NEW YORK’S EXOTIC CHINATOWN (Oct, 1952)
NEW YORK’S EXOTIC CHINATOWN
You’ll find the excitement of another world in the famous domain ruled by the tongs by Herbert Asbury
ON the way to Chinatown from mid-town New York, the sight-seeing bus turned into the Bowery, and the guide said: “We are now entering what I have nicknamed the ‘Street of Forgotten Men,’ the home of the famous Bowery bum. It’s late in the day, but if you’ll look close you may see a bum sleeping off last night’s drunk on the sidewalk. If you spot one call out, so we can all see.”
The tourists peered eagerly from the windows, and presently a woman cried, as proud as if she’d found a four-leaf clover: “There’s one!”
And sure enough, there he was, asprawl against a lamppost. Everybody stared, and the bus buzzed with such excitement that scarcely any attention was paid to two of the real sights of the Bowery—Olliffe’s Drug Store, which has been in business at the same location for 146 years and is probably the only place in New York where leeches and slippery elm may be purchased; and an old-time barbershop and tattoo parlor, with a big eye painted on the window and underneath it the legend, “Black Eyes Treated.” Finally, the bus rolled to a stop in Chatham Square and the tourists got out and clustered about the guide.
“Now,” he said, “we’re going into Chinatown. Keep close together, walk in the middle of the street, and don’t speak to anybody.” “Is it dangerous?” asked a woman.
“Well,” said the guide, “I wouldn’t exactly say it’s dangerous, but I will say that people have got separated from friends down here and have never been seen again!”
Having prodded his charges into a properly apprehensive frame of mind—needlessly so, because actually a trip through Chinatown is about as dangerous as a tour of St. Patrick’s Cathedral—the guide led them on a forty-five-minute jaunt through the three principal streets of the quarter—Doyers, Pell and Mott. In his haste to get started the guide overlooked a noted landmark—an old building at Chatham Square and Doyers Street where, according to Chinatown legend, a member of the Doyer family buried $35,000,000 in gold about the time of the American Revolution. It is now occupied by the Harbor Inn Bar and Grill, where the chief bartender is a lady affectionately known to the derelicts of the Bowery as Miss Mag. When a curious visitor asked Miss Mag how she happened to become a bartender, she replied: “Well, my husband’s an alcoholic, and 1 guess I just drifted into it.”
The tourists stopped at No. 5 Doyers Street to inspect the mission of the New York Rescue Society, which once housed a famous Chinese theater; to look at the vacant lot across the street, site of the old Chatham Club, where Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante started their careers some forty years ago, and where Irving Berlin appeared when he could get away from his regular job as a singing waiter in Nigger Mike Salter’s saloon and cabaret in Pell Street; and to hear the story of Barney Flynn, who in the old days ran a fragrant dive a few doors from the Chatham. The only hard liquor served in Flynn’s place was Irish whisky, and on St. Patrick’s Day he kept open house, with free drinks to all comers. Once he ordered a full-length portrait of George Washington for his back bar, but refused to pay for it until the artist had painted six dead Englishmen lying at the first President’s feet.
From the Rescue Mission the way led around the Bloody Angle of Doyers Street, a sharp turn which has been the scene of more murders than any other place in New York. An arcade, lined with saloons, cabarets and shops, used to run from Doyers Street to Mott Street, but it was closed by the police during the tong wars of the early 1900’s. It provided a perfect way of escape for the tong killers who lay in wait for their victims and chopped them down with hatchet and snickersnee as they came around the Bloody Angle. The hatchet man and the highbinder have been extinct for about twenty-five years; nevertheless, some of the tourists cast fearsome glances over their shoulders as they hurried through Doyers Street into Pell Street, and down Pell half a block for a visit to the joss house, or temple, in the building of the Hip Sing Tong. There they sat on hard benches while the voice of an unseen priestess, via loud-speaker, described the joss, the prayer and fortune papers, and the temple dragon, made of cloth and papier mache, which is brought out to participate in the parades that are a spectacular part of life in the quarter. The dragon’s last public appearance was on January 27th, the Chinese New Year, when a great celebration ushered in the Year of the Dragon, by Chinese figuring No. 4650. The priestess also called attention to the curio shop in the back room of the temple, and for a little while a lively business was done in chopsticks and back scratches, still the most popular souvenirs of a trip to Chinatown.
