Neighborhoods

New York’s Chinatown: Becoming Scrutable

“Despite the presence of some modern stores on Mott Street — ­banks, insurance companies, gift shops, a pinball parlor — it still seems to exist outside of New York City.”

by

Eddie Hong, lawyer, travel agent and now a candidate for the State Assembly, is the first Chinese-American in New York City’s history to run for public office. Just as his campaign reflects his community’s newly awakened interest in affairs beyond its own boundaries, so his affable, Rotarian disposition suggests that few Chinese-Americans born in this country any longer bear much resemblance to the old stereotype of the inscrutable Oriental. For Hong, a Midwesterner by background, is a real booster — full of smiles, handshakes, gossip about recent improvements in the community where he happens to live. The fact that his office is close to the heart of Chinatown, that his legal clientele and the people for whom he arranges tours are Chinese, seems to result from a coincidence of birth, and not from any limitations of his personality.

In fact, Hong at 50 is slightly older than most of the generation that shares his interest in civic matters, and therefore is something of an historical curiosity. Like most of the Chinese immigrants to America in the early 20th century, Hong’s father had left his family behind in the Canton province so that he could wander freely around the New World in search of a substantial income. Hong is not sure exactly what his father did in those days — “he worked for a while in Texas as a cook, but I don’t know where else” — but he does still recall the fact that the entire family was soon able to come together in spite of the severe restrictions on Oriental immigration that the American government imposed in the 1920s. “For the most part the Chinese in America lived in a bachelor community up through World War II,” Hong says. “The men were already here, and many of them were too poor to go back. The immigration laws made it impossible for the women to come — so the ratio of men to women was something like 200 to 1. A whole generation of Chinese-Americans was lost. My family was very lucky.”

The Only Chinese

The Hongs settled in Danville, Illinois, where they were the only Chinese family. Like many of his countrymen scattered throughout the United States but largely concentrated in San Francisco and New York, Mr. Hong opened a restaurant, worked unceasingly and pushed his kids to get college educations. In 1937 Eddie Hong received a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois, and four years later graduated from law school there. When he moved to New York after World War II and passed the state’s bar examination in 1946, he was only the second Chinese-American in the city to become a full-fledged lawyer.

Profession and voluntary organization quickly piled on top of each other: at that time Hong, comfortable with all sorts of Americans, was something of a rarity in his community. He joined the Lions Club, the Far East Shrine Club, the Veterans of Foreign Wars. As a lawyer he was always handling immigration cases, and soon — seeing that Chinese Americans could afford to voyage all over, not just from the U.S. to the Far East — he opened a travel agency.

Supported Goldwater

He also became active in Republican Party politics, though most registered voters in Chinatown were Democrats. Throughout the ’50s he was only sporadically active in local politics but still, in 1964, he was made chairman of the Chinese division of the Nationalities Division of the Republican Party. In the last Presidential election he supported Barry Goldwater, and up until very recently intertwined Goldwater’s pictures and slogans with his own local activities.

Hong’s campaign headquarters are in the backroom of his slight­ly disheveled railroad-like law office and travel bureau on Elizabeth Street. Tucked away in a room in the rear, guarded by a secretary and a long corridor, Hong does not seem willing to let his vote-getting activities inter­fere with his business. In person, though, there is nothing even re­motely stand-offish about him. But he does seem slightly distracted, like a man with more projects than he has time. A cordial interview in English will be interrupted by a lively phone con­versation in Chinese — then an argument over some legal matter in English — then a quick trip down the corridor to consult with a client about some travel plan.

