Chinatown, Manhattan

Manhattan's Chinatown (simplified Chinese: 纽约华埠 ; traditional Chinese: 紐約華埠; pinyin: Niŭyuē Huá Bù), home to one of the highest concentrations of Chinese people in the Western hemisphere, is located in the borough of Manhattan in New York City. Manhattan's Chinatown is one of the oldest ethnic Chinese enclaves outside of Asia.

Chinatown, Manhattan
Mott Street in Chinatown
Traditional Chinese 紐約華埠
Simplified Chinese 纽约华埠



A Chinese lion in the 2006 Chinese New Year on Mott Street near Worth

The borders of Chinatown are currently approximated as:


Ah Ken and early Chinese immigration

Scene from Chinese Theater performance, 1896

Although Quimbo Appo is claimed to have arrived in the area during the 1840s, the first Chinese person credited as having permanently immigrated to Chinatown was Ah Ken, a Cantonese businessman, who eventually founded a successful cigar store on Park Row.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9] He first arrived in New York around 1858 where he was "probably one of those Chinese mentioned in gossip of the sixties [1860s] as peddling 'awful' cigars at three cents apiece from little stands along the City Hall park fence – offering a paper spill and a tiny oil lamp as a lighter", according to author Alvin Harlow in Old Bowery Days: The Chronicles of a Famous Street (1931).[3]

Later immigrants would similarly find work as "cigar men" or carrying billboards and Ah Ken's particular success encouraged cigar makers William Longford, John Occoo and John Ava to also ply their trade in Chinatown eventually forming a monopoly on the cigar trade.[10] It has been speculated that he may have been Ah Ken who kept a small boarding house on lower Mott Street and rented out bunks to the first Chinese immigrants to arrive in Chinatown. It was with the profits he earned as a landlord, earning an average of $100 a month, that he was able to open his Park Row smoke shop around which modern-day Chinatown would grow.[1][5][11][12][13][14]

Chinese exclusion period

Faced with increasing discrimination and new laws which prevented participation in many occupations on the West Coast, some Chinese immigrants moved to the East Coast cities in search of employment. Early businesses in these cities included hand laundries and restaurants. Chinatown started on Mott Street, Park, Pell and Doyers streets, east of the notorious Five Points district. By 1870, there was a Chinese population of 200. By the time the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed, the population was up to 2,000 residents. By 1900, there were 7,000 Chinese residents, but fewer than 200 Chinese women.

Doyers Street depicted in an 1898 postcard

The early days of Chinatown were dominated by Chinese "tongs" (now sometimes rendered neutrally as "associations"), which were a mixture of clan associations, landsman's associations, political alliances (Kuomintang (Nationalists) vs Communist Party of China) and (more secretly) crime syndicates. The associations started to give protection from harassment due to anti-Chinese sentiment. Each of these associations was aligned with a street gang. The associations were a source of assistance to new immigrants – giving out loans, aiding in starting business, and so forth.

The associations formed a governing body named the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association(中華公所). Though this body was meant to foster relations between the Tongs, open warfare periodically flared between the On Leong (安良) and Hip Sing (協勝) tongs. Much of the Chinese gang warfare took place on Doyers street. Gangs like the Ghost Shadows (鬼影) and Flying Dragons (飛龍) were prevalent until the 1990s. The Chinese gangs controlled certain territories of Manhattan's Chinatown. The On Leong (安良) and it's affiliate Ghost Shadows (鬼影) were of Cantonese and Toishan descent controlled Mott, Bayard, Canal, and Mulberry Streets. The Flying Dragons (飛龍) and it's affiliation Hip Sing (協勝) also of Cantonese and Toishan descent controlled Doyers, Pell, Bowery, Grand, and Hester Streets. Other Chinese gangs also existed like the Hung Ching and Chih Kung gangs being of Cantonese and Toishan descent, which were affiliated with each other also had control of Mott Street. Born-to-Kill or known as Canal Boys being of Vietnamese and Chinese descent had control over Broadway, Canal, Baxter, Center, and Lafeyette Streets. Fujianese gangs also existed such as the Tung On gang, which affiliated with Tsung Tsin had control over East Broadway, Catherine and Division Streets and the Fuk Ching gang affiliated with Fukien American controlled East Broadway, Chrystie, Forsyth, Eldridge and Allen Streets. At one point, a gang named the Freemasons gang, which were Cantonese descent had attempted to claim East Broadway as their territory.[15][16][17][18]

The only park in Chinatown, Columbus Park, was built on what was once the center of the infamous Five Points neighborhood of New York. During the 19th century, this was the most dangerous slum area of immigrant New York (as portrayed in the book and film Gangs of New York).

