#23: False Front Group

IMG_3036 (480x640)This simple 1915 building, located at 49 Mott Street in the heart of Chinatown, was constructed on the site of a notorious 19th century tenement house.  Since the mid-1920s, it has been the headquarters of the Lin Sing Association (聯成公所). Founded around 1900, the Lin Sings long represented Chinese New Yorkers from all parts of Guangdong except for Toishan, and one of their members still serves alternating terms with a member of the Ning Yung Association (which represents Toishanese) as Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) of New York chairman.  Beginning in 1957,  however, another group called 49 Mott Street its home. Established in the wake of a 1956 federal crackdown on unlawful Chinese immigration, this organization was the National Chinese Welfare Council (NCWC/全華人福利總會), the first permanent national group supposedly dedicated to the rights of Chinese Americans.  

Until 1979, the United States recognized the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan as the legitimate government of China, and the Taiwan-US alliance was especially strong in the 1950s. Still, despite requests from the regime of ROC leader Chiang Kai-shek, American officials pressed on with their immigration probe, calling into question the influence that Taiwan and its agents in the US actually wielded in Washington. Two leaders of New York’s CCBA (CCBA-NY), Shing Tai Liang and Kock Gee Lee, founded and shaped the NCWC in response to this unsettling situation. Liang was a Chinese government official who arrived in New York in 1947 to edit the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) Chinese Journal, the New York mouthpiece of the Chiang Kai-shek faction of the party. Liang also served as New York’s CCBA chairman from 1952 to 1954 and 1956 to 1958. Lee, his successor and ally, came to the United States in the late 1920s or early 1930s as a merchant but spent all his time on KMT activities. By the mid-1940s, he worked on the Chinese Journal with Liang and served on the board of the Eastern US KMT. Lee chaired the New York CCBA from 1954 to 1956 and 1958 to 1960. Liang and Lee’s activities and influence suggest just how much power the Chiang regime wielded in New York’s Chinese community.

Shing Tai Liang (梁聲泰), CCBA-NY chairman from 1952-1954 and 1956-1958.
Shing Tai Liang (梁聲泰), CCBA-NY chairman from 1952-1954 and 1956-1958, was also the founder of the National Chinese Welfare Council.

In early 1957, Liang secured the cooperation of other CCBA leaders around the country and convened a national conference of Chinese Americans that March. Although hardly representative of the Chinese American population, the conference and the group it created–the NCWC–were supposed to be nonpartisan and concerned with Chinese American domestic issues. Regardless, Shing Tai Liang and Kock Gee Lee kept the NCWC firmly under the Kuomintang’s control. The NCWC’s organizational and conference structure, which Liang had almost singlehandedly put into place, gave him and his New York allies a remarkable degree of power and influence in the group. Most of the NCWC leaders had close ties to the Nationalist regime, were KMT members, or both.

But the group was an utter failure as a lobbying organization. It only opened a Washington, DC, office in 1963, and its leaders appeared at just two congressional hearings–one of them because of a senator’s last-minute, offhand invitation. Furthermore, the organization quickly alienated many Chinese American centrists and liberals because of its inaction on domestic issues and its obvious focus on supporting the Kuomintang regime in Taiwan. Liang’s bald attempts to control the NCWC also angered many Chinese Americans. Although convinced to officially resign from the NCWC leadership in 1958, Liang still portrayed the Lin Sing Association, which he led, as the headquarters of the NCWC. He also continued to help run the NCWC through his friend and colleague, Kock Gee Lee, who served as its head in the 1960s.

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NCWC leaders continued to meet with Republic of China officials (and shun People’s Republic of China officials) long after the United States recognized the PRC as the legitimate government of China.

Although it always claimed to be a civil rights group of sorts–some of its 1970s leaders even tried to compare it to the NAACP–the NCWC was essentially a Chinese Nationalist front organization. Many of its leaders simultaneously served as honorary members of the Taiwan legislature or as advisors to that government, and former staffers from the Republic of China’s embassy in Washington helped guide the NCWC too. Yet in reality, it was a tremendously ineffective front organization that seemingly existed to provide its leaders an aura of prestige.

Despite US recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1979, the National Chinese Welfare Council sputtered along into the 1980s, issuing pronouncements about the need for the US government to support Taiwan. By the mid-1980s, some group leaders were working to make the NCWC more relevant by actually lobbying Congress for immigration reform, but other Chinese American organizations easily overshadowed the NCWC. By that point, the NCWC’s center of gravity had long since shifted to the southwest, away from New York, and the Lin Sing Association no longer displayed the group’s sign or acted as its national headquarters. Almost no one today remembers that 49 Mott Street was the location of the first national organization dedicated–at least in theory–to protecting Chinese American civil rights.

