New York City is home to the largest population of Chinese people in the Western Hemisphere. According to the 2014 census they are over 550,000 Chinese people living in New York City. When most people talk about Chinatown in this city they are referring to Manhattan. While the Manhattan Chinatown was the first in New York City it isn’t the only one nor does it have the largest population of Chinese people in the city. Queens and Brooklyn both have Chinatowns with larger populations. That said, Manhattan has the densest population of Chinese people with approximately 150,000 people living in 2 square miles.
Chinatown in Manhattan began slowly in the late 1700s with the arrival of sailors and merchants. By the late 1800s the population was rapidly increasing due to the completion of the Transcontinental Railway in 1869. Many Chinese who were unable to find work in California migrated here. As well, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 slowed down emigration to the area. It was repealed in 1943 and since then the population has continued to increase and the boundaries of Chinatown are growing into Little Italy and the Lower East Side.
Once upon a time, Chinatown was south of Canal Street. But as the Italian businesses began moving out of the area, Chinese businesses moved into them. And Canal Street is named that because it used to be a canal! How about that?
Chinatown has always been a favorite neighborhood for me. In the 1980s I would pretend that I was in China. It’s amazing seeing all the signs in Chinese and hearing the people speaking Chinese. Even more back then than now it was amazing to think that I was still in New York City. There are great restaurants and shopping in the produce markets. No you can’t get a designer handbag or Rolex watch for $20. I typically avoid most of the touristy sections of Chinatown and frequent the areas where the businesses are frequented by the people who live there.
But way before my time was the days of Five Points and the notorious gangs that fought to rule the area. Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York is a depiction of that period of time. It was however filmed on sets in Rome. You can go to Columbus Park and see the men play Chinese chess and the women play cards and that park was the center of the Five Points. The very cool little Doyers Street was once considered the most dangerous place in America during the Five Points era. But no worry, Chinatown is very safe now and it’s fun!
Do check out MOCA - The Museum of Chinese in America