New York’s Chinatown Described In 1898

Joss Houses, Chinese Restaurants and Opium Smoking

Chinatown 1896 looking at 22 Mott Street

Bing Chung Importers (near left) in the heart of Chinatown at 22 Mott Street in 1896

The great thing about reading old guidebooks to New York City is that you can see the world through contemporary eyes. This usually means all foreigners were viewed as curiosities with their exotic customs and provincial ways.

In 1897 the Chinese population in New York City was only 7,000 – almost all living in Chinatown centered around Mott Street. In 2015, New York City’s Chinese population is now over 500,000 people spread throughout the five boroughs.

The guidebook we quote from is Rand, McNally Handy Guide to New York City, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and other suburbs included in the Greater New York edited by Ernest Ingersoll (1898). This portion is called “A Ramble At Night”, and the visitor to New York is directed to tour the areas of New York that are off the beaten path after 9 p.m. such as Little Italy and The Bowery. The purpose of the night ramble is to “give some hints as how the dark, crowded, hard-working, and sometimes criminal portions of the city look at night.” Reproduced below is the section on the Chinatown. 

Chinatown and the Chinese.

Chinatown Mott StreetAt the top of the slope of Baxter St. is Mott St., and here in daylight an extremely picturesque and foreign scene is presented as you look back at the rickety tenements -and the chaffering crowd of excitable hucksters. Mott St from Bayard to Chatham Sq., is the heart of Chinatown. Here, or in the immediate neighborhood, the majority of the 7,000 Chinese in New York has its home, though its work may be done to a large extent somewhere else. Here are the joss houses, the civil officers of the colony, the merchants, the tailors, and shoemakers, the lodging-houses and restaurants, the gambling rooms and opium-smoking places.

The latest estimate by the Chinese Consulate (26 W. 9th St.) places the number of Chinese in New York and Brooklyn at about 7,000. All come from a little territory in the province of Kwantung, in part known as the Sam Yup, or Four Towns, and the Sz’ Yup or Three Towns. Some thirty “companies” of merchants are enumerated in New York, and many of them do a large business, not only at home, but in supplying Chinese shops in outlying towns. Their stock is mainly imported direct, and includes a wide range of goods. These stores are always open, of course, to visitors, and in each of them a clerk or proprietor English will be found. The largest wholesale ones are in Mott St. and Chatham Sq.; but the most showy retail shops in Pell St., at the lower end of the Bowery. Their habits of personal cleanliness are maintained, their streets are by all odds the cleanest in that part of the city, the buildings in which they live are well swept and kept in good repair, and their quarters, though smelling of incense smoke, and otherwise strangely malodorous to Caucasian nostrils, and despite their crowded condition, far surpass in wholesome cleanliness the tenements of the foreigners around them.

The hour of this walk is too late, of course, to enable us to enter the stores, whose upright signs, with big carved characters and little knots and tassels of cloth, glimmer picturesquely in the gaslight. What we can see through the darkened windows induces a resolve to come here again by daylight. The front of a building on the eastern side of the way attracts attention. It is covered with balconies hung with gaudy signs and ornaments, and illuminated by large octagonal lanterns of colored glass. This is the new temple or joss house at No. 16, which is worth a visit.

A Joss House

We enter the hall, and climb two pairs of stairs to the front room, where the noise made by our entrance brings an aged and shriveled attendant, who bows his welcome, shaking his own hands the while, instead of shaking ours. One side of the room is filled with a great shrine of magnificently carved ebony columns and arches, within which carved figures covered with gold leaf are placed, the whole resembling somewhat the stage-setting of a tiny theater. The extreme back of the shrine is occupied by a half-length painting representing, they tell you, Gwan Gwing Shing To, the only original god of the Chinese Empire. On his left is the woman-like figure of his grand secretary, Lee Poo, and on his right, in fiercest battle array, is Tu Chong, the grand bodyguard. A row of candles, set like theater footlights, illuminates the painting, and brings out all its barbaric splendor. About three feet in front of the shrine is a massive carved table upon which are arranged the brass jars, joss sticks, sandle-wood urns, and all the offerings and sacrifices peculiar to this worship. It is before this table, after lighting his incense sticks and his sacred paper, that the Mongolian worshiper makes his devotional salaams, pours his tiny libation of rice wine, and repeats the ritual of prayers’ enjoined upon him. The religion of this people, as manifested here, is, however, accompanied by little sacredness.

A Chinese Theater is conducted at 18 Doyer St., which may be visited by anyone, and (in parties) by ladies. The plays and audience are thoroughly and characteristically Chinese, by actors of ability, are never offensive, and often are comical. Admission, 25 cents. Confections and sugar-cane are sold, and everybody smokes.

Several Chinese restaurants are carried on in this quarter, and on Saturday nights and Sundays, when Chinamen flock in here to visit friends and make purchases, they are crowded. The largest one is kept by Kee Keng Low on the third floor (front) of 16 Mott St.. Another is at 16 Doyer St. Each room has a number of small and tall tables, surrounded by high-seated chairs, but the furnishing in general is bare and disappointing. One can get here a meal, cooked and served in an exclusive Chinese way, as long and elaborate as he likes, but the prices are rather high, the surroundings are not inviting, and visitors often content themselves with a cup of tea (served with the stems, etc. in a cup covered ‘in a cup covered by an inverted saucer) and some small, round fruit-cakes. If you wish to taste their peculiar rice-spirit, it will be served in cups holding a thimbleful, and you will find this quite enough, probably, and hasten afterward to eat or drink the most pungent things you can find to get the unspeakably disgusting taste it leaves upon the palate.

Opium-smoking rooms, popularly called ” joints,” are hidden away in Pell and Doyer Sts., but it is dangerous to visit them, as the police are likely to raid them at any moment, and the consequences to every-one found there are exceedingly unpleasant. The price of ” hitting the pipe is $1. The habit has spread outside the Chinese quarter, and now ” joints” exist uptown, whose patrons are wholly white men and women, who yield themselves to the pipe without any restraint of dignity or decency. They are, however, rigidly suppressed by the police, and an “experience” is likely to end in jail.

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