Faced with increasing discrimination and new laws which prevented participation in many occupations on the West Coast, some Chinese immigrants moved to the East Coast cities in search of employment. Early businesses in these cities included hand laundries and restaurants. Chinatown started on Mott Street, Park, Pell and Doyer streets, east of the notorious Five Points district. By 1870, there was a Chinese population of 200. By the time the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed, the population was up to 2,000 residents. By 1900, there were 7,000 Chinese residents, but fewer than 200 Chinese women.
The early days of Chinatown were dominated by Chinese "tongs" (now sometimes rendered neutrally as "associations"), which were a mixture of clan associations, landsman's associations, political alliances (Kuomintang vs Communist Party of China) and (more secretly) crime syndicates. The associations started to give protection from harassment due to anti-Chinese racism. Each of these associations was aligned with a street gang. The associations were a source of assistance to new immigrants - giving out loans, aiding in starting business, and so forth.
The associations formed a governing body named the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association（中華公所）. Though this body was meant to foster relations between the Tongs, open warfare periodically flared between the On Leong (安良) and Hip Sing (協勝) tongs. Much of the Chinese gang warfare took place on Doyers street. Gangs like the Ghost Shadows (鬼影) and Flying Dragons (飛龍) were prevalent until the 1980s.
The only park in Chinatown, Columbus Park, was built on what was once the center of the infamous Five Points neighborhood of New York. During the 19th century, this was the most dangerous slum area of immigrant New York (as portrayed in the movie Gangs of New York).Much of Chinatown works in an underground economy, where wages are below the mandated minimum wage and transactions are done in cash to avoid paying taxes. This underground economy is responsible for employment of large numbers of new immigrants who lacked the language skills to seek better jobs. This system attracted the garment industry to use large-scale sweatshops in the Chinatown area. Tourism and restaurants are also major industries.
Chinese green groceries and fish mongers are clustered around Mulberry Street, Canal Street (by Baxter Street) and all along East Broadway (especially by Catherine Street). The Chinese jewelry shop district is on Canal Street between Mott and Bowery. Due to the high savings rate among Chinese, there are many Asian and American banks in the neighborhood. Canal Street, west of Broadway (especially on the North side), is filled with Chinese street vendors selling imitation perfumes, watches, and hand-bags. This section of Canal Street was previously the home of warehouse stores selling surplus/salvage electronics and hardware.
Until the 1970s, the traditional borders of Chinatown were:
- Canal Street in the North (bordering Little Italy)
- The Bowery in the East (bordering the Lower East Side)
- Worth Street in the South
- Baxter Street in the West
Within this area, most tourists only see the older center of Chinatown, the intersections of Canal Street with Mott and Mulberry streets; the intersection of Pell and Doyers Streets.
In the years after the United States reformulated its immigration laws in 1965, allowing many more immigrants from Asia into the country, the population of Chinatown exploded. Geographically, much of the growth was to neighborhoods to the north.
In the 1970s, Little Italy was absorbed. The only true remaining remnant of that ethnic enclave is Mulberry Street north of Canal. The section known as NoLIta is starting to be filled with Chinese residents as well.
A gigantic federally subsidized housing project, named Confucius Plaza was completed on the corner of Bowery and Division streets in 1976. This 44-story residential tower block gave much needed new housing stock to thousands of residents. The building also housed a new public grade school, P.S. 124 (or Yung Wing Elementary). Since new housing is normally non-existent in Chinatown, many apartments in the building were acquired by wealthy individuals through under-the-table dealings, even though the building was built as affordable housing.
In the 1990s, Chinese people began to move into some parts of the western Lower East Side, which 50 years earlier was populated by Eastern European Jews and 20 years earlier was occupied by Hispanics. There are today only a few remnants of Jewish heritage left on the Lower East Side, such as the famous Katz's Deli and a number of synagogues and other old religious establishments.
Currently, the approximate borders of Chinatown are:
- Delancey Street in the North (bordering the East Village and SoHo sections of NYC)
- East Broadway in the East (stopping at the Williamsburg Bridge)
- Broadway in the West (encroaching the TriBeCa sections of NYC)
- Chambers Street in the South (encroaching the City Hall area)
It is an area of approximately one mile in the North-South direction of Manhattan Island by two miles in the East-West direction of the island.
