MANHATTAN
CHINATOWN

Chinese didn't arrive in New York in significant numbers until the late 1870s when anti-violence in the West led many Chinese to migrate eastward. Driven from smaller towns, they sought refuge in larger cities and settled, not always voluntarily, in segregated neighborhoods called Chinatowns. The community in New York settled first on Mott Street and spread quickly to Pell and Doyer. According to the United States Census, by 1900 there were 6,321 Chinese living in New York, most living in Chinatown. Chinatown quickly became a segregated community. Workers, preferring to avoid dependence on white employers and workers, sought laundry and restaurant work within the neighborhood. By 1930, 84 percent of the Chinese gainfully employed in New York were working in one of these two industries. Restaurant positions, particularly those in the kitchen, were highly desired, well paid and of great social status.

Restaurants at this time served as an important locus of social gathering, particularly on Sundays, when the Chinese laundrymen of New York and other neighboring cities came to socialize. At such events, meals could be elaborate and were typically ordered by the table or spread.

However, restaurants served an important role in daily meals as well. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (the only federal law ever to exclude the immigration of an entire nation of people) laborers who came to the United States prior to this act were unable to bring the families they had left behind over to join them. Consequently, Chinatown remained a "bachelor society" with a near absence of women. Eating was moved outside of the home and into restaurants, and during this period one could acquire a meal at a Chinese restaurant cheaper than at any other; a meal for 5-25 cents was typical.

The Chinese food of this time was primarily Cantonese and much of it was being prepared with traditional Chinese vegetables being grown in New Jersey and Long Island from seeds imported from China. Restaurants of this period are described as gorgeously decorated often with furnishing and art work brought from China with immaculate kitchens opening right out into the dining area.

It didn't take long for western reporters to discover the cuisine of Chinatown and soon their readers were venturing to Mott Street to sample the "exotic" offerings. Concurrently, residents of Chinatown were discovering American foods. Prior to 1900 there were already 3 Chinese American restaurants serving only American food, each of them enormously successful. In 1897, Wing Sing, owner of the oldest of these at #3 Pell Street, averaged $500 a week.

– Mimi Martin