Counting How Many Chinese Live in Chinatown

What is going on in this photograph from New York Chinatown in 1925?  Perhaps the white man is asking the Chinese man where he can find some good chop suey?

Well, actually the photograph shows a white census enumerator speaking to the Chinese man with two young children on a New York Chinatown street.  One wonders whether he is  seeking directions,  just having a friendly conversation, or actually conducting a census interview right on the street.  After all, living quarters in Chinatown were pretty crowded and Chinese may not have been eager to allow white strangers into their places of residence.  If he is collecting census information, one wonders whether the Chinese man has sufficient command of English to understand the questions.  And, whether he is anxious or suspicious about the uses that the data will have, especially if he is an illegal immigrant?

U. S. Census data serves many useful purposes for different fields of research and application including demography, social policy, history, immigration, migration, and genealogy. Given the difficulty and expense of locating people at their residences, there are still many people who are not counted and their demographic, occupational, and familial data are missing.  Such issues are not as troublesome if one is primarily interested in determining general patterns or relative counts of the size of subgroups, but can be disastrous when one is searching for specific individuals.

I found a fascinating blog post recently (first of nine posts) by writer S. Tremaine Nelson describing how he and two friends, one an artist and the other a photographer, made some naturalistic or ethnographic observations in a small public area, Columbus Park, in the heart of New York's Chinatown.  His blog post provides transcripts of their comments and interpretations of the observed patterns of behavior and social interactions among people, accompanied by wonderful candid black and white photographs.  Their work provides a qualitative portrait of the Chinese community in contrast to a census enumeration which focuses on quantitative aspects. Nelson wrote:

The part of Nelson's post that grabbed my attention was his explanation for how he became interested in making his study of Chinatown daily public life.  I am only going to describe these background experiences that led the author to decide to make the naturalistic observations in the first place because those experiences illustrate some major weaknesses of census data collection that are rarely discussed.  I will not discuss their actual observations and analyses, intriguing and enlightening as they are, but I encourage you to read the posts in their entirety,

Specifically, in 2010 Nelson worked for the Census Bureau in New York's Chinatown. He was struck by the huge disparity in the count of residents (15) that a field-worker obtained and the count (70) that a Chinese-speaking co-worker obtained from followup phone calls made to check on reliability of results at a single address that served as a dormitory where Chinese male workers rented bunks, stacked four high in a 10 ft. x 10 ft. room, by the hour.

Nelson described the procedures used by the Chinese-speaking coworker.

Thus, 'residents' only spent a few hours at this dormitory, with different shifts of workers sleeping there at different hours throughout the day. By taking samples at different hours, the count continued to increase whereas a single sample would yield a much smaller count.

This example illustrates one of the many unforeseen problems that can yield inaccurate census information.  If the census enumerator had knowledge of the living conditions of working men in Chinatown, the undercount might not have occurred.


  1. I was careless in dating the photo around 1925; it was in 1930.

  2. A related post on taking the Chinese census on this blog July 30:



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