Post-immigration reform

In the years after the United States enacted the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, allowing many more immigrants from Asia into the country, the population of Chinatown exploded. Geographically, much of the growth was to neighborhoods to the north. In the 1990s, Chinese people began to move into some parts of the western Lower East Side, which 50 years earlier was populated by Eastern European Jews and 20 years earlier was occupied by Hispanics.

Pell Street looking toward Confucius Plaza

Chinatown was adversely affected by the September 11, 2001 attacks. Being so physically close to Ground Zero, tourism and business has been very slow to return to the area. Part of the reason was the New York City Police Department closure of Park Row – one of two major roads linking the Financial Center with Chinatown.

By 2007 luxury condominiums began to spread from Soho into Chinatown. Previously Chinatown was noted for its crowded tenements and primarily Chinese residents. While some projects have targeted the Chinese community, the development of luxury housing has increased Chinatown's economic and cultural diversity.[19]

Currently, the rising prices of Manhattan real estate and high rents are also affecting Chinatown. Many new and poorer Chinese immigrants cannot afford their rents; as a result, growth has slowed, and a process of relocation to the Flushing Chinatown and Brooklyn Chinatown has started. Many apartments, particularly in the Lower East Side and Little Italy, which used to be affordable to new Chinese immigrants, are being renovated and then sold or rented at much higher prices. Building owners, many of them established Chinese-Americans, often find it in their best interest to terminate leases of lower-income residents with stabilized rents as property values rise.

By 2009 many newer Chinese immigrants settled along East Broadway instead of the historic core west of the Bowery. In addition Mandarin began to eclipse Cantonese as the predominant Chinese dialect in New York's Chinatown during the period. The New York Times says that the Flushing Chinatown now rivals Manhattan's Chinatown in terms of being a cultural center for Chinese-speaking New Yorkers' politics and trade.[20]


A Chinatown grocer

Chinese green-grocers and fishmongers are clustered around Mott Street, Mulberry Street, Canal Street (by Baxter Street) and all along East Broadway (especially by Catherine Street). The Chinese jewelry shop district is on Canal Street between Mott and Bowery. Due to the high savings rate among Chinese, there are many Asian and American banks in the neighborhood. Canal Street, west of Broadway (especially on the North side), is filled with street vendors selling imitation perfumes, watches, and hand-bags. This section of Canal Street was previously the home of warehouse stores selling surplus/salvage electronics and hardware.

In addition, tourism and restaurants are major industries.[21] The district boasts many historical and cultural attractions so it is a destination for tour companies like Big Onion and NYC Chinatown Tours.[22] Tour stops often include landmarks like the Church of the Transfiguration and the Lin Zexu and Confucius statues.[23] The enclave’s many restaurants also support the tourism industry. The New York Food Tours company runs programs taking visitors to the area’s eateries for dishes like Shanghai Scallion Pancakes and wonton soup.[24] The Chinatown restaurant scene is large and vibrant, with more than 200 Chinese restaurants in the neighborhood providing employment. Notable and well reviewed Chinatown establishments include Joe’s Shanghai, Jing Fong, New Green Bo and Amazing 66.[25]

Other contributors to the economy include factories. The proximity of the fashion industry has kept some garment work in the local area though most of the garment industry has moved to China.[citation needed] The local garment industry now concentrates on quick production in small volumes and piece-work (paid by the piece) which is generally done at the worker's home. Much of the population growth is due to immigration. As previous generations of immigrants gain language and education skills, they tend to move to better housing and job prospects that are available in the suburbs and outer boroughs of New York.[citation needed]

The September 11 attacks caused a decline in business for stores and restaurants in Chinatown. Ten years later, the neighborhood had not recovered from the falloff in business, which continued after the lifting of travel restrictions immediately after the attack. The attacks resulted in a decline in the number of garment factories, which at its peak employed 30,000 workers. Tourism has risen since 2004, but is nowhere near its pre-attacks peak. A Chinatown Business Improvement District has been proposed, but is being resisted by some merchants.[26]


