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Chinatowns

by Michael Gray

Chinese Food in the USA

Winter Volume: 2011 Issue: 18(4) page(s): 33


Manhattan is home to the largest Chinatown in the Western Hemisphere with more than fifty thousand Chinese-Americans, according to Howard Shih of the Asian American Federation (AAF). This nonprofit organization is dedicated to advancing the civic voice and the quality of life for Asian Americans in the New York metropolitan area.

Although Chinese merchants and sailors began arriving in America in 1784, they usually did not remain. The earliest known Chinese living in New York City is fixed at 1808. By the 1920's, when California was known as Californios and San Francisco was called Yerba Buena, Chinese sailors were living in Corlears Hook in Manhattan.

By the 1850s, at least one hundred fifty Chinese lived in New York. A man named Ah Sue had opened a candy and tobacco store on Cherry Street way back then. But how did Chinatown came to be? Within one month of the accidental discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California in January of 1848, two Chinese servants left their employer and arrived on the scene. Soon, people from around the world were arriving in California to try to strike it rich. At first, the experience of the Chinese was no different from that of Europeans or other new Americans. But soon, anti-sino discrimination and violence ensued there.

In Tuolumne County, in 1849, a group of white miners drove sixty Chinese miners off their claim. Three years later, California passed a law preventing the Chinese from making mining claims. In 1871, fifteen Chinese were lynched in Los Angeles, four more were murdered in Chico. In 1878, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Chinese were ineligible for citizenship and four years later, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This was the only time in United states history that a specific ethnic group was targeted for exclusion. While it prevented both skilled and unskilled Chinese laborers from immigrating; officials, scholars, merchants, students, and teachers were exempt. Chinese laborers already in this country were not allowed to bring their wives to join them. They were basically barred from all licensed professions. In the face of growing violence and a xenophobic atmosphere, the Chinese started migrating to New York City and other large cities for protection.

While some twenty-eight million white Europeans arrived In America between 1882 and 1930, the Chinese population dropped from two hundred thousand to seventy-five thousand. The National Origins Act of 1924 set immigration quotas at two percent of each national group and barred foreign born wives of American citizens of Chinese descent.

In 1943, with the United States now allied with the Nationalists in China under Chiang Kai-Shek, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. Chinese were now 'free' to immigrate but at the old 1924 law rate; and that was based on numbers from the 1890 census. The result: only one hundred and five Chinese a year were allowed into the United States. Meanwhile, during World II, thirteen thousand Chinese served in America’s Armed Forces. The War Brides Act of 1945 allowed some seven and a half thousand Chinese women married to American servicemen to immigrate.

The McCarran-Waller Act of 1952 allowed greater numbers of Chinese students to come and study. In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act abolished quotas that had been in place since 1924. Then a limit of one hundred seventy thousand new immigrants per year was set with no more than twenty thousand from any one country.

Family re-unification immigrants were unlimited. Taiwan was granted the same number while Hong Kong was allowed only six hundred. It was during this time that the Chinatown populations greatly expanded. In 1979, when US-Sino relations were normalized, China was allowed the maximum number of immigrants, twenty thousand each year, as were other countries. The Chinese population in America rose from two hundred forty thousand in 1960 to almost three million in 2000. Since 1985, some three hundred thousand Chinese from the Fujian province have immigrated, many settling in New York City. This helped extend Chinatown eastward across the Bowery and into the Lower East Side.

According to the 2010 Census figures, the Asian population in New York City grew by thirty-two percent. It now accounts for almost thirteen percent of the New York City population. Today there are seven neighborhoods in New York City with majority Asian populations. That is an increase from just two, Chinatown and Flushing, in the 2000 Census. Yes, Manhattan is home to the largest Chinatown in the Western Hemisphere.

Before the editor is blessed with queries as to 'where did this information come from,' check out Peter Kwong and Dusank Miscevic's Chinese America: The Untold Story of America's Oldest New Community published in New York by The New Press in 2005, also John Kuo Wei Tchen's New York Before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture 1776-1882 published in Baltimore MD in 1999, and Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace's Gotham A History of New York City to 1898 published in New York by Oxford University Press in 1999.

                                                                                                                                                       
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