#19: Alliances and Associations

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191 Canal Street

196 Canal Street

196 Canal Street










The two buildings sit directly across from each other on Canal Street. The first, 191 Canal, is located at the same address as the prewar tenement that once housed the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance of New York City, an organization of Chinese American laundrymen founded in 1933. The second, 196 Canal, was formerly home to the Chinese Hand Laundry Association of New York City, a laundrymen’s group started in 1934 as a direct rival to the Alliance.

Canal Street in the 1930s. Courtesy New York Municipal Archives.

Canal Street in the 1930s. Courtesy New York Municipal Archives.

Both of the organizations owed their existence to a 1933 attempt by the Board of Aldermen to pass a laundry ordinance that would have put most Chinese-owned laundries in the city out of business. Dennis Mahon, an alderman close to white laundry owners who viewed the Chinese businesses as their worst competitors, wrote the ordinance and pushed for its passage. More New York Chinese worked in hand laundries than in any other sector of the economy (restaurants were the other major occupation in the community), so the ordinance would have been disastrous for them.

Regardless, the city’s Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), which claimed to represent and defend all Chinese Americans in New York, demanded the laundrymen pay a fee in order for the CCBA to assist them. The laundrymen were incensed, because they already paid the CCBA a yearly “registration” fee that the organization required from all Chinese-owned businesses in the city.

A crusading newspaperman, Y.K. Chu, criticized the CCBA’s move in the newspaper he edited, the Chinese Journal of Commerce (Shangbao). With Chu’s help, the laundrymen organized the Alliance and successfully fought the ordinance without the CCBA’s help. Frightened by this independence, and the threat it posed to the CCBA’s power and fee-collecting ability, the organization used many tactics to undermine the Alliance. Among other things, the CCBA tried to stop the Alliance from incorporating and got the local courts to slap an injunction on Y.K. Chu’s paper. Finally, the CCBA encouraged and probably bankrolled the creation of the Association in 1934.

105 Mott Street

105 Mott Street

The Association never succeeded in attracting the Alliance’s loyal members. Still, discord over the increasing leftism of core Alliance leaders pushed many centrists in the group to quit it by the late 1930s. This strengthened the more radical voices in the organization. In 1940, the now smaller but more ideologically homogeneous Alliance founded its own newspaper, the China Daily News, with the quiet help of the Chinese Communist Party. The new paper published from an office at 105 Mott Street, just across the street from the Alliance office.


Printers produce the China Daily News. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Printers produce the China Daily News. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The China Daily News proved popular in the community, competing with several other papers–including the Chinese Journal of Commerce, which the Alliance’s old champion, Y.K. Chu, still edited. In 1946, the success of the Alliance and its paper enabled it to purchase outright the 191 Canal building.

However, the Cold War proved to be the leftist group’s undoing. In 1949, the Alliance and the China Daily News openly celebrated the founding of the People’s Republic of China. A year later, when the PRC entered the Korean War against the United States and the other United Nations forces, PRC sympathizers faced persecution. The Alliance and its newspaper did not escape US government scrutiny and punishment. In 1952, the Justice Department charged the China Daily News and its staff with violating US law by printing ads for PRC banks, and instructions to Chinese Americans on how to circumvent the “Trading with the Enemy Act” to send remittances to family members in China. Found guilty in 1954, the paper’s manager, Eugene Moy, died in jail a few years later. Other newspaper staff and Alliance members left the US voluntarily or were deported. Those who remained became uncritical apologists for the PRC.

The Alliance by that point had already lost much of what it gained in the previous decades. It sold its building in 1951. The CCBA and other groups in the community organized a boycott of the China Daily News, which newspaper vendors now feared carrying. FBI agents hounded subscribers. The paper struggled on, but only with the help of leftists across the country, who donated to the organ’s defense fund. The China Daily News persevered, maintaining a small circulation all the way until 1989, and the Alliance lived on as well. But the latter could not survive the long decline of the hand laundry industry in New York City and the death of its elderly members. The Alliance and its journal no longer exist today.

Although the 1950s persecution of the Alliance served the purpose of the Association, the conservative group did not fare that well either. It seems to have faded away after 1950. By then, its building had been taken over by the new American Legion Kimlau Post of Chinese American veterans. The Kimlau Post still occupies the old Association building today.

Sources: Renqiu Yu, To Save China, To Save Ourselves: The Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance of New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992); the New York Times; 紐約華僑社會, (New York: Chinese Community Research Bureau, 1950); Wu Jianxiong, 海外移民與華人社會 (Taipei: Yunchen Culture Press, 1993); Leong Gor Yun, Chinatown Inside Out (New York: Barrows Mussey, 1936).

