The Once-Forbidden City Chinatown Through the Years

Of the many distinct neighborhoods in New York City, a select few have established their reputation to such a degree that they've become urban entities of literary proportion. Greenwich Village is one, Harlem is another. Manhattan's Chinatown - a two-square-mile area loosely cordoned off by Kenmore and Delancey Streets on the north, East and Worth Streets on the south, Allen Street to the east, and Broadway on the west side - is a third.

Say "Chinatown," and people immediately think of crowded open-air markets, steaming noodle shops, hanging lanterns, traffic of all descriptions at all hours, and the rapid-fire staccato of Mandarin and Cantonese spoken loudly over the din. New York's Chinatown represents a thick slice of foreign culture dropped directly into the socio-ethnic stew that is Manhattan. The neighborhood is home to more than 350,000 people - the largest population of Chinese in the Western Hemisphere.

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 had left their families and their wives and children back in China, intending to either send for them once the men had established themselves in the west, or to return to China with their earnings.

For a number of reasons - none of them pleasant - 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 a deep resentment in American and European laborers, who felt that they were being undersold by this new wave of cheap manpower from the East. 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 that limited 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Among these, the Chinese Exclusion Act - passed in 1882 and not repealed until 1943 - prohibited newly arrived Chinese men from bringing their families into the country.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, and turned New York's Chinatown into a curious neighborhood of bachelors. This - combined with the expatriated Chinese community's reluctance to dissolve into the American "melting pot" by keeping traditional forms of dress, declining in many cases to learn English, and basically sustaining itself without outside help - made New York's Chinatown both a magnet for suspicion and misconception. The area also became a novel destination for curious Victorians, who would traipse through the neighborhood hoping to catch a glimpse of an opium den or gawk at the locals as they went about their day. Early New Yorkers' view of Chinatown and its inhabitants didn't end at mere curiosity, however. The Chinese were viewed as heathens, treated as less-than second-class citizens, and forced to stay within the confines of their neighborhood. Prejudice, combined with tight borders, created problems in and of itself. According to Donna Lentol, a broker with Douglas Elliman's downtown office, "Because of the waves of immigration into the Lower East Side, people kind of broke off into different groups, and that's how the various neighborhoods got formed."


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