Unlike most other urban Chinatowns, Manhattan's Chinatown is both a residential area as well as commercial area. Most population estimates are in the range of 150,000 to 250,000 residents (some estimates go as high as 350,000 residents). It is difficult to get an exact count, as neighborhood participation in the U.S. Census is thought to be low due to language barriers, as well as large-scale illegal immigration. Besides the more than 200 Chinese restaurants in the area for employment, there are still some factories. The proximity of the fashion industry has kept some garment work in the local area though most of the garment industry has moved to China. The local garment industry now concentrates on quick production in small volumes and piece-work (paid by the piece) which is generally done at the worker's home. Much of the population growth is due to immigration. As previous generations of immigrants gain language and education skills, they tend to move to better housing and job prospects that are available in the suburbs and outer boroughs of New York.
The housing stock of Chinatown is still mostly composed of cramped tenement buildings, some of which are over 100 years old. It is still common in such buildings to have bathrooms in the hallways, to be shared among multiple apartments.
For much of Chinatown's history, there were few unique architectural features to announce to visitors that they had arrived in the neighborhood (other than the language of the shop signs). In 1962, at Chatham Square the Kam Lau memorial archway was erected in memorial of the Chinese-Americans who died in World War II. This memorial, which bears calligraphy by the great Yu Youren 于右任 (1879—1964), is mostly ignored by the residents due to its poor location on a busy car thoroughfare with little pedestrian traffic. A statue of Lin Zexu, a Fuzhou-based Chinese official who opposed the opium trade, is also located at the square; it faces uptown along East Broadway, now home to the bustling Fuzhou neighborhood and known locally as Fuzhou Street (Fúzhóu jiē 福州街). In the 1970s, New York Telephone, then the local phone company started capping the street phone booths with pagoda-like decorations. In 1976, the statue of Confucius in front of Confucius Plaza became a common meeting place. In the 1980s, banks which opened new branches and others which were renovating started to use Chinese traditional styles for their building facades.
Chinatown was greatly affected by the September 11, 2001 attacks. Being so physically close to Ground Zero, tourism and business has been very slow to return to the area. Part of the reason was the New York City Police Department closure of Park Row - one of two major roads linking the Financial Center with Chinatown. A lawsuit is pending before the State Superior Court regarding this action.
Currently, approximately 300,000 people live in Manhattan's Chinatown.
Until the 1960s, the bulk of the population was Toisan and Cantonese speaking, coming from a small area of Guangdong province and Hong Kong with a small minority of Hakka also represented. Mandarin was rarely spoken by natives even well into the 1980s.
Other New York City area Chinese communities have been settled over the years, including that of Flushing in Queens, which in recent years has actually surpassed the community in Lower Manhattan. Another community is located in Sunset Park in Brooklyn, particularly along 8th Avenue from 40th to 65th Streets. New York's newest Chinatown has recently sprung up on Avenue U in the Homecrest section of Brooklyn. Outside of New York City proper, a growing suburban Chinatown is developing in Edison, New Jersey, which lies 30 miles to the southwest.
While the composition of these satellite Chinatowns is as varied as the original, the political turmoils in the Manhattan Chinatown (Tongs vs. Taiwan loyalist vs. Communist China loyalist vs. Americanized) has led to some factionalization in the other satellites. The Flushing Chinatown, for example, was spearheaded by many Chinese fleeing the Communist retaking of Hong Kong in 1997 as well as Taiwanese who used their considerable capital to buy out land from the former Mormon residents. The Brooklyn Chinatown located in Sunset Park however, is mostly immigrant and populated by both Cantonese and Fukienese newcomers to America. More culturally assimilated Chinese have moved outside these neighborhoods into more white or Hispanic neighborhoods in the city while others move to the suburbs outright.
Chinatown is one of the top tourist destinations in New York City. There are guided walking tours available for unfamiliar tourists, however, often the best way to visit is to taste the ethnic food and to explore at your own pace.
- Joe's Shanghai Restaurant located at 9 Pell Street, New York, New York 10013
- Chinatown Ice Cream Factory located at 65 Bayard Street, New York, NY 10013
Visit the Explore Chinatown website to learn more.
- Shuang Wen School - a dual-language elementary school on the Lower East Side.
- Chinatowns in North America
- Chinatown New York City Blog
- Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association
- Explore Chinatown-Official Tourism Site
- Chinatown (from LINA)
- NYC Chinatown-online
- photo tour of NYC Chinatown
- A Journey through Chinatown
- Chinatown: A Neighborhood Plan
- Museum of Chinese in the Americas
- United East Athletic Association
- Gaijin Girl's Guide to ChinatownTemplate:Manhattan