#18 Unusual Community Center

IMG_4562 (480x640)This late 19th century tenement building in the Times Square area is today home to the Bombay Masala restaurant, which claims to be the “Oldest Indian Restaurant in U.S.A.” Is the boast justified? In a way. Bombay Masala sits on the longtime site of the former Ceylon India Inn, one of the first Indian restaurants established in New York City. Founded a few blocks away in 1915, Ceylon India Inn relocated to 148 West 49th Street by the mid-1920s. It served meals to many of the South Asian workers who lived in boarding houses in the area, as well as to two generations of inquisitive New Yorkers..

K.Y. Kira in the 1920s. Photo from K.Y. Kira passport application, National Archives and Records Administration.


Ceylon India Inn’s owner was K.Yaman Kira, who was born around 1884 in Kandy, a city in what is today Sri Lanka. Originally a Kandyan dancer, he toured the United States in 1904 and then returned in 1909 with another Kandyan troupe, which often toured with American circuses. Kira and the group even lived for a time in Bridgeport, Connecticut, home of the Barnum and Bailey Circus when it was not on the road. In 1913, Kira married Elizabeth Eckhard, herself an immigrant from Germany. Perhaps marriage prompted Kira to give up dancing, settle down, and start a restaurant.

What set Ceylon India Inn apart from the other Indian restaurants in New York at the time was that it rapidly developed into a sort of community center and meeting place for South Asians in Manhattan. According to historian Vivek Bald, the Kiras offered temporary shelter to Ceylonese sailors who had jumped ship, while in the restaurant, “Indian seamen shared space with political exiles and students from the subcontinent” (126).


The 1939 New York City Guide from the WPA Federal Writers Project listed the Ceylon India Inn along with its successor “community center,” the Rajah.

Yaman Kira was anything but dogmatic, opening his doors to just about anyone who wanted to celebrate something. The founding banquet of the India Independence League of America took place at the Ceylon India Inn in 1930, as did the unveiling the same year of a suggested Indian national flag. Kira was a Buddhist and held celebrations of Buddha’s birthday, but the restaurant also hosted a memorial for the founder of the All-India Moslem League.

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Yaman Kira’s funeral program. Courtesy P.P. Wijayasekara.

By the 1940s, however, most functions connected to Indian independence had moved to the Rajah Restaurant a block or so away. Perhaps the Ceylon India Inn was too small, or its owner too tolerant of just about every view. Perhaps his attendance at a 1936 memorial for King George V unnerved backers of Indian independence. Whatever the case, the Kiras’ restaurant remained, if not a political center, than at least a culinary destination. The Kiras sold the place to a Benghali restaurateur in the 1950s and retired to Long Island. Yaman Kira died in 1961, while Elizabeth Kira passed away just a few years later.



Sources for this post include Vivek Bald, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013); Ancestry.com; the New York Times; Coleen Taylor Sen, “King of Curry”; Anita Mannur, “Indian Food in the US: 1909-1921“; the WPA Federal Writers Project 1939 New York City Guide; and documents generously provided by P.P. Wijayasekara, great grandson of Yaman Kira.

#17: Hollywood in Brooklyn

From Google Street View

From Google Street View.

This postwar junior high school sits on a site that was once home to the Great Wall Film Company, founded in 1920 by a group of Chinese students and local Chinese American businesspeople. Incensed by the racist portrayals of Chinese in American-made films, the group decided to produce their own movies, raised $200,000 from local Chinese American investors, and founded the Great Wall Film Company. The next year, the firm leased this site at 2409 Crospey Avenue in the Bath Beach section of Brooklyn and set to work making Chinese-language films for release in China and in Chinese American communities.

Mei Xuechou. From "The Chinese Mirror" film history website.

Mei Xuechou. From “The Chinese Mirror”

Those who worked at the Great Wall Film Company during its Brooklyn years included journalist Liu Zhaoming and students Cheng Peilin and Li Zeyuan. Like Liu, Great Wall employee Mei Xuechou was a reporter for a local Chinese-language newspaper (probably the Chinese Nationalist Daily, 民氣日報). Enthused by the company’s initial productions, he quit his job as a journalist, studied film and animation in New York, and eventually because an important movie director for Great Wall. Mei eventually collaborated with some of China’s movie pioneers, including screenwriter Hou Yao (候曜), and participated in the production of China’s first animated movie.


