Chinatown in lower Manhattan is the oldest and most English accessible of the main Chinatowns in NYC. This Chinatown was established in the 1970s as the Chinese population rose in the city. Chinese immigrants started moving into areas together as a means of support for each other and a possibility of avoiding discrimination. They moved into the Mott, Pell, and Doyers street areas and slowly expanded from there.
The Chinese were barred from becoming citizens and started forming their own communities and protections. In the 1880s they formed a merchants association – Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association – and set up a modest government with a “mayor” of the area.
The Chinese exclusion act made it difficult for regular Chinese immigrants to come into the United States, but even more so for Chinese women. Until the 1960s, most of Chinatown was male. There were over 4000 men here, but only 36 married women. Single, unemployed women were assumed to be prostitutes and were not allowed into the country. Many of the Chinese men that married American women often married Irish immigrant women as they operated in the same low status in the city (and country in general).
Many Chinese men were kept out of white color jobs. Often it was discrimination, but also they lacked literacy in English. This caused many to enter jobs that were considered more “domestic” or “feminine” including laundries and restaurants.
Chinatowns throughout the United States began attracting tourists almost immediately. I would love to say they came for the food, but many white tourists came to gawk at the “strange people and unusual customs” of the residents. Chinese-Americans took advantage of the tourists by providing “experiences” in food like chop suey and in theatre. Some gave tours of the more “dangerous” aspects of Chinatown with opium dens and prostitution dens staged for visits.
Manhattan’s Chinatown still thrives on tourism and most places you go will have people very fluent in English and all menus and signs will have English translations. Read the menus close, there are some very fun translations to be found.
This is definitely the most tourist and English-speaker friendly of the Chinatowns I visited in the city. I will highlight a few of my favorite places, but stop in anywhere. There is great food, great people and interesting things to see behind every door and down every street.