Neighborhoods

Forget It, Jake: Exploring Cuisine, Immigration, and Chinatown’s Underworld

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Heather Lee, preeminent scholar of Chinese restaurants in America and assistant professor at NYU Shanghai, and I, just a guy, were making our way through the dry storage of Pulqueria, a Chinatown bar, on a recent Friday night. We had just left Chinese Tuxedo, the high-end contemporary-Cantonese restaurant that opened in the crook of Doyers Street’s elbow ten days after the presidential election. With Trump’s hundredth day in office having just passed, much of the country was feeling like us: lost in a subterranean passage with no way out.

It was Lee’s idea to go tunnel hunting in the first place. In the early years of last century, as she well knew, an entire network of well-organized tunnels coursed through Chinatown, used by criminal gangs called tongs and serving as underground arteries for the illicit. Today, only one tunnel remains, and it is bricked up in the bottom-most floor of Chinese Tuxedo’s triple-basement space. Postprandially, we were searching for the open end.

But that Chinese Tuxedo, a dazzling nexus of succulents, suits, and sex appeal in a former opera house, contains the terminus of one of the last tunnels wasn’t even the reason we were there. We are living at the dawn of a new nativism, and I wanted to check in with those who know how this might affect the way we eat, now and in the future. There seemed no better place to do this than at Chinese Tuxedo, and no better person to do it with than Professor Heather Lee.

Few ethnic groups have been more baldly discriminated against in America than the Chinese, the targets of 1882’s frustratingly prescient Chinese Exclusion Act. As for Lee, a second-generation Taiwanese academic who grew up on the West Coast, she has spent her career compiling a massive database of Chinese restaurants of the past. Part of Lee’s scholarship has explored how the American government’s anti-Chinese immigration laws — inadvertently, perhaps — gave rise to the proliferation of Chinese restaurants across the country. As she explains over a bowl of fried eggplant as crispy and sweet as a churro but with a can-can pepper kick, in 1915 a federal court ruled that Chinese restaurateurs were entitled to a merchant-status exemption from the blanket exclusionary acts. “As a result,” Lee tells me, “the Chinese have a much greater interest going into the restaurant industry. In the early twentieth century, there was an explosion of Chinese restaurants.” Today, there are more than 45,000 across the country.

Most of the early restaurants weren’t fancy, but some were. One, in fact, was famous: Chinese Tuxedo. The original version opened in 1905 on the corner of Doyers and the Bowery. It was a cushy spot, judging from postcards, filled with what Lee calls “slummers,” gussied-up white folks looking for a little bit of the Other. (It is now, naturally, a Chase bank.) As for its reincarnation, “I think the naming of this place is really clever,” says Lee, looking around the room.

But the existence of the current Chinese Tuxedo, and really any restaurant in New York, would be unthinkable if Trump had his way with our borders. First of all, like all restaurants, it runs on immigrant labor. Add to that the fact that co-owner Eddy Buckingham, who looks like an elongated Patrick Swayze, is from Australia, weirdly among our new nemeses, and there’s simply no way Chinese Tuxedo would ever get going in the first place.

Even more fundamentally, without immigration we would have neither the original template for Chinese Tuxedo nor the flavors for Chinese Tuxedo’s chef, a Scotsman named Paul Donnelly, to play with. There would be no bigeye tuna in strange-flavored dressing or char siu pork with a glaze sticky like Grandma’s no-sit furniture. “Overgrown fear of immigrants means that not only are we depriving others of their opportunities,” says Lee, “but we’re robbing ourselves of our own opportunities, too.”

Other than well-done steaks, what would we have? Doyers Street itself tells the story. The growth of the tongs and the burrowing of their tunnels was also, partially at least, an outgrowth of the government’s relentless persecution of Chinese immigrants. Without legal means of protection, many Chinese turned to illegal channels such as the tongs. These, of course, turned against one another, and for a while Doyers Street was called “the Bloody Angle” for the death that flowed along its crooked hundred meters. In 1905, where well-heeled Tinder date shtuppers and trendy noodle slurpers now dine, the street ran red after a deadly massacre.

As any historian worth her salt knows, you need to mine the past for the veins of the future. So, after dinner, we entered into any promising doorway on Doyers that looked like it led to a deeper story. Eventually we ended up here, stumbling past Metro shelves in sub-basements laden with nixtamalized corn flour. “I think this is it!” exclaimed Lee, ever the optimist. For my part, I was going over in my head what I might say to a startled barback, if we ran into one.

Eventually, Lee and I ended up in a dead-end closet that petered out into nothing. We turned around, retraced our steps, and headed up a narrow flight of stairs and back into the dark night of the present.

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