Winston Ho 何嶸.
Rutgers University, New Brunswick,
Departments of History and Asian Languages and Cultures
2015 Apr. 3 (updated 2019 Nov. 5).
[Blackmar, K.K. “New Orleans Chinese Children.” Daily Picayune (1912 Sep. 22 ): part 3, p. 1, 13. Chinese American children in the New Orleans Chinatown in 1912, from the Daily Picayune. Note that the Southern Railway Terminal between Basin Street is in the lower left photograph. This landmark was located two blocks away from Chinatown across Canal Street, and the park-like neutral ground here was the nearest greenspace to Chinatown.]
While small numbers of Chinese are known to have lived in New Orleans before the Civil War, the first major migration of Chinese into Louisiana took place between 1867 and 1871, during Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War. They were Cantonese-speaking laborers from the Siyi or “Four Counties” region of central Guangdong province in South China, who originally came to Louisiana as contract laborers on local sugar plantations. By the mid-1870s, nearly all of the laborers had abandoned the slave-like conditions on the plantations, migrating to the cities of the South, including Baton Rouge and New Orleans, taking jobs as cooks, factory workers, fishermen, railroad construction workers, and laundrymen. Most ultimately returned to California or China, but many other laborers took their place, and there has been a coherent Chinese American community in New Orleans ever since.
The laborers were joined by Cantonese-speaking merchants, who imported tea and luxury goods to the Port of Orleans, and exported Southern cotton and Gulf Coast dried shrimp to Hong Kong, the ports of Asia, and Chinatowns around the world. One of the first of these merchant companies was the Fou Loy & Company on 98 Chartres Street (modern 408 Chartres), in the French Quarter at Canal Street. Fou Loy & company was an import/export business that originally sold groceries and dried goods to the laborers, but became an exporter of Louisiana dried shrimp by the end of the century. This company was described in newspapers in 1871, and also appears in the 1872 City Directory, perhaps the first Chinese-owned businesses to advertise in New Orleans.
[“Chinese Minister — He is Variously Entertained by His Admirers.” Times-Democrat (1900 Mar. 1): p. 3. Chinese American business and community leaders in New Orleans in 1900.]
By the end of the 1880s, the merchants had developed a small Chinatown in New Orleans at the end of Tulane Avenue. The center of Chinatown was a row of commercial properties on both sides of the 1100 block of Tulane between Elk Place and South Rampart Street. Several related structures and private residences were located in the surrounding blocks. When it existed, New Orleans Chinatown was indeed referred to as “Chinatown” by local newspapers, though it was also sometimes known as the Chinese colony or the Chinese quarter. None of the buildings in Chinatown were actually built by the Chinese, but were American-style townhouses, typical of the Faubourg St. Marie district. Except for a few Chinese signs, Chinatown was indistinguishable from the surrounding neighborhoods. The Chinese were renters, and all of the buildings they rented belonged to local landlords (Campanella, “Geographies of New Orleans,” 349-350).
[Chinese Presbyterian Mission of New Orleans 紐奧良華人長老會 in 1937, in Chinatown on 1117 Tulane Avenue. Postcard by the Curt Teich company, from the library of Chinese Presbyterian Church. Another copy can be found at the Historic New Orleans Collection, 1958.85.197. Founded in 1882, this was the oldest and largest Chinese American organization in the city, and still exist today as the Chinese Presbyterian Church in Kenner.]
As noted by the geographer Richard Campanella, an orthodox Jewish community was located to the west, a large African American community existed in Back O’Town to the north, and working-class Italian and other European immigrants lived to the south and east (Campanella, “Geographies of New Orleans,” 348-349). As with most New Orleans neighborhoods, the boundaries of Chinatown were not fixed, but overlapped with the surrounding neighborhoods. Census schedules indicate that the area around Chinatown was socially and ethnically diverse, with wealthy Chinese merchants living alongside common laborers, and Chinese Americans living alongside African Americans and European immigrants. In the 1890s, almost all of the Chinese who lived in Chinatown were men. These were the sojourners 留客, single and married men who earned money overseas, while supporting wives, children, and elderly parents who remained in their hometowns in China.
[Sun Wah Long company 新和隆 in 1937 in Chinatown on 1117 Tulane Avenue, by the Times-Picayune. One of several groceries that served the local Chinese American community.]
By the 1900s, these men began moving their wives to live with them New Orleans, and women and a growing number of American-born Chinese also began living in Chinatown. But while bachelors and a few families did live in Chinatown itself, the majority of Chinese Americans lived near their places of work, and most Chinese in New Orleans before the 1930s worked in small family-owned hand-wash laundries, which were dispersed throughout the city. Likewise, the families were dispersed throughout the city. Chinatown served as the social and commercial center for this Chinese American community, and it connected New Orleans through migration and trade to other North American Chinatowns, such as San Francisco and New York, as well as cities in China itself, such as Hong Kong and Shanghai.
[“New Orleans Chinese Captains of Industry.” Daily Picayune (1911 Jul. 2): p. 14. Porcelain, lacquer furniture, silks, and other luxury goods for sale inside a Chinese import/export store.]
Chinatown businesses included groceries, import/export stores, apothecaries (where specialists prescribed traditional Chinese medicine), restaurants, and meeting halls for several Chinese American organizations. Founded in 1882, the oldest and largest of these organizations was the Chinese Presbyterian Mission of New Orleans 紐奧良華人長老會 on 40 South Liberty Street (now 215 South Liberty Street, underneath the modern Tulane Medical Center). This religious institution marked the northern boundary of Chinatown, and it offered a wide range of spiritual and secular services to the Chinese American community, including language and immigration services. The New Orleans chapter of the Chee Kung Tong on South Basin Street was a secular benevolent association. Their building served primarily as a meeting hall, and included a small traditional Chinese religious shrine on the second floor. Chinatown organizations and businesses served mostly the local Chinese American community. Groceries such as the Sun Wah Long company on 1117 Tulane Avenue sold tea, rice, noodles, spices, dried vegetables, dried meats, candied fruits, and other goods for Chinese cooking.
