Chinatown: Manhattan’s 160-Year-Old Working-Class Bastion

Alexander Hellebaut /
Alexander Hellebaut / | © Culture Trip
Claire Wang

A community-wide appetite for hard work, making ends meet and cultural preservation has seen Manhattan’s Chinatown survive through thick and thin.

One of Kam Mak’s fondest childhood memories of Manhattan’s Chinatown is lighting fireworks and rockets on Lunar New Year. In 1971, following a fortuitous change in US immigration code, Mak’s family joined a wave of low-wage workers from Hong Kong who were immigrating to New York City. They settled in a cramped tenement home on Eldridge Street, across from the Manhattan Bridge. Mak, who was 10, shared bunk beds with his four sisters.

He soon found work at a carwash down the street. Like many Chinese kids at the time, he became acquainted with his Jewish and Italian neighbors on the Lower East Side. An Italian shop owner asked him to sell fireworks to Chinese residents, many of whom spoke only Cantonese or Taishanese. At that time, people didn’t need a license to buy the combustible product, and children partook in rapturous celebrations that included lion and dragon dances.

Lunar New Year, he remembered, “was much more festive than it is now,” adding that many families observed the affair with a sort of religious devotion. “For us immigrants, our culture is kind of frozen in time,” he continued. “I think we tried harder to maintain traditions.”

The euphoria of Lunar New Year stood in a stark contrast to the daily grind of back-breaking labor. Like most women at the time, Mak’s mother worked in a sweatshop for $4,000 (£3,125) a year. One time, her boss got fined after an inspector caught Mak’s sisters helping her under the sewing station. His father, like most men, washed dishes in a Chinese restaurant. In college, Mak too worked in the kitchen at Hop Kee, one of the oldest Cantonese diners in the city. He made $600 (£470) a month through 12-hour shifts, six days a week.

“Everyone smoked and gambled all the time to deal with the stress of working,” he recalled. Some gambled away their entire salaries. His father came dangerously close once, and had to ask his mother to foot the bills and repay his debt.

Old Chinatown

During the 1860s, Lower Manhattan became a refuge for Chinese workers fleeing the rampant discrimination and violent riots they’d encountered as railroad builders and gold miners in California. Many settled on Mott Street – a few minutes’ walk from Eldridge, where Kam Mak’s family would make their home – and found work in hand laundries, cigar shops and small restaurants. It was the New York Times that, in 1880, assigned the name “China Town” to the small, triangular area comprising Mott, Pell and Doyers Streets. (Doyers, a narrow paved path that bends at an obtuse angle, is home to Nom Wah Parlor, the city’s first dim sum bar that opened a century ago.)

The newcomers from the West also brought with them a vicious turf war that had erupted out West between two Chinese gangs. The “Tong Wars” raged through the first quarter of the 20th century, as rival members fought for control over brothels, gambling houses and the drug trade. The gangs slaughtered dozens of innocent people, including the sex slave Bow Kum, who became embroiled in a deadly property dispute between the two groups. The decades-long violence earned Doyers a lasting moniker: “The Bloody Angle.”

By the 1970s, when the Maks moved to Chinatown, the Tong Wars had made way for a new conflict between two young gangs, the Fukienese Flying Dragons and the Ghost Shadows. Street fights became so prevalent that, in 6th grade, Mak’s mother paid for an after-school program to keep him off the streets. “They’d come to school to recruit young kids,” Mak recalled. “They’d try to intimidate us, preying on our insecurity as immigrants. And some kids would just disappear.”

Amid the turmoil, the era also ushered in new opportunities for Chinese children. With Cityarts Workshop (now CITYarts, Inc.), a nonprofit that recruited inner-city kids to work on arts projects around the Lower East Side, Mak painted murals that drew on his Chinese heritage. He pursued that passion at LaGuardia High and the School of Visual Arts and, in 2008, went on to design a Lunar New Year stamp series for the US Postal Service. The complete collection, completed over a 12-year period, is held at the National Postal Museum.

Looking back, Mak credited the abundance of affordable housing and the strong working-class ethos of the neighborhood for propelling his ascent to the top of the art world. “It’s important that there’s a working-class Chinese population in Chinatown, or it’ll become a tourist trap,” he said.

Manhattan’s Chinatown today

In the past 50 years, Chinatown has grown tremendously from its original four-block nucleus. With nearly 150,000 residents, it has become one of the most populous Chinese communities in the Western world. Chinese businesses have absorbed much of Little Italy and the Lower East Side, continuing to support a large contingent of low-wage workers. Nearly a third of Chinatown’s residents live in poverty, and their median household income is just $40,000 (£31,000).

Certain vestiges of Old Chinatown are vanishing: hip Australian cafés have replaced beloved bakeries and diners, while luxury condos rise from the rubble of tenements. With a dwindling stock of affordable housing, long-time Chinese residents have fled to and formed new enclaves in Brooklyn and Queens.

Yet, in retaining its ethnic roots, Manhattan’s Chinatown is a window of sorts into the New York of yesteryear. Traversing alleys lined with fruit and vegetable vendors, one can still hear a symphony of dialects from southern China. A smattering of Buddhist temples and herb shops draws heavy foot traffic on weekends

More recently, enterprising young people have found ways to revitalize the local economy. Pastry chefs Eddie Zheng and Olivia Leung, who operate the shaved ice shop The Little One, follow a group of Chinatown natives who opened up trendy, wildly popular dessert bars in their childhood home. The young are also invested in social services. Jenna Ko, 25, said that growing up in Chinatown motivated her to pursue a career in nursing. While working at a local pharmacy as an undergrad, Ko realized how many elderly residents spoke little to no English. (Only about a third are proficient.) The language barrier leads to a lack of advocacy for the community, especially in the health sector, she said.

“My grandma has been here for almost 40 years and knows only enough English to get by,” Ko said. She’s thankful that her parents made sure she could speak Cantonese, and wants to use that skill to advocate for geriatric patients after she graduates from nursing school.

“I appreciate growing up in Chinatown because it’s allowed me to connect with my culture without even realizing it,” Ko added.

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