New York Icons: Chinatown
& Two Bridges
The largest largest concentration of Chinese in the Western Hemisphere and second-largest Chinatown (by population) in America after San Francisco, which served as the main entry point for tens of thousands seeking their fortune in the Gold Rush of 1848. Following the end of the transcontinental railroad a rising anti-Chinese sentiment and The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (the first racially-based US legislation prohibiting Chinese labor immigration) forced many east to New York and led to closed communities.
The original Manhattan Chinatown grew around a small boarding house and smoke shop on lower Mott St in the 1850s. Early workers sold cheap cigars (“cigar men”) or carried billboards. By 1900 the area was sprawling with nightclubs, music theaters, dance halls and gambling or opium dens — with an estimated ratio of men to women at 200 to 1! A Chinese woman was a rare sight and those who did make it to America were often sponsored to perform at exotic Chinese theaters.
A self-contained community confined to six streets and run by Chinese gangs called Tongs — formed to protect against Five Points gangs before transforming into gangs themselves. Tong members would wait in full regalia (including medieval chain mail) and hatchet victims before escaping through numerous underground passageways — giving rise to the term “hatchet man.”
In 1834, the first Chinese woman in America arrived in the city as part of an exhibition the public would pay to see. In 1873, the first Chinese real-estate was purchased as a way to protect from racial-based eviction. By 1885, just nine years after the first opening there were over a thousand Chinese laundromats throughout the region. In 1896, there were a reported 25 thousand opium users in the city (legal until 1914). In 1965, lampposts were outfitted to resemble Chinese lanterns and in the 1970s phone booths were capped with pagoda decorations. Houses are mostly tenements and the original Cantonese-speaking population (referred to as “Little Hong Kong”) has seen a large influx of Fuzhou residents — giving rise to “Little Fuzhou.” Other Chinatowns in Queens and Brooklyn.
* Asterisk denotes a place I haven’t yet visited properly.
Considered part of the Lower East Side for much of its history, the neighborhood has two sections — the area between Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges that borders Chinatown, and the area bordering Lower East Side. Setting of the television series Flight of the Conchords.
Bowery. №37 was the Bowery Amphitheater (1833) specializing in populist entertainment such as equestrian shows, circuses and mistrel shows — shows that mocked people, specifically of African descent. №46 was the Bowery Theatre (1820s), which was the largest auditorium (3,500 seats) in the US at the time but burnt down four times in 17 years, was stormed during the Farren Riots of 1834, and destroyed for good in 1929; defined conventions with working-class productions (earning it the nickname “The Slaughterhouse”), gas lighting, a production with 43 consecutive performances (1833, unheard of at the time), and one production with a live elephant (1831)!
Doyers St stretches only 100 yards and is one of the few curved streets in the city. Nicknamed the “bloody angle” during the Tong Wars of the early twentieth century, it was perfect for ambushes and was the most dangerous spot (the most murders) in all of America! Above a network of escape tunnels, which still exist today.
Cnr. Catherine St and East Broadway was Manhattan’s first Chinese laundromat (very first was the Ching Lee Laundry in New Jersey, which opened in 1876).
Canal St was built in 1821 over the canal used to drain Collect Pond.
East Broadway was Chatham St until 1831 — and ran from it’s namesake square to the Lower East Side.
№7 Mott St was Port Arthur Restaurant (the English name for the Chinese port city of Lüshun), which opened in 1897 and ran for over 85 years. It was one of the first Chinese banquet halls and the first Chinese restaurant with a liquor license. №11 is a former brothel. №16 was the original home of the CCBA (currently located at №62). №18 was the first Chinese-owned building and one of the earliest Chinese gambling dens. №32 was Quong Yuen Shing & Company General Store, the oldest (opened 1891) operating store in Chinatown before closing in 2003. №41 is the only remaining pagoda roof in Chinatown. №65 was the first tenement built in America (1824). Location of the city’s first public bathhouse (1852).