The last lap of the tour was up Pell Street into Mott Street—the principal thoroughfare of Chinatown—and down Mott to the bus at Chatham Square. There was a stop at a curio store, and a brief halt in front of Post Office Station No. 233, which may well be, as the guide described it, the smallest post office in the world; the space for customers is about four by seven feet. A room behind the post office is the temple of Chinatown’s oldest joss; it has been in existence, at various locations, for more than seventy-five years. A few old men still visit it to learn their fortunes and to worship according to their ancient habit.
An old sign, which for half a century has advertised the joss for the benefit of tourists, now hangs, incongruously, above the door of the United States Post Office: Joss House Chinese Fortunes Entertained By Chinese Maidens On such a whirlwind tour, of course, the tourist sees very little of the real Chinatown. To absorb the full flavor of the quarter he must wander about, browse in the shops and the grocery stores, feast in the restaurants and talk to the people, whom he will find courteous but reserved. However, if the tourist’s time is limited, a sight-seeing tour is well worth taking; it will give him a good introduction to the district, and he will be entertained by a lively commentary on the history of Chinatown and the manners and customs of its inhabitants. The patter of the guides, who are licensed by the city and are required to pass an examination, is astonishingly accurate and free of nonsense, especially as recited by such old-timers as Joe Bernard and George Wirsing, who have been riding the busses of the Manhattan Sightseeing Bus Tours, Inc. for many years.
In the old days tourists came into the district unescorted, and were shown around by resident guides, called lobbygows, who were always liars and generally thieves or worse. They worked in cahoots with the low saloons and cabarets (all owned by white men) with which Chinatown was liberally sprinkled, and in which tourists were often robbed. The lobbygows also ran fake gambling houses and opium-smoking dens, and the tourist paid from one to five dollars to see three or four Chinese playing checkers at a battered table, or lolling on cots smoking aromatic leaves. Al one time Chuck Connors, so-called King of the Lobbygows, had four such resorts in profitable operation. Not an ounce of opium was ever smoked in any of them.
Forty or fifty years ago the use of opium was a great deal more prevalent among the Chinese in New York than it is now, and there were many places where an addict could hit the pipe. But these dives were hidden away in cellars or on the top floors of tenements, and were not open to the tourist. The largest was in the cellar of the Chinese theater, where thirty-odd bunks swung from iron hooks imbedded in the stonewalls. It was run for several years by Bridgie Webber, a gambler and gang leader who was a key witness in the famous Becker-Rosenthal murder case in 1912. Today there are no cabarets in Chinatown, and no gambling houses or opium dens—at least as far as the police know. Some of the restaurants have bars, but the only real saloon is Miss Mag’s Harbor Inn Bar and Grill.
Because there is nothing to attract them, the bums and homeless men of the Bowery are seldom seen in Chinatown except in Doyers Street, where they seek shelter at the Rescue Mission or, if they have a little money, lodging at the Grand Windsor Hotel for Men Only, which occupies four floors above the Mission. Of its kind, the Grand Windsor is a de luxe establishment. Its floor space is divided by flimsy partitions into some 300 cubicles, each about four feet by seven feet and containing a cot and a chair. Blankets and sheets are provided, but an occasional lodger prefers to sleep in his clothing, with his shoes tied about his neck or wrapped in his overcoat—if he has one—to form a pillow. The partitions do not extend to the ceiling, and the tops of the cubicles are covered with chicken wire to discourage thievery. These compartments rent at from forty cents to fifty cents a night. The more expensive ones have an electric light.