Still shot from "Plaything of the Gods," a 1927 Great Wall Film Company movie made in Shanghai. From the North China Herald.

Still shot from “Plaything of the Gods,” a 1927 Great Wall Film Company movie made in Shanghai. From the North China Herald.

While the Great Wall Film Company proved a success, its location was problematic. Although formed by Chinese and Chinese Americans angry about negative film stereotypes, the company never intended to make movies for English-speaking audiences. Instead, its audience was in China, where almost all of the films that audiences saw were American-made movies with their captions translated from English (this was, after all, the pre-talkie era). In 1924, Great Wall’s staff shut down operations at the Brooklyn site, packed up the firm’s equipment, and relocated to Shanghai. There, the company had far easier access to its main markets, the growing populations of China’s coastal cities. According to the North China Herald, Great Wall thrived in Shanghai. With its spacious lot and modern equipment, it was about to make ten films a year while its rivals could produce only two or three.

Unfortunately, the Great Depression undermined many of Shanghai’s studios, including Great Wall, which closed down in 1930. By that point, its original site in Brooklyn had long since reverted to more conventional industrial uses. It eventually became the site of I.S. 281, renamed the Joseph B. Cavallaro Junior High School in the 1970s in honor of a conservative, anti-communist Board of Higher Education head who died in 1957.

Sources for this post include “The Chinese Mirror: A Journal of Chinese Film History“; Tan Ye and Yun Zhu, Historical Dictionary of Chinese Cinema (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2012); The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce BulletinNorth China HeraldNew York Times; A Brief History of Chinese Film; and Yingjin Zhang, ed., A Companion to Chinese Cinema (New York: Blackwell, 2012).



#16 Possible Literary Landmark

111 E 10th (640x480)This fairly simple turn-of-the-century walk-up building was once the home of author Younghill Kang, who most likely wrote some of his early works, including The Grass Roof and The Happy Grove, while living here. Nicknamed the “St. Mark’s Garth” for its backyard garden, the building belonged to the historic St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, making it even more important to Asian American history. The St. Mark’s church, which is just down the block, contains a graveyard with the remains not only of Peter Stuyvesant but also Commodore Matthew Perry, the American naval commander who forced Japan to open to the West in 1854. Japanese immigration to Hawaii and the United States began just a few decades later.

Younghill Kang. Photo from the Smithsonian Institution.

Younghill Kang. Photo from the Smith-
sonian Institution.

Largely forgotten until recent years, Younghill Kang was an Asian American literary pioneer. Born in Korea in 1903, he grew up as Japan tightened its grip on the kingdom and then made it a Japanese colony. Kang, who hated the Japanese occupiers, became deeply interested in the West. Leaving Korea in 1921 with just a few dollars in his pocket, he ended up in Boston, where he abandoned plans to study medicine and instead turned to literature. He eventually worked his way through Boston University and Harvard.

In 1929, Kang married Frances Stacy Keely, a Wellesley graduate who encouraged him to write in English, and the two moved to New York. There, Kang worked for Encyclopedia Britannica and lectured at New York University while writing his autobiography, The Grass Roof. Frances Kang listed the 111 E 10th as her home address when she filed for naturalization in 1933. Although born in West Virginia, she lost her American citizenship for marrying Kang. Asian immigrants were legally ineligible for American citizenship at that time, and American women who married them lost their citizenship too. A 1931 revision to the law enabled Frances Kang to regain her American citizenship.

The Kangs' neighborhood:--East 10th St. and 3rd Avenue--around 1942, a decade after they lived there.

The Kangs’ neighborhood:–East 10th St. and 3rd Avenue–around 1942, less than a decade after they lived there. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

During the period the Kangs lived at 111 East 10th, their neighbors included a number of artists, writers, and similar residents drawn to the building because of its reasonable rents and intellectual community. In fact, the liberal Episcopalians who purchased the building hoped to attract just such people, whom they felt were often “unchurched.”

Despite this congenial environment, the Kangs did not stay long. In 1933, Younghill Kang received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and he and his family (which now included daughter Lucy Lynn Kang) set sail for Europe. When they returned, the Kangs moved to Long Island for Younghill Kang’s new job at Hofstra. Soon after, one hundred of Younghill Kang’s fellow educators successfully pushed the House Committee on Citizenship to consider a private bill granting him U.S. citizenship. Congress granted citizenship to Kang in 1940–twelve years before Korean immigrants as a whole could become American citizens.

