Winston Ho 何嶸.
Rutgers University, New Brunswick,
Departments of History and Asian Languages and Cultures
2015 Apr. 3 (updated 2016 Nov. 13).
[“Chinese New Year: A Trip Through Chinatown,” Times-Democrat (1900 Jan. 31): p. 3.]
While the Chinese are known to have traveled through New Orleans before this time, the first major migration of Chinese into Louisiana took place between 1867 and 1871, during Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War. The earliest Chinese were Cantonese-speaking laborers from the Siyi or “Four Counties” region of central Guangdong province in South China. Most originally came to Louisiana to work as contract laborers on local sugar plantations. By the mid-1870s, nearly all of the laborers had abandoned the slave-like conditions of the plantations, and migrated to the cities of the South, including Baton Rouge and New Orleans, taking jobs as factory workers, fishermen, laborers at levee and railroad construction projects, grocers, and laundrymen.
The laborers were joined by merchants from California and other states, who provided goods and services to the laborers, 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 earliest of these merchant companies was Fou, Loy & Company on 98 Chartres Street (modern 408 Chartres), in the French Quarter at Canal Street. This Chinese 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.
By the 1880s, the merchants had developed a small Chinatown in New Orleans at the end of Tulane Avenue, on the 1100 block between Elk Place and South Rampart Street. 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). Chinatown businesses included grocers and dry good stores, the offices of Chinese import/export companies, apothecaries (where specialists in Traditional Chinese Medicine sold traditional cures), a few laundries, and the meeting halls of several Chinese associations. The New Orleans Chinese Presbyterian Mission was a few block north on 40 South Liberty Street (now 215 South Liberty Street, underneath the modern Tulane Medical Center). There were even restaurants in Chinatown, although it is uncertain whether they actually served Chinese food, cheap Creole food, or some combination of both.
New Orleans Chinatown was a small commercial district, but it was never really an ethnic neighborhood, though it was surrounded by ethnic neighborhoods. As noted by the geographer Richard Campanella, an orthodox Jewish community was adjacent to Chinatown, a large African American community existed to the north, and working-class Italian and other European immigrants lived to the south (Campanella, “Geographies of New Orleans,” 348-349). A few Chinese families and many Chinese bachelors did live in Chinatown, in apartments above the Chinese businesses. However, the majority of the Chinese population of New Orleans 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, Chinese families were dispersed throughout the city.
[Fitzpatrick, William H. “City Chinatown Shifted as Aged Buildings Razed.” Times Picayune (1937 Sep. 21): p. 1. ]
But after existing for six decades, New Orleans Chinatown was demolished in 1937 by the federal government and the Works Project Administration (WPA), an attempt to bring urban redevelopment and economic revitalization to downtown New Orleans during the Great Depression. Other historic neighborhoods were also destroyed during this time, and much of the modern New Orleans Medical District and the Central Business District are results of that project. The historic Chinatown is completely obliterated today, and several office towers stand where Chinatown once existed. The North Rampart Streetcar passes by the site of Chinatown near the Tulane stop, on its way to City Hall. After 1937, a few businesses joined the existing Chinese businesses in the French Quarter, still a predominantly immigrant residential neighborhood at the time. They relocated on or near the 500-block of Bourbon Street, and a second New Orleans Chinatown developed.
However, the Bourbon Street Chinatown was significantly smaller than the original Tulane Avenue Chinatown, and the Chinese community was already undergoing profound change at the time. By the 1940s, the younger, more educated, and more affluent Chinese families were already abandoning the laundry industry and migrating to the suburban neighborhoods of the city, joining the Sicilians, Germans, Irish, and many other immigrant communities that were leaving the city center around the same time. The Bourbon Street Chinatown quietly died out over the next thirty years, and by the 1970s, most Chinese families and businesses in New Orleans were in the Eastbank of Jefferson Parish, where they still are today. The On Leong Merchants’ Association Building on 530 Bourbon Street is the last building from New Orleans Chinatown that is still under Chinese ownership. It is now a retail space and event hall.
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.” Louisiana Cultural Vistas, vol. 18 no 3 (2007 Fall): p. 50-57. http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/leh/lcv-fall07/index.php?startid=50
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.