Making Chinatown

By Bill Wander

In the mid 1880’s, a fad known as ‘slumming’ swept New Yorkers of a comfortable class. It had its origins in London, where people made a pastime of visiting poorer neighborhoods in search of adventure and intrigue. It was not all that bad; the trend led to the movement for civic betterment. But it was slumming that turned Chinatown into a tourist destination.

New York had its ethnic neighborhoods all along the downtown areas. There was no “Little Italy” there was an Italian Quarter. Likewise the Hebrew Quarter and Kleindeutschland (little Germany). There was no Irish section, that was just the slums. The term Chinatown was used to describe the Chinese area of San Francisco many years before it would used to describe the neighborhood where the Chinese lived in New York. The Chinese Quarter, The Celestial Quarter, and the Mongolian Quarter (even if the residents hailed from Canton) gave way to the tourist- friendly term “Chinatown”.

There was a mixed feeling about the Chinese vs. Chinese goods. Things Chinese were exotic, desirable and sought after – silks, porcelains, embroidered goods, jades and teak wood, all found their way into the “Oriental” goods of the finer department stores. Chinatown shops offered them as well. The Chinese New Yorkers were a different thing. The male only population was often referred to collectively as “John Chinaman” at the most polite times, while the opposite of the spectrum knew them as laundrymen, gamblers, opium smokers, heathen Chinese, superstitious, and rat eaters.

With that in mind, it was food that made Chinatown a destination then, and the same goes for New York’s two newest Chinatowns today. The Irishman who guided you to your lunch was Chuck Conners, known in the turn of the last century newspapers as the ‘Mayor of Chinatown.’ It is not easy to find the real Chuck Conners with the embellishments that he added to his biography and character in the newspapers. In particular, the Police Gazette profile of Mr. Connors was created with the raw material he provided them. His name is reported to have been George Washington O’Conner, but he went by Chuck in his short boxing career, and later as a tour guide, or lobbygow.

Connors affected a bowler hat, and a pea coat with pearl buttons – he could often be found at the bar of a Bowery saloon, ready to be engaged to give the curious a tour of Chinatown, and lead the sightseer down the angled streets to the foreign land just steps from the steetcar. There were the curio shops, the street peddlers, the herb, spice and tea shops, and a stop for lunch in a restaurant that would give the visitor a taste of China, or what they thought was Chinese – Chop Suey. He led the gullible into a dark basement apartment where actors played opium smokers lulled into a stupor for the satisfaction of the tourist in search of decadence.

Connors counted among his clients actors, reporters, Tammany Hall politicians, and even Sir Thomas Lipton, America’s Cup challenger and importer of groceries and tea. Connors lived in Chinatown, at 6 Doyers Street, over a saloon in a flat provided for him by Richard Fox, editor of the Police Gazette. (The Post Office stands there today.)The merchants of Chinatown recognized the positive effect he had on business, and over time he gained the respect and appreciation of the residents of Chinatown.

What would separate Chinatown from the other ethnic enclaves would be restaurants – dining halls aimed at the outsider, to give them a taste of the exotic, or at least what they wanted to think was exotic. By the early 20th Century, three restaurants catered to the outsider, but were also the place the successful Chinese merchant celebrated and dined. All three (The Chinese Tuxedo, The Port Arthur, and the Chinese Delmonico) shared one thing in common – they were at the very edge of Chinatown, visible from the Bowery. No venturing down to the center; to dangerous Mulberry Bend, the Chinese Tuxedo could be glimpsed from the Third Avenue elevated train, The Port Arthur and the Chinese Delmonico were literally steps from the Bowery, and a quick retreat to what was then a somewhat safe street of entertainment and commerce, in the days before the Bowery descended into skid row.

In 1903, The Oriental Restaurant at 3 Pell Street featured the inevitable “Chop Sooy” for fifteen cents and a small chicken chow mein for forty cents. Birds nest soup and shark fin soup were $1.50 and $2, respectively. The menu was ala carte, with rice or bread and butter at five cents. But the most unusual item on the menu might have been “Hong Sooy Un Doy” – Rice with maple syrup – for ten cents.

In the early part of the 20th century, when Chinese gamblers fought on the streets of Chinatown in what would become known as the Tong Wars, Chuck was there to try to make peace, because he knew the crime wave was bad for business. When Connors passed on in 1913, sixty-three coaches with mourners and six coaches filled with floral arrangements made up the procession from the Church of the Transfiguration. A Chinese band crashed cymbals on the street sending him to a final rest at Calvary Cemetery in Queens.

His obituary in The Sun said “Chuck really played an important part in the life of Chinatown. He possessed the confidence of the Chinese. . . ” Chuck Connors, for all his faults, opened the door to the Chinese Quarter, allowing the merchants to sell to those outside their community. Many of them flourished years before there was a Little Italy, the jazz clubs of 1920’s Harlem, or the bohemian attraction of Greenwich Village. But it was a good day when Chop Suey was banished from the menu.