Photographs by Alex Lau for The New York Times
Manhattan’s Chinatown took a triple hit from Covid-19 this spring. On top of the virus, the White House stoked xenophobia, and the neighborhood’s traditional charms suddenly turned into liabilities with the challenge of social distancing in cramped restaurants and shops and on narrow streets. Ordinarily, millions of visitors a year pack those streets. They all but vanished.
Nancy Yao Maasbach is president of Chinatown’s Museum of Chinese in America. She grew up in Flushing, Queens, after her family failed to win the lottery for an apartment at Confucius Plaza, the Mitchell-Lama housing project on the Bowery, which, since the 1970s, has been home to thousands of Chinatown residents. “Flushing was still predominantly Italian and Jewish back then,” she told me. “I grew up thinking I was a young Jewish woman locked in a Chinese body.”
This is the latest in a series of (condensed, edited) walks around town. Today, Flushing’s Chinatown and the Chinatown in Sunset Park in Brooklyn have come to dwarf Manhattan’s. But the tiny community that took root by the 1870s along Doyers, Pell and lower Mott Streets, in what was then a slum called Five Points, remains the origin story for Chinese culture in New York.
The neighborhood began to grow with the arrival of Chinese laborers driven from the American West after the Gold Rush and the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 meant Chinese in America found themselves prevented from becoming citizens and denied other basic rights. Until the mid-1960s, only a handful of Chinese were legally permitted to enter the country. Chinatowns across the country were formed to provide Chinese communities with a support network and protective shield against racism.
An organization like the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association on Mott Street — the C.C.B.A. — arose to serve as a de facto town hall for Chinese in New York, advocating for equal rights, offering social services and other programs.
The neighborhood’s insularity, working-class identity and pride, its architecture, demographics, culture and economy are all rooted in this legacy of adversity, self-reliance and resilience.
Once you’re inside, click on the left and right arrows to navigate between each point of interest. At each point, move your cursor to look slightly left and right, up and down.
A view of Doyers Street from around 1900. Because their rights and job access were limited, many Chinese immigrants — overwhelmingly men a century ago — turned to jobs traditionally associated with women’s work: cooking, sewing and laundry.
Chinatown started on a few streets, Doyers among them, in a slum called Five Points. Its population grew in the 1880s with the diaspora of Chinese laborers driven out of the American West.
In this photo from the mid-70s, police officers patrol Doyers. During the 1970s and ’80s, some Chinatown families moved to what were then considered safer, more suburban neighborhoods in Queens.
The Rescue Society in the 1920s occupied the site of the former Chinese Theater. In 1905, a gang war started there, which helped give Doyers the name Murder Alley.
Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which just celebrated its 100th anniversary, for generations was a neighborhood hangout where people picked up their mail, read the newspaper and played cards.
Doyers follows the curve of what originally was a meandering stream. The street is named after a Dutchman who opened a distillery there.
Doyers Street in 1964, before the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which abolished quotas on Chinese immigration. Around the corner is Kimlau Square, a gateway to the neighborhood, where a monument commemorates the Chinese in America who died fighting for democracy.
Keep scrolling to walk down Doyers Street
Ms. Maasbach charted a walk from Park Row and East Broadway to Columbus Park. She pointed out familiar landmarks like the On Leong Chinese Merchants Association with the pagoda top at Mott and Canal Streets. In recent decades, Chinatown has sprawled into parts of Little Italy and the Lower East Side. Whole swathes of today’s Chinatown failed to make it into what follows.
But the walk includes a few dumplings at the venerated Nom Wah Tea Parlor with Wilson Tang, the restaurant’s proprietor, and dessert at the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory on Bayard Street, where Christina Seid talked about running her family’s business in the midst of Covid-19.
Ms. Maasbach suggested meeting at what’s known as Chatham or Kimlau Square. Benjamin Ralph Kimlau was a Chinese-American bomber pilot who died in combat over the Pacific during World War II. A gatelike monument in the square from the early ’60s is dedicated to Americans of Chinese descent who lost their lives in defense of democracy and freedom. It was designed by the Chinatown-born architect Poy Gum Lee, with calligraphy by a famous Chinese Nationalist calligrapher and scholar, Yu Youren. It takes the form of a somber, modernist version of a traditional Chinese pailou, or ceremonial gateway.
Michael Kimmelman The square has a second monument, too, dedicated to Lin Zexu, a 19th century Qing dynasty official from Fujian Province who figured in the Opium Wars in China. What’s his significance?
