Chinatown

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The tongs were an American outgrowth of the ancient Triad society of China, which for some two hundred years had been trying to oust the Ch’ing (or Manchu) Dynasty and restore the Ming. In America they were purely self-serving, extorting “protection” money from merchants and raking in profits from vice rackets. The Hip Sing and the On Leong were at each other’s throats as soon as the first Hip Sing operatives arrived in New York and tried to horn in on some of Tom Lee’s operations in the 1880s. At first each tried to intimidate the other through the police organizations they held in their pockets. The Hip Sing convinced Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt that it wanted only to “aid the Chinese to learn American ways, and to advance them in religion and mutual helpfulness”; the On Leong paid the officers of the local precinct a share of the sixteen dollars a week it received from each of the dozens of gambling tables it controlled.

Each tong, therefore, could expect regular harassment from the other’s police stooges for a dozen years or so. That is, until one dark Saturday night in 1897, when the up-and-coming head of the Hip Sing, one Mr. Mock Duck, was attacked by a hatchet—and knife-wielding mob in the doorway at 12 Pell. Mr. Mock survived that assault—in the ensuing forty years he would survive all sorts of stabbings, beatings, and shootings, thanks to the chain mail he always wore under his shirt—but plenty of Hip Sing and On Leong bullets would find their targets. There were periodic truces and treaties—my great-grandfather was one of three senior officers of the On Leong who signed the 1906 pact—but before long the shooting would erupt again. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the Depression and a new, common enemy, the Japanese, caused the tongs to patch up their differences. The warring parties agreed to split up Chinatown, while the police sealed off the tunnels. Thus, when you are walking on Doyers or Pell Street, you are in Hip Sing territory. But Mott Street is really the prize, and it is firmly under On Leong control.

I walk down Pell toward Mott. Straight ahead of me at 33-37 Mott is an apartment house still called Sun Lau, or “New Building,” despite the fact that it went up in 1914. It was the first modern apartment house in Chinatown, with real bathrooms and central heat. And it was the birthplace of my father, in 1923. He was the youngest in a family of five brothers and sisters, his parents, his grandmother, and his aunt—nine people in three rooms. Like most of their neighbors, they all slept on wooden planks set up on sawhorses at night. During the day the ladies and older children strung beads that the man from the garment factory brought them once a week. The pay: $1.50 a gross.

 
Swollen by newcomers from Fujian Province, Chinatown’s population has soared from some 30,000 in 1960 to an estimated quarter-million.

Great-grandfather had died in that apartment of tuberculosis in 1919; the disease was five times as common in overcrowded Chinatown as in the rest of the city. His store, a more modest version of Quong Yuen Shing, had been next door at 39 Mott. Upstairs in that building was the office of the Chinese inspector, a humorless man who slow-roasted New York’s Chinese when they tried to leave the country or wanted to bring a relative over. The Chinese Exclusion Acts were so effective that Chinatown’s population was in a steady decline after 1900. The law would not be repealed until 1943, when, with China as our ally in World War II, our government could not keep up the sham any longer. So Chinese immigration was once again allowed—at the staggering rate of 105 persons a year. And after 1943 Chinese were finally eligible to become naturalized American citizens, a standard immigrant right never extended to my great-grandfather despite his forty-six years’ residence here. There has never been another nationality singled out for exclusion during peacetime by this government in all its history, not even the Japanese.

Turning left, I see the venerable old Church of the Transfiguration, built in 1801 and one of the most historic buildings in Chinatown, at the corner of Mott and the neighborhood’s tiniest street, Mosco. Transfiguration now holds mass in Chinese every day, but for decades after Chinese had started moving to this corner of Five Points, the Irish and Italian congregation barricaded themselves against the Asian invasion. “On Sunday the place swarms with Chinamen from all parts of the city and from out of town, who make of the neighborhood a perfect hell!” wrote a priest in 1883. It wasn’t until after World War I that their defenses began to crack.