- Historic Sites
A walk with my great-grandfather through the last foreign country in New York City
April 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 2
But the most interesting thing about Quong Yuen Shing is what the public can’t see, for in the back room my great-grandfather constructed a maze of storerooms and cubbyhole offices, some of which still have massive Victorian safes that were used to store hardworking launderers’ money until it could be shipped to their wives and parents back home. On top of the cubbyhole offices, Great-Grandfather built sleeping lofts, some single, some double; Quong Yuen Shing, just like many other stores of its kind, functioned as a refuge for the clan of the owner, in this case the Lee family. Homeless Lees could sleep in back and receive mail at the store. Today the safes are empty, and the bunks aren’t used for sleeping anymore, but there is still a little wire rack for mail by the front door, and there still are Lees who think of Quone Yuen Shine as a home away from home.
It turns out that Great-Grandfather did not carve the arch but just installed it. Nevertheless, you can feel his presence in the store.
Stepping out onto the street again, I look across to 21 Mott, where a midwife delivered my grandfather in 1897, and 19-A Mott, now an exquisite antiques store but once a small import-export business to which my great-grandmother’s family came around 1890 and where Great-Grandfather paid twelve hundred dollars to make her his number three wife in 1896. Twelve hundred dollars would be a fortune in Toi-shan, and her father hightailed it back to China for good as soon as he received his money.
If only 18 Mott could talk. It was the home of Tom Lee and what would become his infamous On Leong Tong. In what was probably the first Chinese purchase of real estate in New York City, Mr. Lee bought the building in 1883, having first rented it for several years, and it became his headquarters. A diminutive man, he had had, since his appearance in the 1870s, one hand in every gambling room and opium den in Chinatown and the other lining the pockets of the local constabulary, to make sure they didn’t cause trouble. White people viewed these activities as proof of Chinese natural depravity, but Tom Lee simply considered himself a provider of some of life’s necessities. After all, opium was just a way to relax, and as for gambling …
Gambling is the Chinese national pastime. As one Chinese commentator wrote in 1888, “The Chinaman will gamble with his last cent … he will bet with his toes if all other conveniences are taken away.” Back then it was over fan-tan or pai gao ; now it’s more likely to be poker and blackjack, with mahjong the eternal constant. Just about every door and storefront in old Chinatown has concealed a gambling room at one time or another, and some still do. Tom Lee also had a share in Chinatown’s notorious brothels, like the one that was upstairs at 11 Mott in 1901. In fact, the “working girls” of Chinatown were overwhelmingly white. Chinatown was wedged between Five Points and the rollicking Bowery, after all, with most of the women coming from the former and the clientele from the latter. Still, at Number 11, if one paid an extra dollar to the madam, she would bring in a Chinese woman who would take off her clothes just so the white customers could see what she looked like. As for actual Chinese prostitutes, with only thirty to forty Chinese women in Chinatown, they were too valuable to waste in such common degradation, although Tom Lee would broker likely young girls—like my great-grandmother—as wives for his loyal followers.
Opium was another source of income for Tom Lee, although since it was perfectly legal in the United States until 1914, income flowed primarily from the considerable markup he imposed as an importer. Unfortunately, there were a lot of Chinese opium addicts, largely because the British had so aggressively marketed their India-grown product in China. After two opium wars the Celestial Empire was at the mercy of drug dealers disguised as English gentlemen. In New York, however, contrary to popular belief, opium was primarily the drug of white people, both men and women, who wanted to walk on the wild side—twenty-five thousand of them by one 1896 estimate. Chinatown’s “smoke houses,” dark, mysterious holes secreted in basements or back-yard buildings, were populated not only by tired and lonely Chinese laundrymen but also by white prostitutes and showgirls from the Bowery along with their swaggering beaus and uptown tourists looking for adventure. The big shots favored the expensive Li Yuen , opium pills that cost a dollar a hit. More humble users would spend a quarter for less potent pen yen . Thus opium came to have a lasting effect on the language, as people started speaking of having a “yen” for something.
So from about 1881 onward, 18 Mott Street was the central clearing-house for Tom Lee’s Chinatown vice operations. It also housed a temple for use by his tong and dormitories for his loyal foot soldiers, where I discovered, much to my surprise, my own great-grandfather went to live when he first arrived in New York. Apparently he was involved in a little bit more than carpentry.