#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.


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