Worry Over Rumors in 1906 That The Chinese Were Coming to Brooklyn and the Bronx

The threat in 1906 of replacing New York's unsanitary and crime-ridden Chinatown in lower Manhatten was real. As a hedge against this development, some forward-looking Chinese began to explore alternative sites for their businesses and residences.

Word that the Red Hook section in Brooklyn and the Bronx were being considered by some Chinese created fears that the yellow peril was going to invade their part of town. The acronym, nimby, was not coined until around 1980, but the phenomenon was certainly present in the reactions of whites to the impending invasion of "Orientals."

Interestingly, one Bronx resident had no objection to the presence of some Chinese laundries but he objected to having a large body of Chinese as they would be a menace.  Another resident was more accepting of Chinese, at least in comparison to an influx of Italians into the Bronx.

A Tale of Two Chinatowns in 1906

The two largest Chinatowns in the U.S. in 1906 were in San Francisco and New York.  Both faced major threats to their existence in 1906 but survived and still are iconic in 2019 even though now they are threatened by gentrification and the move by many Chinese residents with resources to suburban areas.

The 1906 disaster of a major earthquake and fire in San Francisco is well known and needs no detailed description.  The photograph by Arnold Genthe says it all. Amazingly, Chinatown, like the rest of the city, rose from the ashes and its Chinese merchants became an attraction for tourism.

Less well known is the 1906 threat to the existence of New York's Chinatown which was not due to natural forces but to social and political factors.  The Mayor and some powerful civic and religious leaders wanted to replace Chinatown, reviled for its filth and vice, with a park.
Feb. 28, 1906 "Tear Down the Dens of Chinatown and Make a Park...

Chinese and their supporters strenuously objected to the proposal and numerous public hearings were held in the spring of 1906.

On March 21, 1906, p. 3, The Evening World, which strongly advocated for the park plan exclaimed that the battle was "good as won."

A search of archival newspapers for the rest of 1906 did not turn up any definitive date for ending the proposal. But support for it died out and it was argued that health and police departments would be a less costly way to deal with the filth and vices than to purchase the land for the park. And so, Chinatown in lower Manhattan dodged its demolition.  The crisis still had some negative collateral damage that will be the subject of another post.


The Majority of Chinese Women and Girls in the U.S. Were Prostitutes in 1870

The vast majority of immigrants who came from China in search of gold in California starting in 1848 and during the 1860s to work on the construction of the western part of the transcontinental railroad were primarily young men.  Most were not married, or if they were, did not bring their wives because they hoped to return to China after they made enough money.

In 1870, there were approximately 58,000 Chinese men and about 4,000 Chinese women and girls identified in the U.S. Census so it is obvious there were few marriages created between Chinese men and women. Anti-Chinese sentiments, as well as Chinese preferences for marrying a Chinese partner, left these thousands of Chinese without sexual outlets, aside from forming homosexual liaisons, a topic that is understudied as a taboo topic, or patronizing prostitutes. In 1870, about 61 percent of the roughly 4,000 Chinese women in California were prostitutes, according to Ronald Takaki in his landmark 1998 study, Strangers in A Different Land. It should be noted that most of these women, some actually barely into puberty, and at least one girl 6 years-old, were coerced or involuntary participants controlled by unscrupulous Chinese.

I was startled by this huge statistic.  For 4,000 females, 61% would be over 2,400 prostitutes. By the way, their patrons were not limited to Chinese men, as "yellow fever" existed among white men even back in the mid-19th century. I decided to check census listings for Chinese women born in China but living in the U.S. in 1870 whose "occupation" was listed as "prostitute."  I should add I saw some towns where the occupation of many women was keeping house" or as "public."  I wonder if those were polite terms for "prostitute." ( I also saw one where the census taker wrote "whore" for one woman's occupation).

I found page after page of census records full of prostitutes. Below are 2 pages for San Francisco in 1870.  Seeing lists of actual names of these prostitutes, many under the age of 15, was more distressing than looking at statistics.

I hasten to add that a place like San Francisco also had many other occupations for Chinese men including cook, peddler, tailor.  jeweler, doctor, barber, cigar maker, and of course, laundryman.

In contrast, in small mining towns such as Silver Bow, Montana, most of the Chinese men were miners along with two laundrymen to wash their clothes and a couple of prostitutes to fulfill their carnal needs. (Note that the census taker did not bother recording their names. All men were listed as  "Chinaman" and the two prostitutes as "Chinawoman"!

Thankfully, a decade later in the 1880 census, although still unacceptably high, there was a big drop in the percentage, 24, of Chinese women working as prostitutes.

Writer Gary Kamiya presented an excellent account of the factors responsible for the high number of Chinese prostitutes and their living conditions in San Francisco in the late 19th century.


The Bizarre Way in which Chinese Gained The Right to Testify in Court

In People v. Hall in 1854, the testimony of Chinese against Hall, a white man accused of murder was disallowed as Chinese were assumed to be inferior to whites. A murder trial involving Chinese testifying against Chinese in 1882 strangely opened the door for Chinese immigrants to testify in court trials.

Yee Shun, a 20-year old Chinese, was visiting a Chinese friend in his laundry in Las Vegas in the New Mexico Territory when a Chinese shot and killed another Chinese during an argument. Chinese witnesses claimed that Yee Shun was the murderer and in 1882 he was sent to prison where he sadly later killed himself.

The irony of Territory of New Mexico v. Yee Shun is that although an innocent man, Yee Shun, was convicted, the acceptance of the testimony of Chinese witnesses set a precedent for the acceptance of testimony from Chinese in subsequent court cases.

It is no consolation to Yee Shun but Albuquerque plans to create a memorial, View from Gold Mountain, to the Yee Shun case.
A model of the planned artwork for downtown Albuquerque memorializing the landmark Territory of New Mexico v. Yee Shun case that gave Chinese the right to testify in courts. 


Shortage of Chinese House Boys After 1882 Exclusion Law

The threat to work for white labor led to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which helped white workers.  However, as reported in an article in 1908 in the New York Sun, it also created an unexpected crisis for white households that wanted to enjoy cheap Chinese domestic servants to cook, clean, and look after young children. Furthermore, when Chinese domestics learned enough English they quit domestic service in favor of opening their own businesses.This shortage forced whites to turn to other 'orientals', the Japanese, for domestic help.

        There were cultural differences between the "Orientals" whether Chinese or Japanese, and their white employers that created problems, but some of the encounters were rather amusing. Here are two examples of Chinese houseboys creating 'problems' for their white employers.

Japanese houseboys also presented some amusing conflicts with their employers.

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