Nancy Yao Maasbach Some people confuse the statue of Lin Zexu with Confucius. The one dedicated to Kimlau was erected in 1962, three years before the Johnson administration passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which finally lifted the quota on Chinese immigrants. The monument was part of an effort to end the quota, by pointing out the contributions of Chinese in America. The statue to Lin Zexu was put up 35 years later, in 1997, by new immigrants from Fujian province in the People’s Republic of China. It plants a kind of Fujianese flag in Chinatown. Lin Zexu was a Fujianese hero. The statue faces East Broadway, where Fujianese arrivals opened all sorts of stores and eateries — Little Fuzhou it came to be called.
Lin tried to shut down the opium trade. During the 1990s New York was fighting its own war on drugs. I notice an inscription on the statue’s base: “Say No to Drugs.”
Exactly. These new arrivals included some of the undocumented immigrants smuggled in by snakeheads. What the statue screams to me is, “we’re good people, too.”
Snakeheads, Chinese smugglers.
They were behind the Golden Venture, a notorious freighter that ran aground off the Rockaway peninsula in 1993 with over 200 undocumented immigrants from China. Many of the immigrants were from Fujian. They were detained and imprisoned by U.S. immigration officials, some for years. In 2018, the Museum of Chinese in America exhibited over 100 paper sculptures that members of this group made while they were being held. I will always remember the incredible art created by some of the Fujianese immigrants during that time.
You’ll notice, by the way, the different inscriptions on the two monuments.
Yu Youren’s calligraphy is on the Kimlau monument.
Which uses traditional Chinese characters, as the language is written in Taiwan. The Lin statue uses simplified Chinese characters, because that’s what the communist People’s Republic of China uses. Chinatown is as diverse as the Chinese diaspora. Chinese in America come from all points of the globe, from vastly different economic means, from an array of political systems, speaking eight major dialects and over 200 indigenous languages.
You see the diaspora reflected in the area’s businesses. One of Chinatown’s wonderful little secret streets, Canal Arcade, just up the block, is full of Malaysian restaurants. Grand Street, a couple of blocks farther north, has clusters of Thai, Malay and Vietnamese places. After the immigration act passed in ’65, Chinatown started attracting Chinese who had fled Communist China after the revolution and settled in Thailand, Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia and elsewhere because at that time the United States was closed to them. Once America lifted its ban, they started coming here, often to reunite with extended families.
Earlier diasporas also shaped Chinatown, of course, like the one that drove Chinese workers out of the American West.
And now you find second, third, fourth generation Chinatown residents, many of whom maintain a strong belief in neighborhood preservation, which is why all sorts of old shops — hardware stores, food markets, barbers, jewelers — hang on. At the same time, the neighborhood keeps evolving. A lot of people complain it’s like Disneyland, that it has gentrified. But I see younger people adapting their businesses to changing circumstances — people like Wilson Tang, who runs Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which has been operating on Doyers Street for 100 years.
Maybe the most storied street in Chinatown, which became known as Murder Alley back when the city’s popular press printed racist trash and an entire racist genre of pulp fiction and the movies was devoted to the allegedly “inscrutable,” criminal Chinese.
Newspapers back then loved to publish stories about violence, filth and corruption in Chinatown, even though the Chinese community was still very small and other ethnic gangs operated in the neighborhood, like the Irish gangs. Doyers got the name Murder Alley after a Tong war broke out at the site of what used to be the Chinese opera house, now a hipster bar and restaurant. At the same time, the neighborhood was a tourist attraction. All sorts of chop suey restaurants and opium dens catered to uptowners who came to do things they wouldn’t or couldn’t do in their own neighborhoods.
Nom Wah is one of the oldest continuously operating restaurants in New York. I saw back in February, before the first lockdown, that Wilson Tang started posting #supportchinatown stuff on Instagram, calling out anti-Chinese xenophobia, trying to rally help for restaurant owners, who were already hurting.
Wilson is second generation Chinatown — early 40s with a background in finance, clued into social media.
Let me introduce you.
Hi, Wilson. Happy birthday. Nom Wah just turned 100. When did you take it over?
Wilson Tang In 2010, from my uncle Wally, who came from China in the ’50s and worked for the restaurant’s previous owners, the Choy family. My parents had an apartment in Confucius Plaza across the street, so I was born here. Then we moved to Elmhurst, Queens, because, to my parents, Queens represented upward mobility, like moving to the suburbs. You have to remember, during the ’80s and ’90s, Chinatown was a very different place. There was a lot more corruption. My parents’ dream was a house with a white picket fence and garage. They didn’t want me to work in a restaurant. But in college I got interested in my heritage, and I thought there was maybe an opportunity for a new generation in Chinatown.
What does that mean?
Back in the day, Nom Wah was where people in the neighborhood hung out, read the newspaper, picked up their mail. Dim sum chefs would meet after work, smoke, play cards. Chinatown was smaller than it is now. Today millions of tourists visit, or they did before Covid. We’ve had to adapt, for which I sometimes get [expletive] from an older generation.