Yet, no matter how many tasks he is attending to at once, Hong’s good nature seems unshakable. He is not the kind of man who can be easily rebuffed. For example, when John Lindsay’s entourage recently invaded Chinatown for a rally in the midst of the 54th anniversary of Chinese independence, it was clear that there was some tension between the fusionists who work for Lindsay and the few Goldwater Republicans around Hong. Lindsay gave two speeches — one at a cocktail party and a second at a large outdoor rally — and neither time did he even mention Hong’s name. On both occasions Hong was made to speak last, after the crowd had begun to scatter, and he was never given time to utter more than a few sentences. Yet as he stood on the platform, trying to edge as close to Lindsay as he could, Hong didn’t for a moment look bitter or hurt — as, for example, Milton Mollen always does when he is shunted aside. Hong kept smiling eagerly, and finally when it was his turn to talk he seemed almost to thrust himself down from the platform into the portion of the audience that re­mained, issuing the usually banal pronouncements of a local candidate in a peppy cheerleader’s voice.

Substantial Tension

But the tension between Hong and Lindsay’s supporters in Chinatown is substantial — it is more a conflict between generations, between styles of political behavior, than it is a dispute over issues. For Hong is something of an anachronism in the progression of the Chinese-American community towards civic involve­ment. He does not reflect the older generation in its need to remain within the confines of the community, primarily attached to Chinese-language self-help groups like the Benevolent Association or the various family organizations; nor is he part of the small groups of men who, 20 years ago, began to peep out from local politics into Tammany Hall, and who are now connected with the local Democratic club and share a reputation as gamblers and small-time profiteers. But Hong is equally detached from the established businessmen and professionals in their late 20s or in their 30s who, though they have themselves moved away from Chinatown, see in the Lindsay campaign a chance to involve the whole community in a style of politics dedicated more to good government and independence than to strictly local programs, individual profiteering, or to unflinching party loyalty.

Set an Example

In fact, though the Lindsay volunteers now support Hong, they apparently do so only with the understanding that he will not mention Goldwater during the campaign. And they put his can­didacy into a precise perspective. “He’s sure to get swamped,” one Lindsay supporter said, “but it doesn’t really matter. His becoming a lawyer set an example for young people — now there are 18 lawyers here and his running for office will show the rest of the community that we can get into real politics. And we need to be represented in this city.”

The Lindsay headquarters are located on Bayard Street, three blocks away from Hong’s office and in an area across the Bowery where as recently as a few years ago Chinese Americans were frightened to venture. “I walked down here once when I was a kid, and some Italians gave me a bloody head as a souvenir,” one man working in the campaign of­fice recalls. Even now the Bayard Street storefront is somewhat iso­lated from the rest of the com­munity: the volunteers seem far more Americanized than the peo­ple you see on Mott Street, and their devotion to civic politics does not yet seem to be widely understood by the rest of the com­munity.

Something Happening 

“The important thing is that we’re getting the kids out,” one young lady explained to me after she had reminded a co-worker to bring a ‘Chinese dress’ to the Lindsay rally. “This is the first time anyone here has actively worked for a candidate, and when older people see children they know ringing doorbells and wearing Lindsay buttons, then they know something is happening.”

It was for this reason that the large crowd which turned out for Lindsay’s speech represented a triumph for the local workers. “Of course nobody came down here to see the man,” a volunteer said. “On Sunday Chinatown is always crowded, and on Independence Day it is doubly so. But they did stand in the rain to hear him talk, and they saw how enthusiastic all the young people were about him.” In fact the rally was one of the most exciting of Lindsay’s entire campaign. On a chilly damp afternoon hundreds of people crowded the streets, watching two boys whirl through a long, ceremonial dragon dance; hearing the Fortuned Cookie Girls, a group of local teenagers, sing “I Want to Be Lindsay’s Girl”; parading down from Mott Street to Bayard Street where the rally was finally held. When Lindsay spoke, equating Chinese independence with his own independently run campaign, he was cheered enthusiastically. “Of course the Democrats will have a bigger rally when Beame comes down here in two weeks, but it doesn’t really matter,” a volunteer said. “They’ll spend a lot of money and use professionals to organize the thing. Floats will be brought in from outside, and there will be a lot of gimmicks — ­but still people will know that our rally was organized spontaneous­ly, and that’s more important.”

