A walk through Chinatown’s forgotten history of struggle and resistance
A few months ago, standing at the densely populated corner of Doyers and Pell streets, the oldest part of Manhattan’s Chinatown, I stopped for a few minutes to listen to a walking guide talk to a tour group about “the bloody angle”, a bend in the two hundred foot long block in front of the old Chinese Opera House on Doyers Street where the Chinese pliersfamily-controlled gangs, fought and died for control of gambling, prostitution and opium in the early 1900s.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other laws even made illegal immigration impossible for all but a few women, resulting in a huge gender imbalance in Chinese communities in the United States and the creation of a singles society. This did not begin to change noticeably until the opening of immigration in 1965. Before they became more elaborate, dim sum restaurants, with small plates and communal tables, sprang up to serve single men. So has the trade in Chinese sex workers, many of whom were sold as sex slaves. That was the story this guide told.
All true. But the violent and salacious anecdotes that the guide chose to tell, single-handedly, fit into a narrative of exoticism, making Chinese immigrants seem strange and savage. The story he didn’t know was prominent, a story both inspiring and complicated in the long history of Manhattan’s Chinatown. A group of academics, historical professionals, and labor and social justice activists set out to tell this story.
This year marked the start of a new project that I co-founded called “People’s Heritage Tours”. In partnership with several social justice organizations, we offer historical walking tours that highlight specific events and social movements related to the ongoing work of our partners. A portion of every ticket sold goes to groups who also help promote the tours. Tours are based on current scholarship and primary source research and, where possible, involve veterans of historical moments.
Our Chinatown tour was created in partnership with Labor Arts, an online exhibition space and repository of materials and art related to working class struggles, and was developed with May Chen, former Vice President of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE). The tour centers on a strike by thousands of garment workers in the summer of 1982, a strike organized largely by immigrant women who helped change the course of labor relations in the industry, the role of Asians in the American labor movement, services to the Chinese community and their own lives.
On loan from the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) (which merged with UNITE in 2004 to form UNITE HERE), Chen had been one of the organizers of the strike. No one expected these women to mobilize in a sustained militant show of force – not the employers, not their union, not even themselves. So why did they do it?
The tour begins
We begin our tour through the Bowery from Doyers Street at Confucius Plaza, a massive forty-four-story New York State subsidized co-op building housing nearly eight hundred families, which was completed in 1975. In less than a decade after the Chinese were able to immigrate in large numbers, their political power in the city and state grew to the point that they could demand the draft. But the developers refused to hire Chinese workers.
A group called Asian Americans for Equal Employment (AAEE) formed in 1973 and began staging protests in 1974 when negotiations with the developer broke down. By the spring of 1974, more than 50 people had been arrested in increasingly militant actions, and construction had come to a halt. The developer relented and hired more than two dozen Chinese construction workers, opening the door for Asians in construction throughout New York City.
We talk about the long history of Chinese immigration to the United States and settling in New York. We also discuss the rise of the garment industry which became increasingly important to the Chinese after World War II, especially after 1965. Walking along Doyers Street we talk about local events and national and social movements that inspired or led directly to this summer. of resistance.
At the south end of Doyers Street, where it intersects Bowery, a blue and white mural depicts the life of Corky Lee, a Queens-born photographer who recorded daily life and political movements among Chinese immigrants like his parents . In 1975, Lee documented the mobilization of thousands of Chinatown residents who marched on City Hall to protest the brutal beating of Peter Yew by New York police and years of police harassment.
Led largely by male community leaders, women participated in large numbers. The protests won temporary political concessions from Mayor Abraham Beame, including new lines of communication between police and Chinatown community leaders.
Lee also documented the garment workers’ strike in 1982. And he sought to correct the historical record. The mural revolves around a rendering of the meeting of eastbound and westbound trains of the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Point, Utah in 1869.
One of the most enduring photographs from this moment depicts the owners and builders who gathered around the golden tip that joined the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads. This technical feat (along with the annihilation of Native Americans) was crucial to America’s accumulation of wealth and power.