The building which houses the Mission and the Grand Windsor has a unique place in the history of Chinatown. It’s a five-story brick structure; the first floor and cellar were built about 1800, the remaining four floors were added during the Civil War. In 1895, the cellar and the first floor, now occupied by the Rescue Society, were opened as an opium den and a theater, respectively. The theater was the first Chinese playhouse east of San Francisco, and by current standards was sumptuous; a few of the seats were fitted with cushions, and the walls were covered by murals depicting dragon fighting and the trials and tribulations of virtue. These paintings were said to have been stolen from an ancient Chinese temple and smuggled into New York, and were generally regarded, by white men, as masterpieces of Oriental art. Actually, they were the work of the janitor, Chin Yin by name, who did the job for thirty-five dollars. They were painted over many years ago, when the auditorium was dedicated as a Christian chapel.
So popular did the theater become that the management was able to import, from Canton, two of China’s most celebrated actors, the tragedian Horn Ling and the comedian Ah Hoon. After a decade of profitable operation the enterprise fell upon evil days during the tong wars. Several men were slaughtered during performances, and Ah Hoon himself, a member of the On Leong Tong, was killed because he interpolated into his act certain biting witticisms ridiculing the Hip Sings and the Four Brothers, both enemies of the On Leongs. The Hip Sings tricked Ah Hoon’s guards by lowering a gunman in a boatswain’s chair from the roof of the comedian’s boardinghouse in Chatham Square. He shot Ah Hoon through a window. There were half a dozen shooting and stabbing affrays on the streets of Chinatown next day, and two Hip Sings were killed. On New Year’s night, 1910, while Horn Ling was ranting before a packed house, a string of lighted firecrackers was thrown into the orchestra. Under cover of the explosions, five On Leongs were shot dead in their seats.
The theater was closed within a week, and after several white men had tried unsuccessfully to convert it into a movie house it was taken over in August, 1910, by the Rescue Society, which opened a mission with Tom Noonan, a famous reformed man, as superintendent. Noonan died in 1935, and in 1942 was succeeded by Rev. Howard Wade Kimsey, a well-known revival and radio singer. Mr. Kimsey, an ordained minister of the Disciples of Christ, is also a small-arms expert, and can fan a revolver from the hip in the manner of the old-time Western desperado. The Mission does no work among the Chinese, but takes care of from 100 to 400 derelicts from the Bowery every night; they are fed coffee, stew, bread and sometimes pie, at six o’clock, after which they listen to a religious service, revivalist in character, and are permitted to sleep on the benches in the auditorium and in the cellar. Half a dozen a year die in their sleep. If the bums are hopelessly drunk when they appear in the bread line, they are asked to walk around long enough to sober up a little; if they are lousy, a condition which is easily determined, they are sent to the Municipal Lodging House. The Mission has no delousing equipment, and a louse is a notoriously restless insect. In the morning the bums get coffee and two or three slices of raisin bread, and are outfitted with whatever clothing they need—if it is available. Then they are turned out to drag through another day. Since nearly all are alcoholics, they spend their time in a never-ending search for liquor, and will sell or trade anything they possess for a drink. For this reason the Mission doesn’t try to keep the moths away from the piles of castoff clothing in the cellar.
“A garment with a few moth holes in it will keep a man warm,” said Mr. Kimsey, “but he can’t sell it to buy booze.”
Chinatown is not as glamorous or exciting as it was at the turn of the century, when most of the men wore their hair in pigtails, women could occasionally be seen teetering along on tiny feet deformed by the ancient custom of binding, and the air was sometimes heavy with the fumes of opium. But it is still one of the most colorful areas of New York, and has never lost its appeal for tourists, although in recent years authors of guidebooks have developed a curious compulsion to debunk the quarter by describing it as squalid. It’s all that—the city authorities class it as one of the worst slum areas in the metropolis—but it is also a place of extraordinary interest to white people who still look upon a Chinese as a strange and incomprehensible creature. A dozen sight-seeing companies run daily bus tours into Chinatown, and during the summer months several make as many as eight trips a day. Chinese merchants estimate that 500,000 visitors come to the district every year, half of them brought by the sight-seeing busses. The only place that keeps records is the Rescue Mission, where the guides register each trip. According to these figures, 250,000 persons visited the Mission in 1950, and 220,000 in 1951. These were no better than normal years.
