- Historic Sites
A walk with my great-grandfather through the last foreign country in New York City
April 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 2
Mott Street is like the spine of a dragon. Its head lies on Canal, at the pagoda-roofed headquarters of a secretive tong society; its back curves down beyond Bayard, past restaurants and trinket salesmen; its forked tail whips through Chatham Square and loops back around the Bowery to reach toward Mott again as two tiny lanes called Pell and Doyers. In fact, the dragon has grown far beyond these boundaries in the last twenty-five years, but this remains its core, the nerve center through which throbs all the essential life of New York City’s Chinatown.
Chinatown’s narrow thoroughfares are still full of the smells of the Middle Kingdom, its festivals explode with ancient traditions, and its air rings with the sounds of a language that is sung, not spoken. It is a place where an obsession with tradition can be mixed with a curious disregard for the past. Chinatown is where everyone seems to be selling something, where firecrackers are used to frighten evil spirits, where the arrangement of furniture in one’s apartment can affect the outcome of a business deal. Chinatown is hustle. It is ritual. It is magic. And for several generations it was my family’s home.
The Chinese patriarch of my American clan arrived on the shores of California in the early 1870s, just as the anti-Chinese xenophobia there was picking up steam. Starting in 1847, when a grand total of three Chinese sailed for San Francisco, residents of the rural area south of Canton known as Toi-shan began looking to the United States—the “Gold Mountain”—as a way out of poverty and famine. Apparently those original three sojourners did quite well; after only four years, twenty-seven thousand of their Toi-shan neighbors were working the California goldfields, toiling in cigar factories, operating truck farms, and opening laundries to wash the clothes of grubby white men who disdained to perform such a task themselves. Then, in the mid-1860s Chinese labor was imported for work on the new transcontinental railroad, further increasing their numbers on the West Coast. The California economy was booming, fueled largely by Chinese sweat.
Despite the fact that the Chinese were being brought in specifically to do work that whites wouldn’t, the white population reacted with increasing hostility toward the seeming horde. Vigilante groups conducted wholesale massacres in Chinese mining camps, and entire Chinese communities were expelled from Seattle and Tacoma.
Chinese were denied American citizenship on the technicality that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed it only to whites and blacks. The state of California went on to do everything it could to harass its Chinese residents. As conditions became steadily worse, stories began circulating about a more tolerant city at the eastern end of the railroad the Chinese had just finished building. Little by little Chinese began considering New York.
Fast forward a hundred years. I am a gawky suburban teenager in bell-bottoms, walking down the spine of the dragon with my parents on the way to a semiannual banquet with our Chinese relatives at the Port Arthur restaurant, one of the fading eating palaces of lower Mott Street. I am only half-Chinese, reared in Connecticut, so these trips to Chinatown seem like a journey back in time to the other side of the world. We trudge down the crooked streets, pause in front of a certain old store whose interior is garnished with magnificent carvings that family legend says my great-grandfather created, and then cross the street to climb the brass-railed staircase to the wonderful old restaurant and tuck into a twelve-course banquet in a room dripping with dragons and teakwood and mother-of-pearl.
These things seemed eternal then. Alas, they were not. Almost imperceptibly the old places departed one by one, their rich decorations tossed into Dumpsters like so much kindling, until only the ancient store containing my great-grandfather’s handiwork was left, hanging on by a thread. Later, as an adult living in Manhattan, I could see that Chinatown was still Chinatown, but its visible history seemed to be fast running down some drain that I couldn’t plug. I determined to look for its past wherever I could find it and thereby stem the flow.
My search started not in the crowded streets of old Chinatown, however, but in a branch of the National Archives on Varick Street, just below Greenwich Village. Prof. Betty Lee Sung, a Chinese-American scholar, had a few years previously discovered a New Jersey warehouse full of unsorted Chinese immigration files going back over a hundred years, bursting with colorful imperial Chinese passports festooned with stamps and gold seals, meticulous transcripts of immigration interrogations, personal letters, government evaluations, and, most important, photographs. In theory those files contained the photographs of every Chinese person who had entered the United States through the port of New York between the 1890s and the 1960s, and it was all moldering away. Professor Sung quickly obtained a grant and marshaled a little army of Chinatown volunteers to catalogue the tens of thousands of papers, so that researchers like me could access them and learn.