During World War Two, Kang served as an adviser to the US military. He and Frances Kang also collaborated on translations of Korean literature, while he wrote articles for the magazine Common Ground and worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Still, despite spending considerable time in Manhattan, the Kang family never moved back to the city. Frances Keely Kang died in 1970 and Younghill Kang in 1972. By then, few readers remembered Kang’s early work anymore. Fortunately, in recent years Asian American literary scholars have rediscovered The Grass Roof and Kang’s other books

Sources for this post include the Smithsonian Institution, the New York Herald-Tribune, the New York Times, The WPA Guide to New York City, Frances Kang’s naturalization records, The Constructive Quarterly, and Newsday.

#15: Huie Kin’s Chinese Christian church

Huie Kin 1 (480x640)This 19th century tenement building at 223-225 E 31st Street once housed New York City’s first Chinese Protestant congregation under the leadership of the Rev. Huie Kin (許芹). An immigrant from Toishan, Guangdong, he arrived in America in 1868 and worked at various jobs in the Bay Area. An employer there helped him learn to read and write English and introduced him to Christianity. Huie later entered the Lane Theological Seminary and in 1885 moved to New York to participate in the Presbyterian Church’s efforts among Chinese immigrants. The church had begun its mission in 1868, but Huie was the first Chinese to lead it.


Huie Kin and Louise Van Arnam Huie, n.d. From Huiekin.org.

Huie experienced considerable challenges as he sought to minister to the community and to convert Chinese to Christianity. In his Reminiscences, which he published in 1932, he recalled trying to eradicate prostitution and gambling from late 19th century Chinatown; the crusade resulted in threats on his life. He also attracted unfavorable attention by marrying Louise Van Arnum, a white woman and mission volunteer. Chinese men in 19th century New York married or lived with white women far more often than they did in California, where an 1880 law banned interracial marriages between whites and Chinese. Still, such relationships were generally confined to working-class men and women, and contemporary observers could occasionally seem a bit obsessed with the Huies’ marriage; even Huie Kin’s obituary in the New York Times pointedly described his wife as a “descendant of one of the old Knickerbocker families of New York.” Huie himself put it this way: “there is such a thing as love at first sight….the fact that she was of another race made no difference to me.”

Christianity was a hard sell among the Chinese of turn of the century New York. Many community members associated the religion with Western imperialism at a time of growing nationalism in China and among the Chinese diaspora. In addition, white critics of the Chinese often referred to them as undesirable “heathens” and used religion as a justification for anti-Chinese laws. For a time, young Chinese men in New York flocked to Sunday schools for their free English lessons, but when one such student, Leon Ling, allegedly murdered a young white mission worker named Elsie Sigel in 1909, the result was an anti-Chinese backlash that Mary Lui aptly describes in her 2005 book The Chinatown Trunk Mystery.

The Sigel murder and the backlash undoubtedly worried Huie and other Presbyterian leaders, prompting them to move Huie’s church out of Chinatown. By 1909, Huie had built up a congregation of about one hundred fifty worshipers, and in 1910 the Presbytery of New York obtained the building at 223-225 E 31st Street, formerly home to the East Side Republican Club, for Huie’s congregation. The building included dormitories for young men; church leaders hoped such quarters would “keep Chinese away from the evil influences of Chinatown,” now associated with the Sigel killing.

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US Immigration Service photo of Sun Yat-sen in 1910. From the National Archives.

Among those who may have visited the Huies at their new home above the church was Sun Yat-sen, the Cantonese revolutionary and founder of the Kuomintang who served as the first provisional president of the Republic of China in 1912. Sun visited the Huies in the summer of 1910, just as the new church was taking shape but right before it opened.




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Irving Huie at a gathering of architects. Huie is seated at the far left. From the Brooklyn Public Library Brooklyn Visual Heritage Project.

Huie Kin retired from the ministry in 1925, and in the summer of 1933 he and Louise Huie traveled to China to settle there. Unfortunately, Huie, long plagued by ill health, died in January of 1934. Louise Huie returned to the United States in 1935 and passed away in 1944. The Huies’ nine children carried on the family name and spirit, however. The six Huie daughters married Chinese students and moved to China, where they contributed to the nation’s development and where some family members remain today. The three Huie sons married American women and stayed in the United States. One of them, Irving Huie, became New York’s commissioner of public works and part of Mayor Fiorello Laguardia’s “War Cabinet.” Today, the far flung and diverse Huie family holds frequent reunions and maintains a website dedicated to its fascinating roots.