№9 East Broadway was once Golden Star Bar, which in 1982 was the scene of a gang shooting killing three people.
№9 Centre Market Place was once (closed 1909) Centre Market Place People’s Baths, a forerunner to public baths.
№11 and №13 Pell St are former gang hideouts and opium dens. The street was nicknamed “Haircut Row” after the many barbershops.
№21 Baxter St was home to The Baxter Street Dudes — a 1870s teenage street gang that ran Grand Duke’s Theatre with stolen and salvaged equipment.
№25 Oliver St was home to the Five Points “eminent son” — a popular politician and the first Catholic to be nominated for President, Alfred Smith.
№51 Market St is the historic 1825 William and Rosamond Clark House.
№62 Cherry St was Ah Sue’s Tobacco and Chinese Candy Shop — the first Chinese-run store and boardinghouse in the city by the first Chinese settler.
№67 Orange St was Almack’s Dance Hall (also known as Pete William’s Place), owned by an African-American and influential to the development of tap and step dancing. In 1842, Charles Dickens wrote that the only redeeming aspect he found in the Five Points was here watching a young African-American dancer named Master Juba.
Former Chinese theaters include Sun-Sing Theater and Pagoda Theater on East Broadway, Governor Theater on Chatham Square, Rosemary Theater on Canal St, and the Music Palace on Bowery — the final theater to close.
Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA)
Represents the interests of some five dozen cultural organizations and “family associations” — which for decades provided stability and order as Chinatown’s government and village council. They collectively own and rent around 60 buildings purchased in the 1960s and 1970s, but almost impossible to sell due to the dozens of shared owners.
First Shearith Israel Graveyard (1683)
Also called the Chatham Square Cemetery, it is the only remaining 17th century structure in Manhattan and the oldest Jewish cemetery in the US. A small fraction of the original cemetery remains with access by appointment only.
The first Jewish community arrived from Brazil having escaped the Portuguese Inquisition, capture by Spanish pirates, and rescue by a French privateer! The only Jewish congregation in New York for nearly 200 years, it’s initial petition for a cemetery was denied on the grounds that nobody had died yet!
Edward Mooney House (1789)
The oldest building in Chinatown and one of the few remaining 18th Century buildings in Manhattan and oldest townhouse in New York — having survived the Great Fire of 1835. A tavern, hotel, pool parlor, restaurant, Chinese club and currently a bank.
Church of the Transfiguration* (1801, rebuilt 1815)
The third-oldest church in Manhattan that served the huge Irish population of the Five Points, which became the second-largest Irish city after Dublin! Currently serves a Chinese congregation in English, Cantonese and Mandarin. Once bought up most of Mott St and evicted all the Chinese residents!
Sea and Land Church (1819)
The Northeast Dutch Reformed Church until 1864, it is the second-oldest church building in New York City.
Chatham Square (1820)
Named after the Earl of Chatham, it contains the Kimlau Memorial Arch (1962) dedicated to Chinese-Americans who died during WWII — and a statue of Lin Zexu (1997), a Fujianese politician who fought the opium trade in China.
Had an elevated railway during the 1880s. №5 Chatham Square is the site of the former Chatham (Governor) Theatre — a cinema that ran from 1914 to 1971. The square also contains an underground tunnel entrance used by the Tongs, which led to Doyers St and now contains businesses.
St. James’ Roman Catholic Church (1837)
The second-oldest Roman Catholic building in the city (after St. Peter’s). In 1836, an Irish fraternity called the Ancient Order of Hibernians was established in the then unfinished church. Closed in 1983, scheduled to be demolished in 1986, saved but severely damaged by fire in 2011.
Mariner’s Temple* (1845)
Originally the Oliver Street Baptist Church established in 1795.
