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Many do not realize that New York’s thriving Chinatown is a suprisingly recent phenomenon.  Even during America’s open immigration years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chinese were not welcome.  The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 formalized ugly prejudice.

New York’s Chinatown stayed very small, surrounded in the early 20th century by Italian and Jewish immigrants.

Lower East Side in 1920 (Chinese yellow, Italian blue, East European Jews purple)

Even as late as 1950, Chinatown was small.

1950: Highest concentrations of Chinese shaded dark red, lower percentages orange to tan

Chinese Exclusion stayed in effect de facto until 1965, when the racist provisions of US immigration law were removed, liberalizing immigration by all non-European groups.

Only 5 years later in 1970, Chinatown had already expanded greatly. Italians and Jews had already left for middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods elsewhere

Chinatown in 1970 (higher percentage Chinese shown as darker red-brown)

Today Chinatown is one of Manhattan’s most thriving neighborhoods. Other East Asian immigrants also congregate there.

The ladder out of poverty continues for today’s immigrants, following the Italians and Eastern Europeans, who in turn had followed the Germans and Irish.

The next time I have dim sum at Jing Fong on Elizabeth Street, I’ll raise a glass of green tea to immigration freedom.

Credits: The Lower East Side in 1920 map is from Eric Homberger, The Historical Atlas of New York City, Henry Holt and Company, 2005, p. 136. The other maps are from the great software program and database, Social Explorer.
Chinatown in 2007

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  1. Oscar Abello wrote:

    Nice read. I think it’s also worth mentioning that there are Chinese who have moved up the ladder and out to other neighborhoods–Flushing, Queens to be precise, creating thriving East Asian communities there while still drawing new influxes into the original Chinatown on a large scale, fueling its continued expansion.

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  2. fundamentalist wrote:

    Maybe Chinese immigrants can do for the US what they have accomplished in Asia. Chinese dominate business in Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. Investment from them and their Chinese brethren in Hong Kong and Taiwan have driven the economic miracle in mainland China. Chinese seem to know business.

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink
  3. William Easterly wrote:

    Comment I received on Facebook:

    If anyone is interested to learn more about the Chinese Exclusion Act, take a look at the Chinese Historical Society of America (SF). Trivia: the largest Chinese New Year Parade in the world (outside of China) is in SF!

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Permalink
  4. Stephen Smith wrote:

    What people really don’t realize is that the Chinatown in Flushing, Queens is actually larger than the Chinatown in Manhattan. I wrote about this and other New York Chinatown(s)-related facts a few weeks ago…

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  5. S wrote:

    Really, Jing Fong? You should learn a bit more about the continued oppression of Chinese immigrants, starting with the illegal labor practices at that particular dim sum palace. There is a lot of shadiness going on in the shadows of what some see as a “thriving Chinatown.” Very few Chinatown residents are reaping those rewards.

    Posted August 19, 2010 at 10:48 pm | Permalink
  6. William Easterly wrote:

    Dear S, I am happy to have you educate me on this. This kind of debate almost always comes up when a previously very poor group is experiencing economic growth — who is getting the rewards, is there oppression of the working class, do you define oppression as low wages or are there also human rights violations, and so on. I’d be glad to hear more from you on these issues.

    Posted August 20, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

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