In 1948, Huie Kin’s old congregation, by then renamed the Huie Kin Memorial Presbyterian Church, announced plans to move; the church that had once sought to distance itself from Chinatown now relocated to Pearl Street in order to be more convenient to Chinese American worshipers. The building at 223-225 E 31st today houses a social services agency and apartments.

Sources for this post include Huie Kin, Reminiscences (Beijing, 1932); Huiekin.org; Judy Yung, Gordon H. Chang, and Him Mark Lai, eds., Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Mary T. Lui, The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York City (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); the New York Times; and Ancestry.com.


#14: Chinese Farms in Queens

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Image from Google Earth.

This rather forbidding industrial complex near 38th St. and Berrian Blvd. in Astoria, Queens, was the site of several Chinese-run farms between the 1880s and about 1915.

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G.W. Bromley and Co. 1909 map of area where Chinese farms were located. Courtesy New York Public Library Digital Image Collection.

The farms thrived as the Chinese community of New York grew. During the 1870s and 1880s, many Chinese on the West Coast left that region of the country because of the anti-Chinese violence they routinely encountered in small towns and large cities alike. Hundreds of these Chinese settled in New York City, which also became a major destination for the thousands of Chinese immigrants who entered the US in the 1890s and afterwards (often in violation of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act).

Interior of a turn of the century Chinese restaurant in Manhattan. Courtesy New York Public Library Digital Image Gallery.

At this time, and for decades afterwards, most of New York’s heavily male Chinese population worked in laundries and restaurants. Chinese-run eateries in New York served very familiar versions of “Chinese” food, particularly the “chop suey” to which Americans had become addicted, as a Chinese newspaper of the time joked. But Chinese living in New York craved real Chinese food and the fresh vegetables needed to cook it, and a handful of entrepreneurial Chinese immigrants saw opportunity in this widespread desire for a taste of home. In 1883, the New York Times reported that Lum Thik Lup, Wah Lee, and other Chinese men had started farms in the Steinway/Astoria section of Queens in order to satisfy the community demand for Chinese vegetables.

Some workers lived on the rented plots–the 1900 census showed twelve Chinese settled on four adjacent farms off Bowery Bay Road (which no longer exists)–while others commuted to their farm jobs on the ferry that connected the nearby North Beach Amusement Park to Manhattan’s 92nd Street ferry pier. But the 1909 completion of the Queensboro Bridge and the 1917 inauguration of elevated train service to northern Astoria doomed the Chinese farms. The landowners in the area quickly developed their tracts for housing, forcing Chinese tenants to either give up farming or move closer to the city’s northern and eastern edges. Some trickled out to Flushing and to parts of the Bronx, but urban development eventually forced them out of business altogether.

Sang Lee Farms in the 1950s. From the Sang Lee Farms website.

The New York metro area’s Chinese American community grew quickly after World War Two, in large part because “warbride” legislation allowed China-born wives to join their husbands in America. Taking advantage of the renewed demand for Chinese vegetables, a number of Chinese Americans established new farms in New Jersey and Long Island. The most well known, Sang Lee Farms, remains in business today. But with Chinese produce readily available from Asia, Sang Lee now focuses largely on selling its produce at local farmers’ markets.

Sources for this post include the U.S. Census, the New York Times, the New York Public Library digital gallery, and the New York Municipal Archives.

#13: Forgotten Community of the West 60s

65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam.

65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam.

Situated on the southern edge of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the Lincoln Center performing arts complex is one of the most famous products of midcentury urban renewal. The process of bulldozing the neighborhood began in the 1940s, when the New York City Housing Authority razed one section, the heavily African American “San Juan Hill,”  to build the Amsterdam Houses public apartment complex. A decade later, the city used its eminent domain powers to purchase several blocks of the Lincoln Square area east of San Juan Hill. The tenements of the new renewal site contained a largely poor and working-class population, including longtime Jewish, Italian American, and Irish American residents and newly-arrived blacks and Puerto Ricans.

The area is famous today not only for Lincoln Center but also because it was the fictional setting for “West Side Story,” the popular musical that features two youth gangs, the Puerto Rican “Sharks” and the Italian American “Jets.” But few New Yorkers remember that until the 1950s, these same blocks also contained an array of other residents who traced their ancestry to the Middle East, South Asia, the Philippines, South America, and Japan, among other places.

Postcard for the Miyako Restaurant on 57th Street.

Postcard for the Miyako Restaurant on 56th Street.