Sources for this post include my book, Between Mao and McCarthy: Chinese American Politics in the Cold War YearsNew York TimesNational Chinese Welfare Council 24th Anniversary Special Edition (San Francisco: NCWC, 1981); National Chinese Welfare Council Special Edition (San Francisco: NCWC, 1987); Liu Boji (Pei Chi Liu), Meiguo huaqiao shi, xubian (History of the American Overseas Chinese, sequel); Y.K. Chu’s columns in the Chinese World New York Edition; Dai-ming Lee’s columns in the Chinese World; the Chinese-Pacific Weekly; and the Chinese Journal (New York).

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#22: Citizen’s Home

17 E 9thAccording to the website SidwaysNYC.com, “Dawn Powell, novelist and playwright; Marianne Moore, the Pulitzer prize-winning poet; Argentinean tango composer Astor Piazzolla; musician Jimi Hendrix; children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak; and Barbra Streisand all called 9th Street home at one point in their career.” One name that’s missing from that list is the artist Mine Okubo, who lived in this unobtrusive 19th century walk-up at 17 E 9th Street for several years in the mid-1940s.

Okubo is most well-known for her book Citizen 13660, a collection of illustrations she made while imprisoned in the Topaz Relocation Center, one of the camps in which the US government incarcerated the entire Japanese American population of the West Coast beginning in 1942.

Mine Okubo. From the website of Riverside Community College.
Mine Okubo. From the website of Riverside Community College.

In the 1930s, Okubo graduated from Riverside Junior College and the University of California, Berkeley, where she also received an MA in art. She then won a fellowship to travel to France and continue her art studies, but the 1939 outbreak of war in Europe forced her to return to the US. Back home, she worked for the Works Progress Administration’s art programs in San Francisco until war came to America as well.

Within a month of the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, white supremacists on the West Coast began calling for the imprisonment and postwar deportation of all people of Japanese ancestry in the United States. Political and civic leaders across the state and the nation showed little moral courage in the face of such racist harangues, instead encouraging and benefiting from such sentiments. One of these leaders was President Franklin Roosevelt, who on February 19, 1942, signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing military officials “to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as [they] may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded.” The order said nothing about people of Japanese ancestry, but US military officials used it to bar all such people–120,000 in total–from the West Coast. Two-thirds of those excluded were American citizens whose government utterly failed to protect their constitutional rights.

Topaz Relocation Center in Utah. From DiscoverNikkei.org.
Topaz Relocation Center in Utah. From DiscoverNikkei.org.

Soon, Okubo and her brother Toku joined thousands of other Bay Area Japanese Americans forced to report to a “temporary assembly center” hastily created at the Tanforan horse racing track in San Bruno, California. Later, officials of the new War Relocation Authority assigned the two to the Topaz Camp in Utah, where they lived in harsh, spartan conditions with about nine thousand other Japanese Americans.

A Mine Okubo illustration, from DiscoverNikkei.org.
A Mine Okubo illustration, from DiscoverNikkei.org.

Mine Okubo documented life in the camps, sketching what she saw around her both at Tanforan and Topaz. Her illustrations, later published in the 1946 book Citizen 13660, portrayed the daily rigors, frustrations, and humor of the camps. When one of her drawings won a prize at a San Francisco art show, Fortune magazine began offering her assignments. By then, the War Relocation Authority was allowing some Japanese Americans to leave the camps and resettle in areas outside the Pacific Coast. Okubo took the opportunity to move to New York, where Fortune was located.

After arriving in New York, Okubo moved to 17 E 9th Street, where she lived while completing the work on Citizen 13660 and after its publication. Although Okubo enjoyed a long and productive art career, the book’s illustrations remain her best known work. Okubo eventually found another apartment, but she never moved away from New York, her adopted home. She died there in 2001, at age 88.

Sources for this post include Mine Okubo, Citizen 13660; the New York TimesDIscoverNikkei.org; Michi Nishiura Weglyn, Years of Infamy; John Tateishi, And Justice for All.

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#21: Father and Son

4 mottThis very plain 20th century building occupies the site of an earlier structure at 4 Mott Street where Chinglun Frank William Lee (李錦綸) was born in 1884. The younger son of a Chinese immigrant father and a German American mother, Frank Lee was a true New Yorker, yet he eventually renounced his American citizenship and became a leading diplomat for the Republic of China.