Despite the inroads of Americanization, symbolized by the ubiquitous cola, hot dogs and hamburgers sold in many Chinese lunch rooms, the quarter has retained its foreign atmosphere to a greater extent than any other racial settlement in New York. The buildings are typical New York tenements, old and dingy, but many have been gaily decorated in the Chinese style and tricked out with pagodas and other architectural doodads which flare out at unexpected angles. When the Chinese build, as in the new national headquarters of the On LeongTong, constructed at Mott and Canal Streets two years ago at a cost of more than $500,000, they combine Eastern and Western architecture to produce an effect which is always different and sometimes startling. The On Leong building, which is the current pride of Chinatown, was formally opened in mid-November, 1950, with a dragon parade and a grand celebration in which thousands of firecrackers were shot off. It was ready for occupancy a month before, but the omens set forth in the lunar almanac, or Good Luck Calendar, according to which many Chinese conduct their affairs, indicated plainly that an October opening would be disastrous.
The windows of the curio and souvenir shops which flourish by the score in Chinatown are ablaze with gaudy gimcracks and gewgaws, but inside the discriminating buyer can also find jewelry, textiles, fine jades, furniture and ceramics of high quality and, on the whole, reasonably priced. The liquor stores purvey a wide variety of Chinese wines, most of which are about as strong as brandy and should be handled with respect. They will give the white man what radio announcers describe as “a new taste sensation”; his taste buds will generally quiver with pleasure at the first contact with such exotic vintages as Rose Wine, with its delicate suggestion of rose petals; The Five Companies Wine, sometimes called Chinese Dynamite, which is strongly flavored with spices; and Tiger Bone Wine, strong and pungent. Pear Wine and Orange Wine, flavored with those fruits, are milder, more like our cordials.
Many of the staples found in any supermarket are carried in stock by the Chinese groceries, but their principal business is in foodstuffs peculiar to the Chinese—shark fins, dried squid (the Italians buy most of this), hairy melon, winter melon, bean curd, bean sprouts, snow peas (small and tender and to be cooked in the pod), bird’s nest, lotus root, canned dragon-eye nuts, sesame seed, lichee nuts, water chestnuts, and bamboo shoots, canned and pickled. Some of the canned goods are imported, but the vegetables are grown by Chinese truck farmers in New Jersey, Long Island and Florida. Most of them are easily adapted to American use; for instance, bean sprouts, chilled, are delicious in salads The Chinese use very little beef, but they eat large quantities of pork, chicken, duck and fish. They are also large consumers of a famous American delicacy—diamond-back terrapin. This handsome little reptile is not only delicious in soups and stews but is especially recommended as an internal lubricant for the creaky joints of the aged. The old Chinese who can afford to eat terrapin occasionally, and who has in his medicine chest a bit of dried sea horse and a couple of dried lizards, feels that his health problems are well cared for. Dried sea horse is very expensive, about $160 a pound, but a tiny pinch is said to dispel immediately the most severe headache; while dried lizard, at a little more than a dollar a pair, is used to combat internal disorders.
All of the food served in Chinatown is cooked Cantonese or South China style; as far as diligent search could discover, there is no place in New York where Mandarin or North China food can be obtained. In most of the restaurants the menus list family dinners, and dinners for two, four, six, and so forth, with a choice of several dishes. Tourists have learned that it is smart for each member of a party to order a different dish, thus assuring variety. Since Chinatown restaurateurs do not waste money in lush decorations, elegant service, orchestras, floor shows and other fripperies, a good dinner in the quarter is considerably cheaper than a French or American meal of similar quality. Many of the Chinese eating houses have been in business at the same locations for many years, and are still using the same decorations, tables, chairs, dishes, and in some cases the same napery and cutlery, with which they started. The food is almost precisely the same; the Chinese cuisine was pretty well established a thousand years ago.