Columbus Park (1896)
Formerly Mulberry Bend Park, Five Points Park and Paradise Park. Chinatown’s only park created by Jacob Riis in at attempt to clean up the Five Points by razing many tenements — in particular, Mulberry Bend, a red light district described as the “foul core of New York’s slums” and featuring alleyways such as “Bandit’s Roost”, “Bottle Alley,” and “Ragpickers Row” (located at 59½ Baxter St). A few tenement buildings still exist at 48–50 Mulberry St.
“The Old Brewery was a five-story building, old and dilapidated. Along one wall an alley led to a single large room in which more than seventy-five men and women of assorted nationalities and races lived together. This was the Den Of Thieves. The name was appropriate. Along the other wall ran another filthy lane called Murderer’s Alley worse than the first. Upstairs there were about 75 other chambers, housing more than 1,000 people…men, women and children. The section was a warren, with underground passages and murderous cul-de-sacs, into which the police dared venture only in large numbers, for the Old Brewery for a period of more than fifteen years averaged a murder a night.” — Kenneth Dunshee
Convergence point for the five streets of the Five Points — the most dangerous slum during the 1830s through the Civil War era — a hub of gang warfare, violence, poverty and crime. Of the original five streets only three remain: Worth (formerly Anthony) St on the south, Baxter (formerly Orange) St on the west and Mosco (formerly Cross) St on the east. Featured in American Notes by Charles Dickens, which brought the terrible conditions of the Five Points to the attention of New Yorkers — where the middle and upper classes would “go slumming” to see for themselves! Portrayed in the film Gangs of New York and Jacob Riis’ book How the Other Half Lives.
Today a gathering place for the local Chinese community to play cards, mahjong, traditional music and practice early-morning Tai Chi. In 2013, a temporary statue honoring the leader of the 1911 Chinese Revolution was made permanent.
Manhattan Bridge (1909)
The last of the three suspension bridges spanning the East River, it employed deflection theory — a new concept at the time — to be lighter, cheaper, and quicker to construct. On New Year’s Eve, in his last official act a small cavalcade containing Mayor George B. McCellan Jr. made the first journey across the unfinished bridge.
The entrance arch and colonnade was added in 1915 and is modeled on the arch of Porte St-Denis in Paris; it was restored in 2000. The original pedestrian path was closed for forty years (reopened 2001) and the dedicated bicycle path opened in 2004. Before upgrades in 1956 railway tracks on the outer part of the bridge caused the bridge to undulate up to 6 feet causing severe damage. Two statues on the Brooklyn side were relocated to the Brooklyn Museum in the 1960s.
Featured in the painting Manhattan Bridge Loop (Edward Hopper) and films The Lonely Guy, Once Upon a Time in America, Batman Forever (Two-Face’s lair), King Kong (remake), I Am Legend, The Taking of Pelham 123 and The Dark Knight Rises.
Nom Wah Tea Parlor (1920)
Chinatown’s oldest Dim Sum (also known as Yum Cha) restaurant and the first to serve dinner (normally ends at 2pm), have wine pairings, and host promotional parties (Vogue, Nike). A balance of tradition and innovation.
Citizens Savings Bank (1924)
Former Citizens Saving Bank featuring a dome above four colossal arches — each emblazoned with a single word (“Wisdom,” “Safety,” “Thrift,” and “Success”). Above the entrance is a clock (broken) inlaid in a sculpture of the Seal of New York. Currently a HSBC — the successor to Citizens Savings.
Wing On Wo & Co. (1890, relocated 1925)
The oldest surviving shop in Chinatown was originally a general store, but shifted to focus on porcelain before transforming again in 2016 to the “W.O.W. Project” — a community space and coffee shop; with antiques secondary.
Knickerbocker Village Limited (1934)
Lower-middle class housing development with it’s own horticulturist who maintains the extensive courtyard gardens and grounds. Notable residents include Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted as Soviet spies and executed.
Wo Hop City* (1938)
One of the oldest existing restaurants targeting ABC (American Born Chinese) with Chinese-American food. A basement eatery open until 7am!
