Chinatown

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But even after a couple of years of painstaking computer cataloguing, finding records wasn’t easy. An individual Chinese person had many names to choose from—a family name, a generational name, a given name, a three-part marriage name, and an adopted American name—and any one of them might have been used by immigration authorities, who sometimes transliterated in very creative ways.

My great-grandfather Hor Lup Chut, Hor Pooh, Ho Pook, or Hor Poa—take your pick—was especially hard to find. No one in my family was even sure of his name before I started my quest; I finally got it off the ancestral tablets in the Ancestors’ Hall in the little Toi-shan village from which he had come some 125 years before. I knew almost nothing about him beyond some exceedingly vague family legends about how he had once been the “mayor” of Chinatown and a leader in the tone wars.

My grandfather and his siblings were easy to locate in the National Archives computer, however, and it directed me to a stack of fragile onionskin carbon copies of interviews he had had with government officials—for a 1930s job application as a government interpreter, for example, and for the trip when his parents dragged him off to China as a fourteen-year-old in 1911, to meet the bride they had chosen for him. The Chinese Exclusion Acts, first passed in 1882, made immigration to the United States impossible for Chinese unless they fitted into the very strictly defined categories of merchant, diplomat, teacher, or student. Laborers—which meant virtually every profession from ditchdigger to surgeon—were to be excluded at all costs. Women could get in only if they convinced the authorities that they were legitimate merchants’ wives, which was so hard to do that most didn’t even try. So, despite the fact that Grandfather was born in New York and was an American citizen, he still had to prove it to skeptical immigration authorities if he ever expected them to let him return to the United States once he left.

 
 
 
I could see that Chinatown was still Chinatown, but its visible history seemed to be fast running down some drain I couldn’t plug.

But where was my great-grandfather? I started calling for the dossiers of anyone bearing the family name Hor who came from our home village, and finally I found gold.

His picture was pinned to the immigration application of a young kinsman. He looked solid, respectable, and handsome with his short haircut and vested business suit—just like my uncle, like my father, like me. The thrill was indescribable. And the documents that went with it! Great-Grandfather had apparently been as prominent in Chinatown as the family legend said he was. As a respected elder and successful merchant, he would vouch for the character of a clansmen coming to or going from New York. Over and over he was made to tell about his own personal history, his original trip to San Francisco in 1873 (or, as he remembered it, the twelfth year of the emperor T’ung-chih) and his subsequent move to New York in 1881. There were the details of his family (he had had three wives, one in New York, two back home), the specific dates of his numerous return trips to China, and the ships on which he sailed. As a way to entrap possible illegal immigrants claiming to come from his village, he had to describe its details; if their descriptions didn’t match exactly, it meant instant deportation. On the other hand, sometimes my great-grandfather’s employees were brought in to be grilled on the exact nature of his business, for if he had been caught working with his hands, he would have lost his “merchant” status and been given a one-way steerage ticket to Hong Kong.

“Isn’t it true that you were working as a carpenter?” the inspectors trumpeted on one occasion. “You were seen sawing wood for the shelves and the counters! Do you deny it?” Yes, he denied it, most vigorously, but I knew he had been lying. And from that exchange I also knew that he really did build the wooden interior of that marvelous old store that is the sole survivor from the days when every shop and restaurant in Chinatown was draped with carvings of lucky bats, and fish, and grillwork to confound the evil spirits lurking in the street. I doubt the immigration inspectors believed him either, but they let him stay.

 
 

My next stop after the National Archives began my real exploration of Chinatown. I went to the tiny Museum of Chinese in the Americas located in a couple of rooms of the former Public School 23, at 70 Mulberry Street. Built in 1897, this building was then scarcely more than a block from the heart of Chinatown yet was considered firmly in Little Italy. The very few Chinese children who attended classes there (according to one 1898 estimate, there were only thirty-six Chinese wives and thirty-two Chinese children among a Chinatown population of some six thousand) did so in constant fear of being beaten up the second they left Mott Street.