The street scene on Pell Street

Unlike most other urban Chinatowns, Manhattan's Chinatown is both a residential area as well as commercial area. Many population estimates are in the range of 90,000 to 100,000 residents.[2] [3][4] [5] [6] One analysis of census data in 2011 showed that Chinatown and heavily Chinese tracts on the Lower East Side had 47,844 residents in the 2010 census, a decrease of nearly 9% since 2000.[26]

It is difficult to get an exact count, as neighborhood participation in the U.S. Census is thought to be low due to language barriers, as well as large-scale illegal immigration. Until the 1960s, the majority of the Chinese population in Chinatown emigrated from Guangdong province and Hong Kong, thus they were native speakers of Cantonese, especially the Canton and Taishan dialects. A minority of Hakka was also represented. Mandarin was rarely spoken by residents even well into the 1980s.[citation needed]

Immigration reform in 1965 opened the door to a huge influx of Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong, and Cantonese became the dominant tongue. With the influx of Hong Kong immigrants, it was developing and growing into a Little Hong Kong, however the growth slowed down later on.[27][28]But since the late 1980s and 1990s, the vast majority of new Chinese immigrants have come from mainland China, especially Fujian Province, and tend to speak Foochow along with Mandarin.

Most Fuzhou immigrants are illegal immigrants while most of the Cantonese immigrants are legal immigrants in Manhattan's Chinatown.[29] With the coming of illegal Fuzhou immigrants during the 1990s, there is now a Fuzhou Community within the eastern portion of Manhattan's Chinatown which started on the East Broadway portion during the early 1990s and later emerged north onto the Eldridge Street portion of Manhattan's Chinatown by the late 1990s and early 2000s. The eastern portion of Chinatown became more fully developed when the Fuzhou immigrants began to arrive whereas before it was moderately Chinese populated and it is referred to as the New Chinatown of Manhattan.[30] The East Broadway and Eldridge Street portion is where the Chinatown Fuzhou immigrants are primarily concentrated, which has resulted in referring East Broadway as Fuzhou Street No. 1 and Eldridge Street as Fuzhou Street No. 2. [31][32]Not only did the Fuzhou immigration influx establish a new portion of Manhattan's Chinatown, they also played a role in property values rising up quickly during the 1990s in contrast to during the 1980s when the housing prices were dropping. As a result, landlords were able to generate twice as much income in Manhattan's Chinatown, Flushing's Chinatown and eventually Brooklyn's Chinatown. What is now the western section of Chinatown or known as the Old Chinatown of Manhattan[33][34] was the original size of Chinatown and originally this was where the concentrations of Chinese people mostly populated on the Lower East Side, mostly the Cantonese. [35][36]

The Fuzhou immigration pattern started out in the 70s very similarly like the Cantonese immigration during the late 1800s to early 1900s that had established New York's Chinatown on Mott Street, Pell Street and Doyers Street. Starting out as mostly men arriving first and then later on bringing their families over. The earliest Fuzhou immigrants arriving during the 80s and 90s were entering into a Chinese community that was extremely Cantonese dominated. Due to the Fuzhou immigrants having no legal status and inability to speak Cantonese, many were denied jobs in Chinatown as a result causing many of them to resort to crimes to make a living that began to dominate the crimes going on in Chinatown. There was a lot Cantonese resentment against Fuzhou immigrants arriving into Chinatown.[37][38][39][40][41][42]

As the epicenter of the massive Fuzhou influx has shifted to Brooklyn in the 2000s, Manhattan's Chinatown's Cantonese population still remains viable and large and successfully continues to retain its stable Cantonese community identity, maintaining the communal gathering venue established decades ago in the western portion of Chinatown, to shop, work, and socialize — in contrast to the Cantonese population and community identity which are declining very rapidly in Brooklyn's Chinatown. Although the term Little Hong Kong was used a long time ago to describe Manhattan's Chinatown relating to when an influx of Hong Kong immigrants were pouring in at that time and even though not all Cantonese immigrants come from Hong Kong, this portion of Chinatown has heavy Cantonese characteristics, especially with the Standard Cantonese, which is spoken in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, China being widely used, so it is in many ways a Little Hong Kong. The long time established Cantonese Community/Little Hong Kong or known as the Old Chinatown of Manhattan lies in the Mott, Pell, Doyer, Bayard, Elizabeth, Mulberry, Canal Streets and The Bowery portion of Manhattan's Chinatown.[43][44]