New York County Criminal Court (1941)
Also known as the Manhattan Criminal Court Building and designed by the same architects as Rockefeller Center and located next to the House of Detention, with inmates brought over via a suspended walkway known as “The Bridge.”
The inside features a hanging clock in the center of a two-story marble lobby and two grand staircases with ornamental railings. In contrast the courtrooms are made of simple wood and are open to the public for day or night court (until 1am!). Featured in the television shows Law and Order, The Good Wife and Suits.
The last old Italian restaurant below Canal Street is popular with the nearby courthouse and it’s common for defendants, prosecutors, lawyers, judges and event the district attorney to dine next to one another — although “we don’t move judges.” In the early years a betting ring was run from the bar, and a busboy went on to play Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos. Congressional Record on the wall honoring Frank Forlini for liberating a POW camp during WWII. Spaghetti and meatballs a hidden menu item.
Eastern States Buddhist Temple of America (1962)
The oldest Buddhist temple on the east coast of America is located in a small storefront with an elaborate altar towards the rear. Also features a wall of over a hundred small golden Buddhas.
Rutgers Houses (1965)
Public housing (five 20-story buildings) located on the former farmland of Henry Rutgers — captain in the Revolutionary War and last descendant of Dutch immigrants. Rutgers’ farm (or “Bouwery”) made up most of the Lower East Side around Chinatown.
Hop Kee Restaurant* (1968)
Formerly Tingyatsak (dating back as far as 1941), a traditional seafood-centered Cantonese restaurant located in a basement with fluorescent lighting, low ceilings, and waiters in blue butcher coats. Notable dishes include Chop Suey, Chow Mein, Lo Mein and Char Siu — plus a secret menu with more exotic dishes. Featured by Anthony Bourdain.
Confucius Plaza (1975)
One of the largest (44-story) buildings in downtown Manhattan outside of Financial District and the first major publicly-funded housing project built for Chinese-Americans. Contains a daycare center, shops and public school.
In 1976, a 15-foot bronze statue of Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, was placed out front to commemorate America’s bicentennial.
The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (1977)
One of the oldest businesses in Chinatown with unusual flavors such as durian, pandan, pumpkin pie and rainbow cookie.
Hoy Wong* (1978)
Another basement restaurant that claims to sell the best barbecue and roast pork in Chinatown. Order the roast duck and it is retrieved whole from the window and paraded by your table on its way to the kitchen!
Great N.Y. Noodletown (1981)
Late-night Cantonese restaurant that didn’t gain the “great” prefix until years later. Featured by Anthony Bourdain.
Manhattan Detention Complex (1983)
“The Tombs” resembling an Egyptian mausoleum are the latest in a series of jails in the Five Points neighborhood dating back to 1838. In the animated series Archer, Cyril mentions “spending the night in The Tombs, getting worked over by the cops.”
Jing Fong* (1978, relocated 1993)
Originally located at №24 Elizabeth Street, a premier Dim Sum (also known as Yum Cha) banquet hall spanning over 20,000 square feet. Atmosphere best on weekends.
Mahayana Buddhist Temple (1997)
Former adult movie theatre in the 1980-90s turned largest Buddhist temple in New York and home to the city’s largest Buddha statue.
Coleman Playground (renovated 2012)
“Coleman Oval” is a popular skatepark located beneath the Manhattan bridge that has hosted the X-Games and a Barbara Kruger exhibition.
Chinese Tuxedo* (2016)
Reboot of the original restaurant located at №2 Doyers now located in the old Chinese Theatre (also known as Chinese Opera House), which opened in 1893 and was the first Chinese language theatre in the city. The site also once concealed a mahjong den and tunnel stretching to Chatham Square — with bodies allegedly buried in the basement! In 1905, site of a Tong gang massacre (by a San Francisco transplant named Mock Dock) on what was considered neutral ground.