"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Among these, the Chinese Exclusion Act—passed in 1882 and not repealed until 1943—prohibited newly arrived Chinese men from bringing their families into the country.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.