A noticeable Japanese American enclave coalesced in Lincoln Square between the late 1910s and 1930, anchored by a string of boarding houses on West 65th Street. During the prewar years, Japanese and Japanese Americans in New York enjoyed far more employment opportunities than their West Coast counterparts; the city counted many Japanese American professionals, clerks, artists, and students . But like other Lincoln Square residents, most of the Japanese and Japanese Americans who lived in the West 60s were working-class people. A large number were cooks and waiters at restaurants, perhaps even the nearby Miyako–one of the few Japanese restaurants in the city at that time.


Advertisement for the Ichiriki Boarding House from the New York Japanese Address Book, 1921.

The West 65th Street boarding houses were hardly islands of calm in a troubled area. Japanese men living in the boarding houses committed two separate murders in the 1920s, while police twice raided a Japanese-run gambling business there in the 1930s. Indeed, such goings-on hardly raised an eyebrow in this tough and gritty neighborhood.

Lincoln Square

Lincoln Square about 1930. Photo courtesy New York Municipal Archives.

Still, by 1940, working-class Japanese and Japanese American tenants not only flocked to the Ichiriki and Taiyo boarding houses at 146 and 148 W 65th but also found rooms at adjacent buildings and in surrounding blocks. A few Japanese American businesses and organizations followed, including K. Tanaka’s Japan Products food shop and the city’s Japanese Association.

The war likely upended the lives of many of the Japanese-born residents of the West 60s. Potential employers often shunned them, while the federal government shut down all Japanese-owned businesses after December 7, 1941. When Japanese American resettlers from internment camps began arriving in New York City in 1943, the Nisei (second generation Japanese American citizens) among them seem to have shown little interest in the area, which had a reputation for crime. Most Nisei rettlers sought apartments farther uptown, including near existing Japanese American concentrations in Morningside Heights, Washington Heights, and Inwood.

The boarding houses survived, however, perhaps by attracting newly-arrived Issei (first generation Japanese immigrant) resettlers in addition to their longtime Japanese working-class clientele. Postwar business seemed promising enough for Uzaemon Tahara, the longtime manager of the Ichiriki, to buy both it and the Taiyo between 1946 and 1952. But just a few years later, the wrecking ball  wiped out the last traces of the old Japanese American enclave of the West 60s.

Sources for this post include Greg Robinson, After Camp; the New York Japanese Address Book; the manuscript census sheets for the 1920, 1930, and 1940 US census; the New York Times; and the WPA Guide to New York City.

#12: Bronx Exile


4645 Delafield Avenue. From Douglas Elliman Real Estate.

This lovely Tudor-style house, currently for sale in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, was once home to Li Zongren (李宗仁), acting president of the Republic of China. Although little-known today, Li played an important role in the early history of the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist) regime on the mainland. He commanded the Fourth Army Corps in the Northern Expedition, which united much of China under Nationalist control. Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek eventually removed Li and his allies, known as the “Guangxi Faction” or “Guangxi Clique” (Guangxi was Li’s home province), from the Nationalist army. The Guangxi Faction, although technically warlords in opposition to the Republic of China, went on to rule Guangxi in a progressive way that earned considerable praise and attention in the 1930s. Li and his allies also pushed Chiang Kai-shek to fight Japanese encroachment and rejoined the Nationalist regime after Japan launched a full scale invasion of China in 1937. During the War of Resistance Against Japan (1937-1945), Li Zongren gained a reputation as one of the KMT’s better generals.


Li Zongren. From Wikimedia Commons.

Chiang Kai-shek never trusted Li, however, and relations between the two men grew even worse when the National Assembly elected Li vice president of the Republic of China in 1948, as the nation’s Communist-Nationalist civil war raged. Chiang, who ran unopposed for president, had supported another vice presidential candidate, Sun Yat-sen’s son Sun Fo. Many in the Assembly voted for Li to protest Chiang’s failures in the civil war. In early 1949, after Beijing fell to the communist People’s Liberation Army, Chiang Kai-shek resigned the presidency and fled with two hundred thousand troops and the nation’s treasury to the island of Taiwan. Li became acting president and tried to negotiate with the Chinese communists even as he continued to resist their advancing army. However, Chiang Kai-shek withheld troops and money from Li, who retreated to Guangdong, Chongqing, and finally Yunnan, before fleeing to Hong Kong and then on to the United States. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party established the new People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949.

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Kan Chieh-hou. From Who’s Who in China, 4th Edition (Shanghai: Millard’s Review, 1931).

