite of Chinatown; the tongs formed protective and social associations for the less wealthy. The On Leong and Hip Sing tongs warred periodically through the early 1900s, waging bloody battles that left both tourists and residents afraid to walk the streets of Chinatown.
Growth in Chinatown
When the Exclusion Act was finally lifted in 1943, China was given a small immigration quota, and the community continued to grow, expanding slowly throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s. The garment industry, the hand-laundry business, and restaurants continued to employ Chinese internally, paying less than minimum wage under the table to thousands. Despite the view of the Chinese as members of a “model minority,” Chinatown’s Chinese came largely from the mainland, and were viewed as the “downtown Chinese,” as opposed the Taiwan-educated “uptown Chinese,” members of the Chinese elite.
When the quota was raised in 1968, Chinese flooded into the country from the mainland, and Chinatown’s population exploded, expanding into Little Italy, often buying buildings with cash and turning them into garment factories or office buildings. Although many of the buildings in Chinatown are tenements from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the rents in Chinatown are some of the highest in the city, competing with the Upper West Side and midtown. Foreign investment from Hong Kong has poured capital into Chinatown, and the little space there is a precious commodity.
Today’s Chinatown is a tightly-packed yet sprawling neighborhood which continues to grow rapidly despite the satellite Chinese communities flourishing in Queens. Both a tourist attraction and the home of the majority of Chinese New Yorkers, Chinatown offers visitor and resident alike hundreds of restaurants, booming fruit and fish markets and shops of knickknacks and sweets on torturously winding and overcrowded streets.
- Encyclopedia of New York City edited by Kenneth T. Jackson (New York, N.Y.: New York Historical Society, 1995)
- The New Chinatown by Peter Kwong (New York: Hill and Wang, 1987)
- Chinatown: A Portrait of a Closed Society by Gwen Kinkead (New York: HarperCollins, 1992)
- The Tea That Burns by Bruce Edward Hall (New York: The Free Press, 1998)