There are a number of restaurants in Chinatown; some are very poor, and some are very good. In a few the tourist trade is discouraged, and only Chinese customers receive the best in food and service. In many, notably Tung-Sai, at Park and Mulberry Streets, Hang Far Low, in Pell Street, and the Port Arthur and the Chinese Rathskeller, in Mott Street, the food is superlative. Tung-Sai, which is housed in a building that in prohibition times was occupied by Papa Minetti’s famous speakeasy, is a newcomer by Chinatown standards. It was opened in 1942 by Shavey Lee, who runs an insurance agency and other enterprises, and is also the unofficial mayor of Chinatown, which means that he is a sort of godfather to the district and the man to whom everybody brings his troubles. The Port Arthur is the oldest restaurant in the quarter; it was opened in 1904 by members of the Ho family which still owns it. Many famous feasts have been held at the Port Arthur; old-timers in Chinatown still like to talk about the great banquet given there in 1906 to celebrate the signing of a truce by the Hip Sing and On Leong tongs. The chefs worked for days to prepare the scores of dishes, and the guests ate steadily for hour after hour. In honor of the occasion Tom Lee, chief of the On Leongs, mayor of Chinatown, deputy sheriff of New York County, and protector of the gambling houses, drank 107 mugs of rice wine—and then walked home, leaning only a little heavier than usual on the shoulders of his two bodyguards. Incidentally, the truce lasted just two days, about as long as Tom Lee’s hangover.
The tongs which waged violent warfare in the streets of Chinatown for some twenty-five years were largely responsible for the quarter’s reputation as a wicked and dangerous place. In the old days these organizations were little more than rackets, principally concerned with gambling, opium and slave girls. To protect their operations, and to enforce their edicts, they employed “salaried soldiers,” or professional killers, and recruited bands of boo how doy, or fighting men, from among their own members. Like chop suey, the tong is of American origin; the first was organized about 1860 in the California gold fields near Marysville. They spread rapidly, and within a decade dominated every Chinese settlement in the United States. The On Leongs were the first to gain a foothold in New York, and for almost fifteen years held a virtual monopoly of Chinatown’s underworld activities. In the late 1890’s, under the leadership of Tom Lee, they controlled 200 gambling houses and almost as many opium-smoking dens, from each of which the police collected an average of $17.50 a week for protection.
The Hip Sings ran a few small fan-tan games, but were not much of a menace to the On Leongs until about 1900, when Mock Duck, a fat, moon-faced little man and a fighter of great courage and resource, ousted one Wong Get from the leadership of the tong. Under the new command, the Hip Sings expanded, and Mock Duck soon felt strong enough to demand an equal share of the gambling privileges. When the On Leongs laughed at his presumptuousness, Mock Duck formed an alliance with a small tong called the Four Brothers and declared war.
With the aid of his boo how doy, whom he led in person, and salaried soldiers imported from San Francisco, Mock Duck succeeded in driving the On Leongs from Pell Street. For several years Doyers Street was a neutral area and a favorite battleground; it became Hip Sing territory when the closing of the arcade isolated it from Mott Street. When Mock Duck retired and left Chinatown in 1918, the Hip Sings were at least as powerful as the On Leongs. The Four Brothers, and a few other small tongs which had tried to muscle into Chinatown, had been frozen out.
Nearly all of the tong wars were the result of disputes over the gambling houses, but the most sanguinary of all, the great war of 1909-1910 in which the comedian Ah Hoon was killed, was fought over a slave girl named Bow Kum, or Little Sweet Flower. Bow Kum had been purchased for $3000 in the San Francisco slave market by Low Hee Tong, a high official of the Hip Sings, but he neglected to marry her, and after he had lived with her for four years she was “rescued” by the San Francisco police and placed in a Christian mission. Tchin Len, a member of the On Leong Tong, married her and brought her to New York, ‘whereupon Low Hee Tong made a formal demand for the repayment of the $3000 which the girl had cost him. Tchin Len refused to pay, and was upheld by the supreme council of the On Leongs. The Hip Sings immediately raised the red flag of the highbinder atop their tong house in Pell Street, and the salaried soldiers and the boo how doy oiled their pistols and their shirts of chain mail and sharpened their knives and hatchets. On August 15, 1909, Bow Kum was stabbed to death in Tchin Len’s house at No. 17 Mott Street, and a few days later a boardinghouse in which several Hip Sing soldiers were lodged was dynamited. The war continued until late in 1910, when a truce was arranged by a committee of forty prominent Chinese appointed by the Chinese Minister in Washington. Fifty men had been killed, several times that number wounded, and much property destroyed by bombs.