Arriving in New York, Li, his wife Guo Dejie (郭德潔), and his aide Kan Chieh-hou (甘介侯), rented 4645 Delafield Avenue in Riverdale. Almost immediately, Li went into the hospital for ulcer surgery, but as he recuperated, he and his entourage began a campaign to receive US government recognition and support. President Harry Truman had publicly stated in January 1950 that the US would not provide aid to the Chiang regime to prevent the communists from invading Taiwan. That said, Congress had appropriated some $75 million in aid to the “China area,” and both Li and Chiang lobbied to get this unspent money. Li publicly announced plans to launch a campaign to retake the mainland from Hainan Island, still in KMT hands.



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Albert K. Chow (far left) with Senator Harry S Truman, 1944. Courtesy Harry S Truman Library Institute.

As he lobbied for recognition, Li received help from Harry Truman’s friend Albert Kam Chow, a Democratic and Kuomintang leader known as the “Mayor of Chinatown” in San Francisco. With Chow’s assistance, Li and Kan arranged a lunch with Truman on March 2, 1950. But Chiang Kai-shek struck first, resuming the presidency of the Republic of China on March 1. Li protested the act as unconstitutional and went ahead with the Truman lunch, but he was unable to get anything more than moral support from the US president. The State Department recognized Chiang as president of the Republic of China, and a month later, the Chinese Communists invaded Hainan Island. After the Korean War began, the US increasingly extended aid and protection to the Chiang regime on Taiwan. All of these developments scared off Li Zongren’s former supporters.

Still, Li continued his anti-Chiang activities into the 1950s, announcing that he would start an opposition newspaper (it never materialized) in New York and leading a coalition of non-communist, non-KMT “Third Force” parties (the group fell apart in 1955). After remaining in exile for another decade, Li and his wife returned to mainland China in 1965. Warmly welcomed by the Communists, he criticized US policy in Vietnam and America’s support for the KMT regime on Taiwan.

Li died in Beijing in 1969. His Harvard-educated aide, the onetime KMT deputy foreign minister Kan Chieh-hou, did not follow his former boss back to the mainland. Instead, Kan settled in the United States permanently, working as a professor at New Jersey State College from 1957 until his retirement in 1973. He passed away in Dobbs Ferry in 1984 at the age of 87.

As far as the 4645 Delafield home, Li and his entourage likely vacated it within a year or two of the Truman lunch. By then, Li was dependent for support on Chinese American sympathizers, and the home’s nine bedrooms and eight bathrooms must have been quite expensive. Today, the house is listed at $4.625 million.

Sources for this post include the Li Tsung-jen and V.K. Wellington Koo papers in the Columbia University Special Collections, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Liu Boji (Pei Chi Liu), Meiguo huaqiao shi, xubian (History of the American Overseas Chinese, sequel) (Taipei: Li Ming Cultural Enterprises, Ltd., 1981), and the Chinese World (世界日報).


#11: Odd coincidence at the New York Buddhist Church

IMG_3684 (480x640)This two building complex at 331-332 Riverside Drive is the current home of the New York Buddhist Church, which has occupied the spot since 1955. Before that time, the congregation was located in a smaller brownstone building at 171 W 94th Street, which no longer exists except as play space for a large Mitchell-Lama apartment complex.



Early picture of the New York Buddhist Church. Founder Hozen Seki is on the right. Photo from Buddhadharma

Early picture of the New York Buddhist Church. Founder Hozen Seki is on the right. Photo from Buddhadharma.

The congregation’s priest and founder, Hozen Seki, immigrated from Japan in 1930 and helped found two other Buddhist churches–one in California and one in Arizona. Traditionally, Buddhists worshiped at “temples,” but Japanese American Buddhist leaders adopted aspects of Christian ritual and some terminology in an attempt to make their faith seem less foreign to a public skeptical of Asian immigrants.

Seki was part of the Jodo Shinshu tradition of Buddhism, the most influential Buddhist tradition among Japanese Americans in the early 20th century, and he came to New York in 1938 to establish the first Buddhist church in the city. Just four years later, American authorities arrested Seki and placed him in a wartime concentration camp (or “internment camp”). Although Seki lived outside the West Coast, he was subject to internment because officials considered non-Christian Japanese religious leaders, especially Issei, inherently suspicious. While Seki was in camp, his American citizen wife Satomi Seki continued to live in and manage the Buddhist church at 171 W 94th Street. Japanese American resettlers in the city and Japanese American soldiers on leave there also helped build the congregation even in Hozen Seki’s absence.