As the historian Mary Lui has shown, many Chinese immigrant men in 19th century New York City married working class European immigrants and their second generation daughters. Since the Lees probably met and married in St. Louis, such relationships were probably not that unusual in other Eastern and Midwestern cities as well. (Chinese-white marriages were banned across the Pacific Coast, where anti-Chinese politicians were powerful.) But few of these Chinese men became quite as famous as Thomas Ling Lee, better known as Tom Lee, a restaurateur and leader of the powerful On Leong Tong in its early years in the city.

Tom Lee
Tom Lee, father of Frank W. Lee. From the Library of Congress.

Tom Lee became a US citizen while living in St. Louis in 1876, but two years later, a circuit court in California forbade the naturalization of Chinese aliens. The court case and subsequent legislation essentially stripped Tom Lee and other Chinese immigrants of their citizenship, but outside the Pacific Coast, local officials often knew little about the anti-Chinese laws. After moving to New York, then, Lee continued to vote in local elections as a citizen until federal officials arrested him for such activities at the turn of the century. Lee also kept a steady stream of bribes flowing to Tammany and in return enjoyed police protection for the On Leong Tong’s various vice businesses.

Shortly after Frank Lee’s 1884 birth, the family moved from the building that housed Tom Lee’s restaurant at 4 Mott Street to the Upper West Side; eventually, they relocated to the Bronx, living at what today is the site of the Bronx House of Justice. After attending New York public schools, Frank Lee went on to study law at New York University and religion at the University of Chicago, where he embraced Christianity and decided to become a minister–much to his father’s dismay.

Frank W. Lee. From Who’s Who in China (Shanghai: China Weekly Review, 1931)

In 1908, Frank Lee took a position in Canton (Guangzhou), perhaps out of a desire to serve China–although there were few opportunities for Asian American minsters in the US at that time. Few integrated churches existed in this period; moreover, because of prevailing racial (and racist) views inside the major denominations and in the larger society, no church governing body would post a nonwhite minister to lead a majority white congregation. Whatever the reason, Lee felt a strong tie to his father’s homeland, throwing himself into his work at the Pui Ching Baptist Academy, a locally-supported school largely funded and run by Chinese Christians rather than missionaries. Lee probably became secretly involved around this time with the Tongmenghui (Revolutionary Alliance), an organization that Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-set set up to overthrow the ruling Qing dynasty.

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Frank W. Lee’s signature and seal as Minister of Foreign Affairs for the southern government of Chen Jiongming (陳炯明), 1921. From the National Archives, College Park, MD.

After China became a republic in 1912, Frank Lee, by then an open member of the new Kuomintang (KMT/Chinese Nationalist Party, which replaced the Tongmenghui)  worked both at Pui Ching and in the new provincial government’s Bureau of Foreign Affairs. He also publicly renounced his American citizenship and urged other Chinese Americans to do the same (few appear to have complied). Like other KMT members, Lee fled China in 1913, after President Yuan Shikai attempted to suppress the party and concentrate power in his own hands. During his exile, Frank Lee worked as a minister of a Chinese congregation in Chicago and then served Sun Yat-sen as a secretary during the revolutionary leader’s own exile. Lee returned to China after Yuan Shikai’s death and held a variety of posts under Sun and his patrons in Canton.

After the KMT unified much of China in 1927, Frank Lee became the new government’s first representative to the land of his birth, arriving in Washington in August 1927 to serve as China’s ambassador there. In the years that followed, he also held the posts of ambassador to Mexico, acting head of the KMT regime’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ambassador to Poland, and ambassador to Portugal. He also found time to teach an occasional class at Shanghai College. Little wonder that at points he submitted his resignation, complaining of fatigue and ill health; nevertheless, the government refused to let go of him. In 1943, he finally left his post in Portugal and traveled again to the United States, where after World War Two he served as an adviser to the Republic of China’s United Nations delegation. Following the communist revolution and the KMT’s retreat to Taiwan, Lee remained in the United States.

The revolution seems to have split Lee’s family and reduced his fortunes. One son, Frank Jr., apparently chose to stay on the mainland, where he lived for many years. And while Frank Lee escaped the narrowness of turn-of-the-century Chinatown to gain significant renown in China, the land he claimed for his own, he could never fully protect his family from the American racism he loathed. Because of the US government’s very restrictive policies on Chinese immigration, Lee’s daughter, Rose Lee Kingman, was detained and held for several days when she arrived in the United States in 1947. Despite Kingman’s father’s position as a government official, US immigration officials forced the Chinese government to post a bond for her release. After Frank Lee’s death in 1956, his wife Kuk Fong Lee ended up supporting herself as a salesperson at a New York Chinatown gift shop and as a seamstress in a Chinatown garment factory, all while her immigration status remained a matter of contention. For almost a decade, the Justice Department debated whether she qualified to stay in the US as a permanent resident, only settling the matter in her favor in 1965. Kuk Fong Lee died a few years later in the country her husband had rejected long before.