[Ben Hong Low restaurant on 156 Basin Street (156 Elk Place). Photograph by C.J. Meyers Sr. 1918. Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection, 1983.159. A Chinatown restaurant that served Chinese American food to non-Chinese patrons. Note the English-language menu painted to the right of the door, which says “Chicken Chop Suey” and “Yet Yok Min.”]
However, many businesses served both Chinese and non-Chinese patrons. The import/export stores sold silk gowns, quilted coats, lacquer furniture, porcelain, paper fans and lanterns, incense, fireworks, and other luxury products from China, which were purchased by local New Orleanians. Restaurants, such as the Ben Hong Low restaurant on 156 South Basin Street, were frequented by non-Chinese. Their menus were written in English, and they served both Creole favorites and Americanized Chinese American food, such as chop suey and something called yet yok min (almost certainly the noodle dish called yakamein today. Louis Armstrong grew up in Back O’Town just north of Chinatown in the 1910s, and he describes dining at Chinatown restaurants with his family as a child. According to Armstrong, Chinatown included “a few little beat up restaurants serving soul food on the same menu as their Chinese dishes… And the Bill those days were real cheap. And we thought we were having something Big” (Armstrong, “Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New Orleans, LA, 1907,” 1969). There is even evidence that stores selling traditional Chinese medicine were frequented by non-Chinese, as the Chinese sold medicine for chronic pain, which Western medicine had largely ignored until the twentieth-century. Located only one block from Canal Street, down the street from Charity Hospital, the French Quarter, Storyville, and the Southern Railway Terminal, the New Orleans Chinatown was once a major commercial shopping district in the center of the city.
[Fitzpatrick, William H. “City Chinatown Shifted as Aged Buildings Razed.” Times Picayune (1937 Sep. 21): p. 1.]
But after six decades, the New Orleans Chinatown was demolished in 1937 by the federal government and the Works Project Administration (WPA), an attempt during the Great Depression to bring urban redevelopment and economic revitalization to downtown New Orleans. The surrounding neighborhood was also destroyed, including an earlier Charity Hospital (a new charity hospital was built in its place). The historic Chinatown is completely obliterated today, and parts of the modern Medical District and the Central Business District stand where Chinatown once existed. The North Rampart Streetcar at the library and the Tulane Avenue stop passes through the center of Chinatown, on its way to City Hall.
After 1937, a few businesses joined the existing Chinese Americans businesses in the French Quarter, which was still a residential immigrant neighborhood at the time. The Chinese were concentrated between the 500-block and 600-block of Bourbon Street around St. Louis Street, forming a second New Orleans Chinatown. However, the French Quarter Chinatown was significantly smaller than the original Tulane Avenue Chinatown, and it was more even more dispersed and indistinguishable from the surrounding neighborhood. The Chinese American community itself was experiencing profound change by the 1950s, as younger, more educated, and more affluent Chinese American families were abandoning the laundry industry and migrating to the suburban neighborhoods of the city, joining the Sicilians, Germans, Irish, Jewish, and many other immigrant communities that were leaving the city center around the same time. The French Quarter Chinatown died out over the next thirty years, and by the 1970s, most Chinese Americans families and businesses in New Orleans were in the Eastbank of Jefferson Parish, where they still are today. The last Chinese-owned building from the New Orleans Chinatown, On Leong Merchants’ Association Building on 530 Bourbon Street was sold in spring of 2019.
何嶸《紐奧良市法區第二唐人街調查》 Ho, Winston. Survey of the Second New Orleans Chinatown in the French Quarter. https://www.academia.edu/40188223/_%E7%B4%90%E5%A5%A7%E8%89%AF%E5%B8%82%E6%B3%95%E5%8D%80%E7%AC%AC%E4%BA%8C%E5%94%90%E4%BA%BA%E8%A1%97%E8%AA%BF%E6%9F%A5_Survey_of_the_Second_New_Orleans_Chinatown_in_the_French_Quarter
____. “Chinese Minister — He is Variously Entertained by His Admirers.” Times-Democrat (1900 Mar. 1): p. 3.
____. “New Orleans Chinese Captains of Industry.” Daily Picayune (1911 Jul. 2): p. 14.
Armstrong, Louis. “Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New Orleans, LA, 1907.” Written in 1969. Louis Armstrong in His Own Words: Selected Writings, p. 5-6. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Blackmar, K.K. “New Orleans Chinese Children.” Daily Picayune (1912 Sep. 22 ): part 3, p. 1, 13.
Campanella, Richard. “Chinatown, New Orleans.” Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics before the Storm. University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2006. Pages 377–355.
Campanella, Richard. “Chinatown New Orleans.” 64 Parishes, 2013. https://64parishes.org/entry/chinatown
Campanella, Richard. “Chinatown New Orleans.” Louisiana Cultural Vistas, vol. 18 no 3 (2007 Fall): p. 50-57.
Campanella, Richard. “The Lost History of New Orleans’ Two Chinatowns.” Times-Picayune NOLA.com (2015 Mar. 6). http://www.nola.com/homegarden/index.ssf/2015/03/the_lost_history_of_new_orlean.html
Fitzpatrick, William H. “City Chinatown Shifted as Aged Buildings Razed.” Times Picayune (1937 Sep. 21): p. 1.