History of New York's Chinatown
by Sarah Waxma
New York Citys
Chinatown, the largest Chinatown in the United Statesand the site
of the largest concentration of Chinese in the western hemisphereis
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.
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.
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 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 Bachelors
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, Chinatowns
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
Chinatowns 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.
Todays 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.