Chinatown

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In 1888 Tom Lee tore down the old wooden townhouse at 18 Mott, and Great-Grandfather helped do the finish work on the elaborate new building that took its place. At the same time, the Chinese Charitable (later Consolidated) Benevolent Association, or CCBA, was building its own shiny new headquarters next door at 16 Mott. The CCBA was and remains the unofficial government of the Chinese community in New York, having applied for recognition in 1884 not with the government of New York State but with the Imperial Court in Peking. (It finally got around to registering with New York in 1890.) The CCBA mediates disputes, registers new businesses, and regulates (or at least tries to) every aspect of the lives of the Chinese of New York. It also in the past collected (or at least tried to) annual dues from every single New York Chinese for the privilege of being governed so well. The CCBA might squirm a little under Tom Lee’s “friendly” influence, but 16 Mott would be the chief guiding force of Chinatown for years.

I continue down Mott and into Chatham Square, the space wide open and sunny now but once entombed by the iron cage of the elevated railway, which had a terminus here for some seventy years. Turning left, I pass nondescript stores and nondescript street vendors—and end up face-to-face with one of Chinatown’s most lurid and enduring legends.

 
 

Every old book, every tourist’s tale about Chinatown, seems to center on the tong wars, those epic midnight battles between hatchet-wielding Chinese warriors who whaled away at one another in the tiny lanes only to disappear when the police arrived, vanishing through trap doors and hidden panels into some secret network of tunnels snaking away under Chinatown. I knew this was nonsense. I knew these were sensationalist stories made up to sell papers at the turn of the century—until one day I was poking around in Chatham Square and went through the ordinary-looking door next to Off-Track Betting and found a tunnel. It does, in fact, snake around under Chinatown, with other branches sealed off with gates and locked doors. It’s not very sinister, though. The Chinatown tunnel is now lined with little shops: an herbalist; a travel agent; an adviser on feng shui , the ancient art of arranging the physical elements of one’s life to influence the spirits in one’s favor. But it is a tunnel, and it made me realize that those old stories might not be as fanciful as I thought.

This particular tunnel once led into the basement of the old Chinese Opera House at 5 Doyers Street. Chinese opera is incomprehensible to most Western ears, but for a turnof-the-century Chinese, it was a trip back home, with splendid costumes and classic tales going back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Tom Lee’s On Leong Tong, which affected a certain gentlemanly hauteur, favored the opera, and its members, my great-grandfather included, could be found thronging the plain basement theater on most Sunday nights. Such was the case on August 6, 1905, when suddenly, midway through the six-hour performance, the men in the front and rear rows—all members of the archrival Hip Sing Tong—stood up, turned to face the On Leongers, and opened fire with their .44s. Needless to say, there was pandemonium. The On Leong men drew their weapons and fired back as actors and musicians dived for cover. Outside on Doyers Street there was a near riot as police from all over the Lower East Side converged on the tiny theater and clubbed their way through the people and smoke down the stairs—to find nothing but four dead or dying tong soldiers. All the rest had vanished, dragging their wounded down the tunnel in which I am now walking. I can almost hear their screams as I climb the stairs at the end and find myself on Doyers Street.

I love Doyers Street. It is so narrow that a single car can barely squeeze through. It is so crooked that those straight-flying evil spirits won’t get far. Doyers Street is now known primarily as a home to barbershops and, at 13-15, the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, an ancient dim sum dumpling restaurant that my father used to eat in as a little boy. But early in this century it was a battleground. The tong wars, which raged intermittently from the late 1890s to the 1930s, nearly tore Chinatown apart. Doyers was supposedly the scene of some of the grimmest action—the white press dubbed one of its narrow twists and turns “the Bloody Angle”—but Pell Street really saw more gunfire.

The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association was and remains the unofficial government of the Chinese community in New York.

If one follows Doyers to the left, it dead-ends at Pell, another nerve center of old Chinatown. To the right, at Number 16, is the current headquarters of the Hip Sing Tong, although during the wars it was situated across the street at 13.