The Many Faces of Chinatown Enter the Dragon

 "Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” An immortal line from a beloved movie, and perhaps a reflection of how many  Western urbanites over the years have viewed the large pockets of Asian  immigrants that have settled in their cities. Chinatowns dot the country from  coast to coast, but their residents have often been treated with suspicion,  discrimination, and outright hostility.  

 Despite many obstacles both social and governmental, New York City’s Chinatown has flourished since the late 1800s, and as it has grown and  cultural attitudes have shifted and evolved, it has caught the eye of  developers, newcomers to the city, and all manner of others, not necessarily of  Asian ancestry. The Chinatown of today still features the bright signs  illuminating bustling markets and apothecaries, and the staccatto sounds of  Mandarin and Cantonese being spoken on every street, but today it’s also home to new residential developments, and new residents themselves.  

 Hard Work, Little Reward

 The first Chinese immigrants to arrive in New York City were primarily men from  China’s Guangdong Province who moved east, after disembarking in California and  toiling to build the Central Pacific Railroad system. These men left their  wives and children back in China, with intentions to either send for them, once  they established themselves in the west, or to return to China with their  earnings.  

 For a number of unpleasant reasons it didn’t work out quite that way for most of them. Railroad workers were paid a  pittance for backbreaking labor, and the Chinese workers in particular were  willing to work for almost nothing. This instilled resentment in American and  European laborers, who felt they were undersold by this new wave of cheap  manpower. Consequently, blatant discrimination and physical violence against  Chinese newcomers was not uncommon, and eventually, a new set of stringent  labor and immigration laws were passed limiting the number of Chinese  immigrants allowed into the country and dictated where they could and could not  live once they got here.  

 Among these, the Chinese Exclusion Act—passed in 1882 and not repealed until 1943—prohibited newly arrived Chinese men from bringing their families into the  country. This legislation slowed the wave of immigrants to a steady trickle  comprised almost entirely of men, turning New York’s Chinatown into a curious neighborhood of bachelors. This—combined with the expatriated community’s retention of traditional cultural formalities and patterns— made New York’s Chinatown a mark for suspicion and misconception, as well as a novel  destination for curious Victorians, traipsing through the neighborhood hoping  to catch a glimpse of an opium den or gawk at the locals.  

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