Traditionally dim sum is served only until 3 p.m., but we serve dim sum at night. Traditionally dim sum restaurants don’t serve alcohol. We serve alcohol. We’ve also opened other restaurants, we’re selling frozen dumplings in the Hamptons. We just published a cookbook.
You’re selling out.
I understand where older people are coming from. I care a lot about preserving what’s special about this neighborhood. That doesn’t mean Chinatown shouldn’t change. Especially now. Business is down 80 percent with Covid. Many business owners in Chinatown don’t know how to adapt and they won’t make it. Chinatown’s landlords have underlying mortgages, they have taxes to pay and repairs to make, because buildings in Chinatown are generally very old and many apartments are rent controlled, or rent stabilized. So landlords rely on rent from storefront properties, like restaurants, which are suffering.
A vicious cycle. Businesses clearly need more help now.
Nancy Yao Maasbach Michael, let’s head to the C.C.B.A. on Mott Street, which for many generations has provided the neighborhood with a kind of lifeline.
I know the C.C.B.A. building. Kerri Culhane did an exhibition at your museum about the Chinese-American modernist architect Poy Gum Lee, who was born on Mott Street at the turn of the last century. Lee proposed a couple of versions of the C.C.B.A., which was ultimately designed by an architect named Andrew S. Yuen, pretty closely following Lee’s scheme.
Lee was an interesting character, one of 15 children. He was trained in Beaux-Arts design. For years he worked in China. He moved to Shanghai in the 1920s, then returned after the communist revolution started. We think about the current generation of Chinese as exceptionally transnational, but Lee went back and forth.
The C.C.B.A. building reminds me a little of my 60s-era New York City public school, except C.C.B.A. is festooned with Taiwanese flags.
Inside there are tributes to Sun Yat-sen. There’s also a statue of Sun in Columbus Park by Lu Chun-Hsiung and Michel Kang, which the C.C.B.A. installed not long ago to celebrate the centennial of the founding of Republic of China. Sun visited Chinatown and gave a speech at the C.C.B.A.
To raise money for the revolution against the Qing dynasty. I love Columbus Park. It’s one of my favorite spots in the city — redone some years back, originally designed by Calvert Vaux, who also did the park’s great open-air pavilion. The park is cater-corner to the former P.S. 23, by C.B.J. Snyder, another wonderful Chinatown building, with a tower based on St. Mark’s campanile in Venice. That building is yet one more 2020 calamity.
It caught fire in January. The Museum of Chinese in America stored 85,000 items from our collection there. It also happened to be where my mother, like many other Chinese immigrants, learned English, at the Chinatown Manpower Project.
At least Columbus Park is still thriving (fingers crossed).
It’s where older people from the neighborhood get together, play bridge and Chinese chess, do Tai Chi in the morning. You hear Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujianese. The park is next to the Manhattan Detention Complex. In the ’80s, my mother was one of those who marched to protest its construction.
The Tombs, it’s called. There’s talk about enlarging it if Rikers is closed. Community groups, not surprisingly, are again up in arms.
The detention center overshadows the park. I’ve lived in Taiwan, Hong Kong, in Chinatowns in Los Angeles and Flushing. There is always a park, where early risers go. Fresh air and “san san bu,” leisurely walks: both are essential parts of daily life in Chinese culture.
An ice cream before we end? I told Christina Seid we might stop by. Christina’s father opened Chinatown Ice Cream Factory in 1977. She comes from one of the oldest families in Chinatown.
I can’t say no to a scoop of green tea.
Christina, let me introduce you to Michael.
Hi, Christina. Thanks for taking a moment. How long have you run the ice cream shop?
Christina Seid I started working here when I was 12, so that was almost 30 years ago. In that sense, I grew up in Chinatown. But we lived in Queens. A lot of Chinatown business owners and employees live elsewhere. Almost none of our employees live in Chinatown.
Because it has become too expensive?
Partly. But what’s interesting is that this is still a very close-knit community. I’ll run an errand on Canal Street, which is a two minute walk from our store, and it will take me an hour because people stop me to ask about my dog or my mom or kids. They put food in my bag. It’s like “Sesame Street.”
What changed with the pandemic? Did you hear anti-Chinese comments?
Stupid people have always made racist comments. It just got worse with Covid. And business is down.
The good news is that we’re banding together — like around outdoor dining, a lot of which has been organized by locals. There’s now a neighborhood watch, to make everybody feel safe. Residents and business owners are cleaning streets themselves.
So you’re hopeful?
It’s tough. We’ll see. My dad says I worry too much. That Chinatown has suffered before.
That we will survive this, too.