1500 Votes

Most people who are detached from the campaign feel that how­ever big Beame’s rally might be, Lindsay will win a majority of Chinatown’s 1500 or so votes — ­though not necessarily for the reasons his active supporters would like. “For the past three years the city has been calling this an impoverished area,” one man said, “and still they don’t do anything. The crime in the streets gets worse because de­linquents from other parts of the city feel they won’t get caught here. There’s not enough housing, especially for the new refugees, and the school facilities are getting worse and worse. I don’t know if people are getting more interested in political involve­ment — I rather doubt it — but since it’s time to vote, they’ll vote for a change. We’re just tired of be­ing regarded as a curiosity, a place for tourists, and not as a community which has its own distinct needs.”

Both Eddie Hong’s office and Lindsay’s storefront are located on the perimeter of Chinatown proper. And, as you walk down Mott Street or Pell Street, in the heart of the area, you come to feel how alien to its people the ­whole concept of civic involvement really is.

Look Old

Despite the presence of some modern stores on Mott Street — banks, insurance companies, gift shops, a pinball parlor — it still seems to exist outside of New York City. Most of the stores look as old as they are. Their undec­orated wood floors and walls, their cluttered unmarked shelves which bear all the goods the management has to offer, their sheer electric lighting without a trace of neon or fluorescence all seem untouched by the mid 20th century, like shops in the deep South where customers still gos­sip around the pot-bellied stove. The language of the street, and of trade, is still Chinese, and many people seem uncomfortable if they are asked to exchange more than a few necessary business words with an outsider. It is not yet uncommon in midday to see a group of men sitting around an old card table slapping down soapy look­ing rectangles as they pass their time playing mah-jongg. On a weekday afternoon the Governor Theatre, which shows only Chinese-language films made in Hong Kong or Formosa, is three-quarters filled with middle-aged men and women watching the fourth two-hour installment of the Chin­ese equivalent of The Perils of Pauline. The newsstands display five Chinese-language papers — with much of their news taken from the Hong Kong wire serv­ices — about a dozen thin Chinese periodicals, some of them displaying Oriental women in Playboy calendar poses, and a multitude of books, including the James Bond series, which have been translated into Chinese by a for­eign language agency in Hong Kong.

The people one sees on Mott Street are for the most part first generation immigrants from Canton who still feel far more attachment to China, and to overseas Chinese communities, than to their new land. Their dislike of the Communist regime, for example, which stems from the fact that they are forbidden to return home, and that their relatives In Canton have been treated harshly, seems to be mixed with a feeling of national pride that China has finally become a pow­er, and must be treated as an equal by the occidental world. In this respect the Chinese who live on Mott Street — poor people who left their rural homes in the south of the country to earn a better living in America — do not re­semble the intellectual class of Mandarin-speaking people from the north of China, around Shang­hai. These Chinese have quickly found work as professionals or businessmen, and have never lived in Chinatown though they now own most of the stores there.

In the middle of Mott Street, housed in a large, modern build­ing, is the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. It is to this organization that most of the old people still feel their strongest communal ties. Until recently, when Chinese-American lawyers began to handle local cases, most of the community’s business was carried on through the Benevolent Association. There, too, local disputes were arbitrated and local festivals planned; it was the head of the Association that the rest of New York referred to as the Mayor of Chinatown.

Family Organizations 

The more intimate problems of the first immigrant generation have traditionally been handled by the network of family associations which still spans Chinatown. If a man named Chen, for example, had just arrived in New York, he would go to a Chen family association, or to a grocery store, restaurant, or laundry that bore his name to find out where he could obtain work and to learn news of his relatives in the States or back in China. For months thereafter he might be in transit from job to job, or apartment to apartment, and his family association headquarters would serve as a mail drop, club house, and an appointment center.