The Bowery and Chrystie Street is the borderline of the Cantonese and Fuzhou Communities in Manhattan's Chinatown.[45]

Despite the large Fuzhou population, most of the Chinese businesses in Chinatown are still Cantonese owned and because of still the large Cantonese population on the Lower East Side, especially with the Cantonese Community still being the main Chinese commercial district for all of Chinatown and with the Cantonese people living in more affluent residencies that are also important customers to Chinatown's businesses, Cantonese is still a strong Lingua Franca in Chinatown even though Mandarin is beginning to sweep Cantonese aside as a Lingua Franca allowing Cantonese to still dominate the cultural standards and economic resources of Manhattan's Chinatown. As a result, it has influenced many Fuzhou people to learn the Cantonese language as well to maintain a job and to be able to bring more Cantonese customers as additional contributions to their businesses, especially large businesses like the Dim Sum restaurants on what is known as Little Fuzhou on East Broadway, the center of Fuzhou culture.[46][47][48] Linguistically, however, in the past few years, the Cantonese dialect that has dominated Chinatown for decades is being rapidly swept aside by Mandarin Chinese, the national language of China and the lingua franca of most of the latest Chinese immigrants.[49]

Now the increasing Fuzhou influx has shifted into the Brooklyn Chinatown in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn and is replacing the Cantonese population there more significantly than in Manhattan's Chinatown. Brooklyn's Chinatown is quickly becoming the new Little Fuzhou in NYC or Brooklyn's East Broadway (布鲁克林区的東百老匯). During the late 1980s and 1990s, most of the new Fuzhou immigrants arriving into New York City were settling in Manhattan's Chinatown and later formed the first Fuzhou community in the city amongst the waves of Cantonese who had settled in Chinatown over decades; but by the 2000s, the Fuzhou population growth had slowed within Manhattan's Chinatown and began to accelerate in Brooklyn's Chinatown instead.

Although Mandarin is spoken as a native language among only ten percent of Chinese speakers in Manhattan's Chinatown, it is used as a secondary dialect among the greatest number of them and is on its way to replacing Cantonese as their lingua franca.[50] Although Min Chinese, especially the Fuzhou dialect, is spoken natively by a third of the Chinese population in the city, it is not used as a lingua franca because speakers of other dialect groups do not learn Min.[50]


The Confucius Plaza 44-story subsidized housing cooperative, above typical Chinatown housing stock


The housing stock of Chinatown is still mostly composed of cramped tenement buildings, some of which are over 100 years old. It is still common in such buildings to have bathrooms in the hallways, to be shared among multiple apartments. A federally subsidized housing project, named Confucius Plaza, was completed on the corner of Bowery and Division streets in 1976. This 44-story residential tower block gave much needed new housing stock to thousands of residents. The building also housed a new public grade school, P.S. 124 (or Yung Wing Elementary). Besides being the first and largest affordable housing complex specifically available to the Chinatown population Confucius Plaza is also a cultural and institutional landmark, springing forth community organization, Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), one of Chinatown's oldest political/community organizations, founded in 1974.


For much of Chinatown's history, there were few unique architectural features to announce to visitors that they had arrived in the neighborhood (other than the language of the shop signs). In 1962, at Chatham Square the Lieutenant Benjamin Ralph Kimlau Memorial archway was erected in memorial of the Chinese-Americans who died in World War II. This memorial, which bears calligraphy by the great Yu Youren 于右任 (1879—1964), is mostly ignored by the residents due to its poor location on a busy car thoroughfare with little pedestrian traffic.[citation needed] A statue of Lin Zexu (林則徐), also known as Commissioner Lin, a Foochowese Chinese official who opposed the opium trade, is also located at the square; it faces uptown along East Broadway, now home to the bustling Fuzhou neighborhood and known locally as Fuzhou Street (Fúzhóu jiē 福州街). In the 1970s, New York Telephone, then the local phone company started capping the street phone booths with pagoda-like decorations. In 1976, the statue of Confucius in front of Confucius Plaza became a common meeting place. In the 1980s, banks which opened new branches and others which were renovating started to use Chinese traditional styles for their building facades. The Church of the Transfiguration, a national historic site built in 1815, stands off Mott Street.