Sources for this post include Mary Lui, The Chinatown Trunk Mystery:Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York CityWho’s Who in China; Ancestry.com; the China Press; the Canton Times; the Chinese Recorder; the New York Times, and 紐約華僑社會 (1950). I am also grateful to Gladys Astorga and Scott Seligman, who corrected the mistakes in the initial post about Frank and Tom Lee.


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#20: Suffragist Landmark

From Google Earth.
From Google Earth.

In 1917, New York State voters finally approved women’s suffrage, despite having rejected it in a referendum just two years earlier. The majority of the pro-suffrage votes came from New York City, where women’s suffragists ran a tremendously organized campaign to reach male voters. The campaign’s participants included Mabel Lee, a 22 year old Hong Kong-born Barnard graduate and the daughter of Chinatown minister and community leader Lee To and his wife (whose name census takers rendered as “Lannick” and “Libreck” Lee, among other versions). During the suffrage campaign, Lee lived with her parents in this modest tenement at 53 Bayard Street in Chinatown.

Lee gained her first experience in politics while at Barnard, where she campaigned against T.V. Soong–later the brother-in-law of Chiang Kai-shek and a high official in the Republic of China–for the presidency of the Chinese Students’ Association. According to religious history scholar Timothy Tseng, Lee lost due possibly to “some manipulation of the ballots by Soong,” and this seemed to have hardened her already pro-women’s suffrage views. Not only did she write and speak publicly in favor of women’s suffrage, but she also participated in the Women’s Political Equality League and led a contingent of Chinese and Chinese American women in a May 1917 pro-suffrage parade in New York City. Her mother supported her position and advocated women’s suffrage as well. However, under U.S. law, the women could not naturalize because of their race (it is unclear if Mabel Lee did eventually naturalize once the law changed in 1943). As a result, the Lees still could not vote once New York granted women that right.

Mabel lee (324x409)
Mabel Lee. From the 1916 Barnard College yearbook.

In addition to her political activities, Lee continued her education, studying political science and economic history at Columbia and earning a Ph.D.–the first Chinese woman to receive that degree from the university. Soon after, her father died of a heart attack, and the American Baptist Home Mission Society appointed her to replace him. Although an ardent Christian, Lee had no formal training for the position, and she seemed to have viewed it as temporary–at least initially. Even as Lee ran the mission, she maintained an affiliation with Columbia’s Department of Economics. And in the 1920s and 1930s, she also made three trips to China, where she received job offers; apparently, she contemplated joining the many others of her generation who, because of US racial discrimination and a sense of duty to China, were moving to their parents’ native land and looking for work there.

Mabel Lee in later years. From http://womenofwonder.us/cultural-corner/dr-lee

However, Lee’s third trip to China took place in 1937, the year the Japanese invaded that country, and the long war that followed helped her make up her mind once and for all. She settled permanently in New York and began lobbying both the Mission Society and local Chinese American organizations to help fund a Chinese Christian Center. The new community center at 21 Pell Street offered Chinese New Yorkers access to English classes, health services, and a kindergarten. Lee also continued to run the First Chinese Baptist Church at the same location.

As Timothy Tseng has documented, Mabel Lee fought for many years to gain independence from the white religious leaders who wished to control her church, but she also encountered significant difficulties in a changing postwar Chinatown. Her congregation had shrunken significantly by the time she died in 1966. Still, the First Chinese Baptist Church she helped build remains a fixture in Chinatown even today.

Sources for this post include Timothy Tseng, “Dr. Mabel Lee: The Intersticial Career of a
Protestant Chinese American Woman, 1924-1950″ (unpublished paper presented at the 1996 Organization of American Historians Convention); Timothy Tseng, “Unbinding Their Souls: Chinese Protestant Women in Twentieth-Century America,” in Women and Twentieth Century Protestantism, eds. Margaret Lamberts Bendroth and Virginia Lieson Brereton; Jonathan Soffer’s work on women’s suffrage in New York State; Womenofwonder.us; New York Times; and Ancestry.com. For more about Mabel Lee, visit Timothy Tseng’s blog.

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#19: Alliances and Associations

IMG_5663 (480x640)
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).

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#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.

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#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).



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#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.

Posted in Korean Americans, Manhattan | Comments Off on #16 Possible Literary Landmark

#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.

Sun YS (511x511)
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.




war cabinet (640x518)
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.


Posted in Chinese Americans, Manhattan | Comments Off on #15: Huie Kin’s Chinese Christian church