Neighborhood Spotlight: Chinatown

Today kicks off the Chinese Lantern Festival in Manhattan’s Chinatown, a 2,000 year old tradition that dates back to the Han Dynasty and marks the return of spring, the first full moon night in the Chinese calendar, and the last day of Chinese New Year festivities. It’s a perfect excuse to head down to the Chinatown neighborhood.

Image © SeanPavonePhoto / DPC
Image © SeanPavonePhoto / DPC

One of the things I appreciate most about New York City is the rich history that each neighborhood was built upon. Chinatown has a fascinating story and is worth a self guided tour if you haven’t already gotten to know the area bounded roughly by Grand /Worth/Allen and Lafayette Streets.

Two hundred years ago there were no Chinese people in NYC. Today, Manhattan’s Chinatown has the largest concentration of Chinese people living in the Western Hemisphere, with between 70K-150K people in the 2 square mile neighborhood.

The original emigration of Chinese men occurred with the gold rush of the mid 1800s as well as the building of the Transcontinental Railroads across the United States. When those jobs were done, however, the Chinese people were persecuted by Americans who claimed that Chinese people were stealing their jobs by working for lower wages and by accepting poor working conditions. This was when the Chinese people began heading East towards New York.

Image © skrum / DPC
Image © skrum / DPC

Some historical accounts claim that the first Chinese man who settled in what is now Chinatown was a man named Ah Ken, a Cantonese merchant who arrived in the 1850s. Ken had a cigar shop on Park Row and then, when he earned enough money, moved his shop to Mott Street. He provided boarding for newcomers of Chinese descent, most of whom came from the region of Guangdong, China. Racism was prevalent even in New York and this led to a very closed community among the Chinese who then formed Tongs, secret societies that were tied to clan associations, political alliances, and secret criminal activity. The associations offered protection from harassment and helped give loans to newcomers for starting businesses. They also protected those who ran opium dens, gambling rings, and brothels throughout the lower Mott Street area. It was predominantly a bachelor town; by the 1880s there were about 2,000 Chinese men and only about 100 Chinese women in Chinatown. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, made it illegal for Chinese people to move to the United States (because they were a “threat” to American laborers). This stopped the growth of Chinatown until the law was repealed in 1943, and moreso in 1965 with the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Now the NYC Metropolitan area has the largest ethnic Chinese population outside of Asia, with a population of approximately 800,000.

In 2010, Chinatown (and Little Italy) were listed as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.

Real estate prices in Chinatown have driven many residents out of the mostly tenement buildings, however prices are much less in Chinatown than in the rest of lower Manhattan; a 22 unit building is on the market for under $10M and a 4 bedroom apartment is on the market for $1.5M; a small two bedroom rental can be found for under $2,500/month.

Check out these five great places to see in Chinatown, compliments of a list created by

  • A 37 year old, 800-Seat Chinese restaurant with more than 100 dishes on the menu,
  • The Museum of Chinese in America which offers free entry every first Thursday of the month
  • Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy, the “herbal Duane Reade,” where you can get $40 acupuncture treatments on Thursday afternoons
  • The Mahayana Buddhist Temple
  • And don’t miss Wo Hop, a basement Cantonese cash-only restaurant that stays open from 10 AM until 7 AM (yes, 7 AM) and where almost everything on the menu is under $10

And best wishes for a prosperous Year of the Ram.

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