The last of the tong flareups occurred in 1924, but only a few men were killed in Chinatown; most of the victims were Chinese who had migrated to Brooklyn and the Bronx. Since then the tongs have lived in peace. They dominate the business and social life of Chinatown, as they did fifty years ago, and the Hip Sings are still supreme in Pell and Doyers Streets and the On Leongs in Mott and Bayard Streets. But their aims and methods have undergone radical changes. The tongs have been transformed into civic and mutual benefit associations akin to Kiwanis and Rotary; they co-operate with each other, and with the American Legion, the churches, the missions, and other groups, in all movements for the welfare of their members and of Chinatown in general. Two years ago the On Leong Tong transferred its old building in Mott Street to the Roman Catholic Church of the Transfiguration, for a school and social center for the foreign-born. As a result of all this good will, Chinatown has become one of the most orderly and law-abiding communities in New York. The police say they never have any trouble in the district except when white hoodlums come in and start it.
The first Chinese to settle in the area now known as Chinatown was a Cantonese named Ah Ken, who moved into Mott Street in 1858 and opened a tobacco store in Park Row, a few blocks away. Ten years later Wah Kee took over the building at No. 13 Pell Street and started a curio and grocery store, with facilities upstairs for gambling and opium smoking. Other Chinese followed, and by the middle 1890’s the original settlers, the Germans and the Irish, had been driven out and the district had become, as it is today, the second largest concentration of Chinese in the United States—only San Francisco’s Chinatown is bigger. Approximately 10,000 Chinese are crowded into a few blocks on Doyers, Pell, Mott and Bayard Streets, with an overflow in Canal, Park, Worth and Mulberry Streets and the Bowery. About 80 per cent are single men of an average age of fifty-one years, many of whom still have wives and children in China. The population of the quarter is doubled on week ends, when Chinese from New Jersey, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Long Island and Connecticut flock into Chinatown to visit friends and relatives. They spend the long days gossiping, playing fan-tan and mah-jongg, and sipping innumerable cups of tea. Much of the talk has to do with China politics, and of the great day when a new revolution will overturn the regime of Mao Tse-Tung, for Chinatown is 99 per cent anti-Communist.
Few of New York’s Chinese go to church, either on week ends or at other times; both Protestants and Catholics have been trying to Christianize Chinatown for many years, but their success has not been overwhelming. The Chinese are not easy to convert. Though most of them have never seen China, they cling tenaciously to a culture that was ancient when the white man was a savage. All of them, including the children, speak Chinese, and many of the old men speak nothing else. Miss Mary Banta, who has been working in Chinatown for forty-five years and is now in charge of the missionary activities of the True Light Chinese Lutheran Church in Worth Street, says that not more than one third of the Chinese in the quarter are Christians.
There are wealthy Chinese, merchants and importers in New York, and Chinese doctors and lawyers whose incomes compare favorably with those of their white colleagues, but the vast majority of the people who live in Chinatown are poor, with an average wage of about forty dollars a week. For the most part they live in cold-water flats.
Herman T. Stichman, State Housing Commissioner, has recently put forth a plan to raze Chinatown and replace it with a public-housing project to be called China Village, with the usual tall apartment buildings and a fringe area devoted to shops, restaurants, a museum and other enterprises which will preserve the character of the district. The architecture of all the buildings would be modified Chinese. Many prominent Chinese businessmen favor the plan, but at least as many oppose it, among them Shavey Lee, who exerts considerable influence throughout the quarter.
The project is violently opposed by Robert Moses, New York City Construction Coordinator, who de- scribed the plan as “celestial promises” and “a slip of the tong.” Mr. Lee and others have pointed out that under the New York state laws public housing cannot be restricted to any nationality or race, and that there would be no way of assuring that the Chinese who moved out of Chinatown would be able to return to China Village. One result might be a brand-new Chinatown without any Chinese.