For six decades straddling the turn of the 20th century, one of the very few Chinatowns in the South anchored members of New Orleans's Chinese-ancestry community.
For six decades straddling the turn of the twentieth century, one of the very few Chinatowns in the South anchored members of New Orleans’s Chinese-ancestry community. The enclave attested not only to the port city’s ties to the Pacific Rim but also to its position at the apogee of the Caribbean region. New Orleans shared many common traits with Caribbean societies, but one in particular led to the emergence of Chinatown: the sugar cane industry and its post-emancipation labor shortage.
Chinese Immigration to Louisiana
The Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War deprived planters of the enslaved laborers they had relied on to work their farms. Cuba, the world’s largest sugar producer, had profited with contracted Chinese laborers, as had other regions in the Caribbean and South America, so some Louisiana planters began to import Chinese workers. In 1866 a few laborers from the Philippines were brought to Louisiana. The next year, fifteen Chinese laborers arrived from Havana and Matanzas, bound for two cotton growers in Natchitoches Parish. Two brokers brought approximately fifty-five more Chinese workers to New Orleans by March 1867, destined for Louisiana cotton and sugar plantations, then started a company in New Orleans to recruit more Chinese-Cuban laborers. Another agent imported fifty Chinese workers to the Bayou Lafourche region later in 1867.
Chinese importations ended in 1868, when a war in Cuba cut off the flow of workers routed through there from the Portuguese colony of Macao. Tepid interest in Chinese labor resurfaced in 1869, but recruitment faced numerous obstacles. The US government viewed it as a dangerously close substitute for slavery and eyed it disapprovingly. New legal restrictions on importations from Hong Kong and better pay in California made hard labor in the South a tough sell. Planters themselves were displeased to discover that the allegedly “docile” Chinese were, in fact, ready and willing to fight for what was rightfully theirs. Withheld wages, disparate pay, and ill treatment were met with confrontations, work stoppages, and lawsuits. Additionally, many Southerners were hostile to the notion of “another” racial group in the tense postbellum social landscape. By the 1870s Louisiana sugar planters were looking elsewhere for contract labor.
In 1870 Chinese laborers already in the South began to gravitate to larger cities, and it was in 1871 that people of Asian descent achieved sufficient numbers to become a noticeable presence in the streets of New Orleans. Contemporary newspaper articles on the newcomers—referred to generically as “the Celestials”; “John Chinaman,” or simply “John”; or derisively as “Coolies” or “Chinks”—divulged feelings ranging from curiosity and admiration to condescension and disdain. At the end of the decade, the census recorded ninety-five Chinese persons living in New Orleans and 489 in Louisiana (both figures probably significantly undercounted), primarily comprising single men residing in boarding houses and apartments, employed in occupations such as laundering, cooking, and making or selling cigars.
Emergence of a Chinese Enclave
In 1881 a Maine-born missionary from Boston named Lena Saunders, recently arrived to New Orleans, began offering classes in English, American culture, and Christianity in her home to five Chinese immigrants. The effort caught the attention of the Canal Street Presbyterian Church; in 1882 it incorporated the effort as part of its outreach to foreigners. A building was acquired at 215 South Liberty St., next to the church, to serve as the Chinese Mission. In the mid-1880s Saunders’ school served more than two hundred Chinese students and other Asians. It was a place where they could feel welcome, learn English, and be among brethren. In establishing the Chinese Mission, Saunders unwittingly helped make the Third Ward neighborhood near 215 South Liberty the geographical hub of the Chinese community. Chinese-owned businesses started opening in a scattered pattern near the Chinese Mission. In the early 1890s the loose cluster began to develop a core on the 1100 block of Tulane Avenue. In 1900 seven Chinese markets, groceries, and shops filled the short block in its entirety. That same year the Times-Democrat estimated that between 150 and 175 Chinese residents, representing roughly 25 to 30 percent of New Orleans’s Chinese community, received instruction at the Chinese Mission. Newspaper articles referred to the “Chinese colony” of the South Liberty Street/Tulane Avenue area, a reference not only to the Chinese Mission but also to the Chinese community springing up around it. New Orleans’s Chinatown, traceable to the 1870s, was now in its heyday.
Within the enclave, Chinatown’s denizens voiced their politics through such organizations as the Chinese Republican Association, home to the Chee Gung Tong, a revolutionary organization advocating the philosophy of Sun Yat-sen, the religion of Ming Chow, and the toppling of the Manchu Dynasty. In front of the shops on 1100 Tulane, recalled the Times-Picayune many years later, “congregated nightly Chinese merchants, laundrymen and philosophers to discuss, in their sing-song Cantonese, everything of moment in China.” Chinatown also had merchant’s associations, fraternal organizations and clubs, and even a cremation society.
Those Chinese residents who came of age overseas often continued to wear their traditional garb, speak their native tongues, and practice old customs; however, locally born offspring strove to assimilate. Kimonos and “pig tails” soon disappeared from the streets, for the curious attention they drew. As is often the case in cultural assimilation, food preferences proved to be among the most tenacious customs. Reported the Daily Picayune in 1910, “Most of the Chinese cling to their native dishes, even when they discard Oriental costume. Rice is their staple food … but fish, birds, and other delicacies are imported from China. They drink tea as Americans do water.”
