Chinatown and Its Historical Roots

By Christopher Piacentile ’19

New York City as we all know it is our home and well – our world, it comprises of five boroughs: the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Manhattan. However, Manhattan is always the main topic of discussion when it comes down to New York City’s famous attractions such as the mighty Empire State building, the neon lights of Times Square, or, maybe, the beauty of the Statue of Liberty. Yes, Manhattan a place where you can find hundreds of skyscrapers with no end in sight, a place where you can find one of the world’s most lucrative financial and commercial centers. How can we not forget the many ethnic groups that came from all corners of Earth just to call this city home. However, there is one attraction that seems to be overshadowed by the rest and that is lower Manhattan’s Chinatown.

Manhattan, Chinatown or  “曼哈顿华埠”, is an neighborhood located in Lower Manhattan between the Brooklyn Bridge and SOHO. Manhattan’s Chinatown has been recorded to be the largest concentration of Chinese in the western hemisphere with an approximate number of 70,000-100,000 currently living there. In just two square miles, Chinatown has been the favored destination point for Chinese immigrants. However, I ask myself, “How does a people from China manage to come through California and end up in New York”? Well, it began in the mid-nineteenth century where the United States was going through its “Gold Rush” era. Many Chinese from the Qing dynasty, in significant numbers, were lured to America. Due to talks of its vast riches located in California and through labor brokers. Many were brought as cheap laborers and were used for the construction of the upcoming transcontinental railroad. At this point the Chinese were introduced. However, the reason why a large portion ended up in New York was because of societal pressures. When the transcontinental railroad was completed and the gold mines began yielding less, many Chinese started to work in factories. The immigration of Chinese upsetted a majority of white Californians and caused a great paranoia that they would lose their jobs. They decided to push the Chinese out and call for an act to stop Chinese immigrants. This xenophobic fear led to the infamous “Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.” With no other place to go but east, the Chinese immigrants were able to find work in a economically booming industrialized New York.

From the start, Chinese immigrants tended to clump together as a result of both racial discrimination and self-segregation. Unlike many ethnic ghettos of immigrants, Chinatown was largely self-supporting, with an internal structure of governing associations and businesses which supplied jobs, economic aid, social service, and protection. Chinatown continued to grow through the end of the nineteenth century, providing contacts and housing arrangements usually for the 5-15 people living in a two room apartment. Once the Exclusion Act on Chinese immigrants was lifted in 1943, Chinatown began to grow with the U.S. government only allowing a small quota to enter the country. In the 1960’s, this quota changed and was raised, causing a large flood of Chinese immigrants and as a result Chinatown’s population exploded.

Today, Chinatown is a tightly-packed, yet sprawling neighborhood that offers many an exciting experience with foods and culture. However, with its satellite Chinese community in located in Queens, Flushing. Chinatown has been the home for the majority of Chinese New Yorkers, specifically those of Cantonese ancestry. Before, a place for low-income Chinese workers, modern-day Chinatown has now become one of the most expensive places in New York City to live. Through a long journey of strife, these people have ended up at the top were they belong.