Chinatown

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The museum’s octagonal exhibition room is full of displays depicting the Chinese experience: a group of laundrymen’s irons, each weighing a gruesome eight pounds; a trunk spilling over with costumes from a traveling Cantonese opera troupe; another trunk full of a World War II veteran’s memories. In the archive room I sat at a wooden table hemmed in on all sides by books and papers stacked to the ceiling and battered old file cabinets and, with the help of the collections manager, Sushan Chin, started to put pieces in the Chinatown puzzle into place. I found more references to my great-grandparents in books and articles written a hundred years ago—a history that begged to be traced on foot.

Succulent ducks, steamed sea bass, lobsters in black-bean sauce, dumplings filled with shrimp … but the average tourist wanted one thing only: chop suey.
 
 
 

I walk out the door of the old P.S. 23 and make a left down Bayard Street (the corner of Bayard and Mulberry was once the beginning of Mulberry Bend, the most notorious stretch of that most infamous of festering slums, Five Points) past the same street vendors who are always there: the fortuneteller, the cobbler, and the peddler of jade trinkets. Each sits on his or her tiny wooden stool. Pausing at the last open window of the old school, I listen, as always, to the lovely music rippling out onto the street. Inside, traditional Chinese musicians are playing centuries-old tunes on their graceful instruments for the benefit of the senior citizens’ center operating in the former school cafeteria, one room over. Their music is piped in as background to razor-sharp gossip shouted over mahjong and steaming glasses of tea. For some reason the musicians insist upon remaining invisible to their public. No one has ever been able to tell me why.

At the corner of Mott Street, looking to the left, I can just make out the pagoda-roofed headquarters of the On Leong Tong at the corner of Mott and Canal Streets. Canal on the north and Chatham Square on the south were the absolute limits of Chinatown during my grandfather’s lifetime, but after immigration restrictions were lifted in the 1960s, the place absolutely exploded, swallowing up other ethnic neighborhoods on all sides.

But today I am concerned with old Chinatown, the Chinatown that my family knew, so I turn right, past more street vendors. Looking up, I sometimes glimpse caged songbirds hanging outside a dingy apartment window. Collecting rare and often very costly songbirds is a favorite hobby among Chinatown’s older men, and very early in the morning they can be seen taking their birds, still in their cages, for walks in the park, to keep up their little avian spirits and make their songs sweeter.

My destination is 34 Mott Street, just past the intersection of Pell. Here is the site of the building where Chinatown, as we know it, began. In 1873, the same year my great-grandfather arrived in California, an enterprising merchant named Wah Kee rented a townhouse here and converted it into a kind of Chinese cultural center. On the parlor level he installed his store, which had previously been a few blocks away. It was the hub of a thriving import-export business that would eventually deal in everything from dried lotus root to silks to firearms.

On the lower, kitchen level was one of New York’s first Chinese benevolent societies, complete with a temple and meeting room. Upstairs, above Wah Kee’s store, the society maintained a dormitory for its members and a place for rolling cigars; the tobacco industry was then the chief employer of New York’s Chinese. The dormitory, like the early Chinese boardinghouses on Cherry Street, was just a room lined with three-tiered bunk beds, with a kettle always on the boil for tea. Most Chinese in New York lived this way, and many still do, with all their worldly possessions in a canvas sack, their life savings carefully hidden in a jar somewhere.

Clan- or regionally based benevolent associations were the glue that held the American Chinese together, especially in an era when Chinese society in New York consisted entirely of lonely men anxious to make enough money so that they could return as big shots to their families back home. Members paid nominal annual fees that went toward maintaining the Taoist shrine and supporting anyone in need. The organizations also provided one other very important service: If a member of a benevolent society should die on the Gold Mountain, a proper funeral would be held and the body shipped back to China. For as every good Chinese son knew, if you weren’t buried in your home soil, your spirit would wander the earth forever.