Finding a Niche in the Local Economy
As Chinatown emerged, Chinese immigrants found their niche in the local economy through what one Daily Picayune reporter described as “the fascinating pursuit of other people’s clothes for the purpose of cleaning them—for a nominal charge.” Hand laundering was demanded everywhere in this fashion-conscious town; all one needed was a specialized iron, a board, washing equipment, and a roof overhead–which could double as a home. Chinese laundries numbered two in the city in 1876, thirteen in 1882, fifty-seven in 1886 (when possibly New Orleans’s first Chinese restaurant, Kee Sing, opened on Dauphine Street), and seventy-three in 1892, when there were three Chinese restaurants. By 1898 those numbers more than doubled to 198 laundries and eight restaurants. While one-fifth of the laundries and half the restaurants operated in or near Chinatown that year, others were scattered evenly citywide, much like Italian grocery stores were distributed well beyond the Sicilian enclave in the lower French Quarter (“Little Palermo”). In both cases the dispersion minimized competition with peers and maximized convenience to clientele. Because family members often lived near, above, or behind the laundry, the laundering niche tended to disperse the Chinese community beyond Chinatown. One such family operated a laundry at 1132 Carondelet and lived in a back room on two beds and a canvas cot. The father, Lee Bing, had arrived to New Orleans as a child in 1913 and was schooled at the Chinese Mission. One of his six children would become one of the most prominent and popular figures in local public life: Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee.
Even as they dispersed, Chinese New Orleanians regularly went to Chinatown for social and institutional functions, for specialty items and laundering equipment, and for Chinese foodstuffs. New Orleanians of all backgrounds regularly visited Chinatown as well. The Yee Wah Sen Restaurant on South Basin, according to the Daily Picayune in 1911, catered to both the “toughest specimens of the underworld” and “respectable members of … polite society,” serving both blacks and whites (in segregated seating) such that the “aristocrat … rubs elbows with the hoi polloi.” The curio shops specialized in linen, ivory, silk kimonos, and mandarin coats popular with uptown debutants, as well as musical instruments and narcotics for nearby red-light districts. Recalled jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton, “I was personally sent to Chinatown many times with a sealed note and a small amount of money and would bring back [for the prostitutes in Storyville] several cards of hop. … All you had to do was walk in to be served.”
Dispersed throughout this area were landmarks associated with the emergence of jazz, among them the birthplace of Louis Armstrong, who reminisced about the area (circa 1907) in his elder years: “The neighborhood was consisted of Negroes, Jewish people, and lots of Chinese. … The Chinese finally moved into a little section of their own and called it China Town, with a few little beat-up restaurants serving soul food on the same menu of their Chinese dishes. I used to hear the Negroes braggin about their Lead Beans and Lice. That’s the way a Chinese waiter would order it for you. … My Mother + my Step Father used to take me + Mama Lucy (my sister) down in China Town + have a Chinese meal for a change. A kind of special occasion.”
Decline of the Neighborhood
Taking root by the 1920s was a cultural assimilation among the Chinese that foretold Chinatown’s decline. Chinese merchants acquired telephones, cash registers, and account ledgers to replace their abacuses. Families learned English at the Chinese Mission and huddled around English textbooks while tending their Tulane Avenue shops. Opium and games of chance, once widespread, became as scarce in the district’s shops as chopsticks in the enclave’s restaurants. Exclusionary immigration laws on the books since 1882 had greatly restricted the flow of new immigrants directly from China, rendering the Chinese American population of New Orleans decreasingly Chinese and increasingly American. Nevertheless, even as the number of Chinese laundries halved throughout the city from 1898 to 1921 (perhaps due to market saturation), Chinatown remained integral.
In 1926 the Presbytery of New Orleans sold the 215 South Liberty property and moved the Chinese Mission to 223 South Roman Street, depriving Chinatown of an important institution. At the same time, the Chinese American community became increasingly economically and geographically mobile and less dependent on Chinatown to fulfill retail and social needs. Then, in 1937, the downtown side of 1100 Tulane, the heart of Chinatown, was slated for demolition and the merchants were forced to relocate. “Chinatown is moving lock, stock, and herb barrel from Tulane Avenue to the 500 and 600 blocks of Bourbon Street,” announced the Times-Picayune.
As the Chinese American community moved from downtown to the inner suburbs to the outer suburbs, so too did the Chinese Mission. In 1952 it moved from South Roman Street to Mid-City, where, seventy-five years and one day after its foundation by Lena Saunders, it formally organized as the Chinese Presbyterian Church. After most members moved to Jefferson Parish, the church followed them, moving in 1997 to its fourth (and current) home—on West Esplanade Avenue in Kenner–in 115 years.
The “new Chinatown” founded in 1937 on the 500–600 blocks of Bourbon Street was a fraction of its previous size and not nearly as culturally significant as the original.
Chinatown had been, but it lasted roughly the same amount of time (over five decades). Its existence is preserved in a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, in which Blanche DuBois symbolically shades the glare of a naked light bulb with a Chinese paper lantern—purchased, she explains, “at a Chinese shop on Bourbon.” Tennessee Williams once lived around the corner from the Bourbon Street Chinatown and probably patronized it.
The original Chinatown on 1100 Tulane Avenue is today the most utterly obliterated of New Orleans’s historic ethnic enclaves. It had the misfortune of being located precisely where the Central Business District meets the Medical District. Not only have the original Chinese Mission and the adjacent circa-1860 Presbyterian Church been demolished, but also the entire block is now subsumed by Tulane University Medical Center.