The photo lacked members of a key group that was responsible for building the railroad: the thousands of Chinese laborers who risked their lives and limbs taking the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs to build the railroad of iron. Hundreds died. In one of his most enduring photographs, Lee assembled dozens of descendants of these “coolie” laborers at Promontory Point to recreate the triumphant image of 1869. He called it “a photographic act of justice”.
The next building is the Chinatown Post Office named for Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, the first Chinese woman to earn a doctorate. in Economics in the United States (from Columbia University). Lee came to New York from Guangzhou with her family when she was nine years old. In 1912, at age sixteen, she rode a horse to lead a contingent of Chinatown suffragists in a parade down Fifth Avenue to demand the vote for women.
Mabel Lee joined the League for Women’s Political Equality, working with wealthy reformers and socialists, such as garment worker organizer Rose Schneiderman, to secure passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, although Lee -even would not gain the right to vote until 1943. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese immigrants and their descendants from obtaining U.S. citizenship, until it was repealed during World War II. world.
Around the corner at 21 Pell Street stands the First Chinese Baptist Church which Lee founded in 1926 and led until his death in 1966, providing social services to the Chinese community as it began to fill new immigrants.
Opposite the post office on Doyers, the tourist guide I was listening to told me about the old Chinese opera. After a theatrical performance in 1905, four members of a tong were shot by members of a rival tong. What he did not talk about was a drama of inter-ethnic solidarity a few years earlier.
When the Chinese Exclusion Act was permanently extended in 1902, Jewish liberal and socialist voices publicly opposed it. The following year, at Easter 1903, in Kishinev, Moldavia, then a province of the Russian Empire, nearly 50 Jews were killed and thousands more displaced in a pogrom that shook the entire Jewish world. Jewish communities on the Lower East Side are mobilizing. They called for help for the victims and to help what would be the largest wave of Jewish refugees to leave Russia. Among them were socialist activists and organizers of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), such as Schneiderman, Clara Lemlich and Fannia Cohn.
The Chinatown community, which numbers only about 7,000 people, responded with compassion and solidarity. They filled the 500-seat opera house, raking in hundreds of dollars in a benefit during which the actors forfeited their salaries. They collected more at a subsequent banquet at the fine restaurant Mon Lay Won at 24 Pell Street.
As we cross Pell Street towards Mott, we recount how the Chinese came to create a small enclave here at the western end of the Five Points neighborhood, the poorest part of New York City at the time. In the 1830s and 1840s, recent Irish immigrants mixed with newly freed slaves and other “unlucky ones”. For most of the 19th century and into the 20th century, it had the worst housing, the worst sanitation, and the most lax enforcement of laws designed to protect the most vulnerable.
It was also still a tourist destination. Wealthy New Yorkers and tourists knew they could take advantage of the desperate men and women who had no choice but to sell drugs and their bodies in the ramshackle flophouses, beer halls and brothels that lined the crowded and fetid streets. With regular payments, the police and politicians in Tammany Hall turned a blind eye to all sorts of vices.
It was the original destination of the term “slumming”, to go to the slums for illicit entertainment. This is where the Chinese were allowed and could afford to settle.
Today, a number of buildings are still erected before the New York State Building Act of 1901 mandated indoor plumbing and at least one window in every room that could open to fresh air and in the light. Even the many buildings in the neighborhood built between 1910 and 1920 in which Chinese immigrants lived have been neglected over time.
In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, garment workers complained about the lack of affordable child care. They were forced to take their young children to work in stores, amid lint dust, noisy and dangerous moving machinery, needles, scissors and other hazards. Or they could leave the children alone at home. In these buildings, unsupervised children have been known to fall down broken stairs, through windows, and into elevator shafts, sometimes to their deaths.
On Mott Street we pass the Catholic Church of the Transfiguration which held union-sponsored English classes for Chinese immigrants as early as the late 1960s and opened for union planning meetings around the strike of 1982. At 26 Mott Street, at the top of Mosco Street, stands a fifth-generation owned china shop called Wing on Wo & Co which has been around since 1925.
Daniel Katz teaches history at the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies. He is the author of All different together: Yiddish socialists, garment workers and the working-class roots of multiculturalism.