Photographs by Alex Lau for The New York Times
Manhattan’s Chinatown and its roughly 100,000 residents took a triple hit from Covid-19 this spring. On top of the virus, the White House stoked xenophobia, and the neighborhood’s traditional charms suddenly turned into liabilities with the challenge of social distancing in cramped restaurants and shops and on narrow streets. Ordinarily, millions of visitors a year pack those streets. They all but vanished.
Nancy Yao Maasbach is president of Chinatown’s Museum of Chinese in America. She grew up in Flushing, Queens, after her family failed to win the lottery for an apartment at Confucius Plaza, the Mitchell-Lama housing project on the Bowery, which, since the 1970s, has been home to thousands of Chinatown residents. “Flushing was still predominantly Italian and Jewish back then,” she told me. “I grew up thinking I was a young Jewish woman locked in a Chinese body.”
This is the latest in a series of (condensed, edited) walks around town. Today, Flushing’s Chinatown and the Chinatown in Sunset Park in Brooklyn have come to dwarf Manhattan’s. But the tiny community that took root by the 1870s along Doyers, Pell and lower Mott Streets, in what was then a slum called Five Points, remains the origin story for Chinese culture in New York.
The neighborhood began to grow with the arrival of Chinese laborers driven from the American West after the Gold Rush and the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 meant Chinese in America found themselves prevented from becoming citizens and denied other basic rights. Until the mid-1960s, only a handful of Chinese were legally permitted to enter the country. Chinatowns across the country were formed to provide Chinese communities with a support network and protective shield against racism.
An organization like the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association on Mott Street — the C.C.B.A. — arose to serve as a de facto town hall for Chinese in New York, advocating for equal rights, offering social services and other programs.
The neighborhood’s insularity, working-class identity and pride, its architecture, demographics, culture and economy are all rooted in this legacy of adversity, self-reliance and resilience.