After Seki returned to New York in 1945, his congregation thrived. In addition to Japanese American resettlers and oldtimers, Japanese “warbrides”–and sometimes their non-Japanese husbands–flocked to the Buddhist church. Hozen Seki’s son Hoshin recalls that his father and two other Buddhist ministers founded the American Buddhist Academy in 1951 to help enhance the future growth of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism among the American population as a whole. “My father began conducting classes, inviting prominent Buddhist scholars to lecture, and developing seminar programs,” he notes, and eventually the academy and congregation outgrew the space at 171 W 94th. In 1955, the academy and church moved uptown after purchasing a building at 331 Riverside Drive and the adjacent vacant lot at 332 .

Marion Davies. From HearstCastle.org.

Marion Davies. From HearstCastle.org.

In a strange coincidence, 331 Riverside had in the 1920s been the New York home of Marion Davies, an actress who was publisher William Randolph Hearst’s mistress for many years. On the West Coast, Hearst’s newspapers were some of the most outspoken and vehement opponents of Japanese American rights in the prewar and wartime era. (The building two doors down, 335 Riverside Drive, was briefly home to India Centre in 1930 before that venture folded.)

As the new Buddhist church rose at 331-332 Riverside, Japanese businessman Seiichi Hirose donated to it a large bronze statue of Jodo Shinshu founder Shinren Shonin. The statue originally stood outside a temple in Hiroshima and withstood the atomic bomb blast there. Hirose and Seki hoped the statue’s relocation would caution New Yorkers against any future Hiroshimas.


Shinren Shonin statue

Seki naturalized in 1957 and retired to Hawaii in 1983. He died there in 1991, at the age of 87. The church he founded continues to serve both Japanese American and other Buddhists and is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

Sources for this post include The New York Times, Hoshin Seki (livingdharma.org), and Buddhadharma.org.

#10: “Chinatown-by-the-Sea” and the Chinese Catskills

In the postwar years, the two sites in this post were both popular vacation spots for those Chinese American New Yorkers who wanted to escape the city on occasion and had enough money to do so. By the 1950s, Chinese Americans encountered less discrimination at hotels, restaurants, and other facilities than they had before the war, but hostility certainly persisted in many places. African Americans vacationing in the same era faced even more ferocious bigotry both North and South. For this reason, they tended to flock to traditionally black vacation areas, such as Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, where they did not have to fear constant racial discrimination and where they could lease or buy summer homes.


Bradley Beach, NJ, in the 1950s.

Chinese American New Yorkers acted similarly. In the summer, scores of Chinese American families visited the Jersey Shore town of Bradley Beach. People of Chinese ancestry had begun renting summer homes there shortly after the Manhattan Church of All Nations invited a number of Chinese Americans to the church’s own Bradley Beach resort in the 1920s.

In his memoir of Chinatown, Bruce Edward Hall affectionately refers to this history, dubbing Bradley Beach “Chinatown-by-the-Sea.” He also notes that while whites in Bradley Beach tolerated the presence of Chinese Americans, they were never overly friendly. Although Chinese American families were able to buy rather than just rent summer homes from white residents by the 1940s, they rarely if ever received invitations to neighborhood get-togethers. Hall also points out the revealing racial geography of the Jersey Shore in this era: “At nearby Asbury Park there is a tiny blacks-only beach–a strip barely a hundred feet long, hemmed in on both sides by whites making sure that the borders are not violated, while the Chinese bathers no one seems to mind.” (244)


Advertisement for the Cathalia Resort from the 中美周報, 1960.

For those Chinese American families who sought a safe and discrimination-free vacation but disliked the beach, another nearby option was the Cathalia Resort in the southern Catskills town of Ellenville. Cathalia’s owner was Joe Tso, a native of North China who arrived in the US in the 1940s to train Nationalist Chinese pilots in the use of American aircraft. Tso stayed on after the war, attended college and graduate school, and eventually naturalized. In the mid-1950s, he leased and refurbished the Cathalia Hotel, which he initially promoted as a summer resort. Guidebooks from the time noted that guests could enjoy swimming, dancing, Broadway-style shows, and tennis at Cathalia– but unlike neighboring hotels, it also offered Chinese as well as “Continental” cuisine. Tso advertised in Chinese American publications, but his resort welcomed other New Yorkers too. In 1961, Tso added ski slopes to the hotel grounds, and after the place burned down accidentally in 1963, he rebuilt it. Tso continued to run Cathalia into the 1970s before selling it.

Sources for this post include Bruce Edward Hall, Tea That Burns: A Family Memoir of Chinatown, the Chinese American Weekly (中美周報), the Chinese-American Times, and the New York Times.