The younger generation of Chinese-Americans, reluctant to follow their parents into the restaurant or laundry business, do not have much use for the family associations; but they are still essential to the old people and to new arrivals. It is not only that the associations offer them a familiar language and a comfortable set of customs. To thousands of Chinese who had come to America illegally in defiance of the restrictive immigration laws the chance to pursue a career strictly within their own com­munity was essential.

Could Be Open

The fact that so many Chinese immigrants had to live beyond the surveillance of the American government made it doubly difficult for the community as a whole to enter city-wide politics. Only a few men, like Shavey Lee, the first “Mayor of Chinatown” and a good friend of Fiorello La Guardia, had so little to hide that they could deal with the rest of the city openly. “Lee was born here so he could build his business on the busiest corner of Chinatown and greet any import­ant person who came down here to explore,” Eddie Hong says. “He became famous because he was just about the only man in Chinatown who could afford to live without any disguise.”

There is another group of China­town residents who do not for the moment take much interest in formal American politics: the re­cent refugees from Hong Kong. Though these people have legally spent many years in a large city en route from Canton, and thus are not intimidated by large bur­eaucracies, many of them are still barred from voting by resi­dence requirements, and from a full comprehension of American politics by their difficulty with the language.

Some of the young arrivals from Hong Kong have caused Chinatown its first difficulty with Chinese delinquency in years. “They are much cockier, much more interested in women and dancing and drinking than we were ever allowed to be,” says a 25-year-old man who was brought up in Chinatown. “I guess you could call them sort of Oriental teddy boys. They have their own clubhouses here, and I hate to think of what goes on behind those doors. Still, they’re real go-getters. This summer when the poverty program offered free classes in English they all went. We would have been scared to deal with the outside world like that. They’ll probably have no trouble adjusting to America, and they’ll probably do quite well when they grow up.”

By then, the generation of young people who are now being exposed to politics through Eddie Hong’s campaign and Lindsay’s volunteers will be old enough to vote or run for public office. For the first time Chinatown, and the Chinese community, should be represented in the government of the city. That is, unless the migration of young adults away from the Lower East Side combines with the city’s constant push towards urban renewal to erase Chinatown altogether.

What They Said About Chinatown

The outside world has radically changed its attitude toward China­town over the past 15 years. At the turn of the century the word “Chinese” evoked images of the “yellow peril,” of opium houses and degraded women, of “unChristian” ideas about busi­ness and government, of coolie laborers working for less than Europeans, and taking their jobs. ­These sentiments underpinned the severe restrictions on Chinese immigration to America which ap­plied for nearly half a century. Now, however, Chinese-Americ­ans are regarded as clean, dis­ciplined, hardworking people whose strong family ties should provide an example for other, less fortunate groups. Here is a chron­ological series of descriptions of Chinatown which suggests how thoroughly its reputation has been transformed.

In 1890 Jacob Riis wrote in his book, How the Other Half Lives:
“Trust him not who trusts no one is as safe a rule in Chinatown as out of it. Were not Mott Street overawed in its iso­lation, it would not be safe to descend this open cellar-way thr­ough which come the pungent odors of burning opium, and the clink of copper coins on the table. At the first foot-fall of leather soles on the steps the hum of talk ceases and the group of cele­stials, crouching over their game of fantan, stop playing and watch the comer with ugly looks. The average Chinaman, the police will tell you, would rather gam­ble than eat any day. Only the fellow in his own bunk smokes away, indifferent to all else but his pipe and his own enjoyment. The Chinaman smokes opium as Caucasians smoke tobacco, and apparently with little worse effect upon himself. But woe unto the white victims on which his pitiless drug gets its grip…

“From the teeming tenements to the right and left (of Chinatown) come the white slaves of its dens of vice and their infernal drug… There are houses, dozens of them, in Mott and Pell Streets, that are literally jammed ­from the ‘joint’ in the cellar to the attic with these hapless victims of a passion which, once acquired, demands the sacrifice of every instinct of decency to its insensate desire…