In 2010, Chinatown and Little Italy were listed in a single historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.[51]

Arts and culture

Chinese theaters

The city's first Chinese theater, on Doyers Street

In the past, Chinatown had Chinese theaters that provided entertainment to the Chinese population. The first Chinese-language theater in the city was located at 5–7 Doyers Street from 1893 to 1911. The theater was later converted into a rescue mission for homeless from the Bowery. In 1903, the theater was the site of a fundraiser by the Chinese community for Jewish victims of a massacre in Kishinev.[52]

Among the theaters that existed in Chinatown in later years were Sun Sing Theater under the Manhattan Bridge and Pagoda Theater both on the street of East Broadway, Governor Theater on Chatham Square, Rosemary Theater on Canal Street across the Manhattan Bridge and Music Palace on the Bowery, which was the last Chinese theater to close. Others have existed in different sections of Chinatown. The Chinese theaters also played movies with Chinese and English subtitles for the non-Chinese viewers, which were very often black Muslims that enjoyed movies with non-white heroes[citation needed], Caucasian martial arts students and people who were film cognoscenti. During the 1970s, the Chinese theaters became less attractive due to increasing gang-violence.[citation needed] These theaters now have all closed because of more accessibility to videotapes, which were more affordable and provided more genres of movies and much later on DVDs and VCDs became available. Other factors such as, availability of Chinese cable channels, karaoke bars, and gambling in casinos began to provide other options for the Chinese to have entertainment also influenced the Chinese theaters to go out of business. [53][54] [55][56]

Historic District

In 2010, Little Italy and Chinatown were listed in a single historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.[51]


Residents are zoned to schools in the New York City Department of Education. PS 124, The Yung Wing School is located in Chinatown.[57] It was named after Yung Wing, the first Chinese person to study at Yale University.[58] Public School 130 Hernando De Soto is located in Chinatown.[59] PS 184M Shuang Wen School, a bilingual Chinese-English School which opened in 1998, is a non-zoned school in proximity to Chinatown.[60]

Street names in Chinese

Baxter Street (巴士特街 Bā​shìtè Jiē)


Satellite Chinatowns

For a long time, Manhattan's Chinatown has always been the most largely concentrated Chinese population in NYC. However, in recent years growing Chinese populations in outer boroughs of NYC have tremendously outnumbered Manhattan's Chinese population.[63][64]Other New York City Chinese communities have been settled over the years, including that of Flushing in Queens, particularly along from Roosevelt Avenue to Main Street through Kissena Blvd. Another Chinese community is located in Sunset Park in Brooklyn, particularly along 8th Avenue from 40th to 65th Streets. New York City's newest Chinatowns have recently sprung up in Elmhurst, Queens north of Queens Blvd on Broadway and on Avenue U in the Homecrest section of Brooklyn. Outside of New York City proper, a growing suburban Chinatown is developing in Edison, New Jersey, which lies 30 miles (48 km) to the southwest. In recent years, the Chinatowns established in Flushing, Queens and Sunset Park, Brooklyn have long surpassed Manhattan's Chinatown. While the composition of these satellite Chinatowns is as varied as the original, the political turmoils in the Manhattan Chinatown (Tongs vs. Republic of China loyalists vs. People's Republic of China loyalists vs. Americanized) has led to some factionalization in the other satellites. The Flushing Chinatown located in Flushing, Queens was spearheaded by many Chinese fleeing the Communist retaking of Hong Kong in 1997 as well as Taiwanese who used their considerable capital to buy out land from the former residents. The Brooklyn Chinatown located in Sunset Park was originally settled by Cantonese immigrants, but today it is mostly populated by Fukienese immigrants with still some Cantonese immigrants, who are long time Chinese residents.[65] More culturally assimilated Chinese have moved outside these neighborhoods into more white or Hispanic neighborhoods in the city while others move to the suburbs outright.[citation needed]

See also

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Further reading

  • "New York's First Chinaman". Atlanta Constitution. 22 September 1896
  • Crouse, Russel. Murder Won't Out. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1932.
  • Dunshee, Kenneth Holcomb. As You Pass By. New York: Hastings House, 1952.
  • Ramati, Raquel. How to Save Your Own Street. Garden City, Doubleday and Co., 1981. ISBN 0-385-14814-3
  • Tsui, Bonnie. American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods, 2009 ISBN 978-1416557234 Official website

External links

Coordinates: 40°43′06″N 74°00′09″W / 40.71833°N 74.0025°W / 40.71833; -74.0025

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