“One thing about (the Chinese) is conspicuous: their scrupulous neatness. It is the distinguishing mark of Chinatown, outwardly and physically. It is not altogether by chance that the Chinaman has chosen the laundry as his native field. He is by nature as clean as the cat, which he resembles in his traits of cruel cunning and savage fury when aroused…

“The Chinese are in no sense a desirable element of the population, they serve no useful purpose here, whatever they might have done elsewhere in other days, yet to this it is a sufficient answer that they are here and that, having let them in, we must make the best of it. Rather than ­banish the Chinaman, I would have the door open wider — for his wife; make it a condition of his coming that he bring his wife with him. Then, at least, he might not be what he is and remains, a hopeless stranger among us.”

By 1927 when Will Irwin, a New York reporter, came to write about Chinatown, it had lost much of its mystery:
“Mott Street itself, to one who knew his Chinatown 20, or even 15, years ago, is a disappointment. Then the inhabitants shuffled past in felt shoes, or in rainy weather elevated clogs. Nine-tenths of them wore pigtails; a good half, round caps with bright buttons on the top. Wadded jackets and wide, flapping trousers were the rule; European clothes were the exception. In summer, when the necessity for a breath of fresh air overcame their horror of public gaze, the women came forth in subdued blue or green tunics appropriate to street wear, their glossy hair pinned elaborately with combs to fastenings of beaten gold and jade. But the pigtail, symbol of slavery, passed with the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty. This gone, the rest followed naturally…

“It all changed and passed; for the good of the Chinese if you ask my opinion. Set down on a hill between the cheap Tenderloin of the Bowery and the degraded slum of Five Points, bedeviled by criminal adventurers who had left Chinatown to escape the headsman, bewildered by the necessity of adjusting to an alien city, they have lifted themselves through the sheer leverage of that character which is the inheritance of the Chinese.”

In 1946 Patricia Page described Chinatown in the magazine section of the New York Times:
“Despite tourists’ illusions Chinatown is New York’s most peaceful district. In the last eight years there has been only one arrest for alcoholism, and none for murder or any major crimes. Opium has become so expensive, and is of such poor grade, that no Chinese considers it worthwhile any more.

“The people of Chinatown have none of the ambition of their Cantonese ancestors… They lead harmless, passionless lives and follow every established pattern of the community…

“Parents dominate their chil­dren. They have a tendency to tell their sons ‘Children born in America have no brains,’ or ‘Young people talk too much.’ The products of this subtle coercion joined the armed forces in large number but in peacetime they seldom go beyond the daily trip to a job at the Bendix plant. They seem eager for study but the force of local convention keeps most of them out of college.

“Chinatown is not quite China, not quite America. All its men live within the frame of a tradition which lacks, in America, the force of new creativeness. Yet they are proud and honest, and as they stand talking into the night, they have the impassive air of men who bear the fatigue of a 3000-year-old culture.”

In 1957, also in the New York Times magazine, William Mc­Intyre wrote an article called “Chinatown Offers Us a Lesson”:
“Our Chinatown Chinese-Ameri­can family leads a life so wholesome that it seems almost ana­chronistic in our epoch of anxie­ties. It is a design for living that has been perfected by 1000 years of trial and error. It prospers in the back room of a laundry, or jammed in a tenement flat off the Bronx.

“There is clear evidence that a strongly integrated family, offering parental guidance and af­fection, is a tremendous deterrence to delinquency. If non-­Chinese parents hereabout could see at first hand the workings of this healthy society, it would help dispel confusion and astonishment over our proliferating delinquen­cy problems.

“It is of course impossible to expect the example set by our Chinese-Americans to put togeth­er once again the bits of our broken or demoralized families, but it can perform a rich service by reaffirming the importance of parental leadership and love.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 25, 2020

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