#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.

Old map
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.

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#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.

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#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).


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#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.

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#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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#9: The India Centre, 334 Riverside Drive

This charming turn of the century beaux arts townhouse was briefly home to the India Centre, the brainchild of India Society of America founder Hari G. Govil.

334 Riverside

Govil created the India Society in 1924 in order to enhance American understanding of India and its culture. Although the organization largely focused on promoting Indian art and music, Govil certainly intended for it to serve a political purpose as well. An Indian nationalist who corresponded with Gandhi, Govil created the India Society at a particularly fraught time. In India, British authorities had just released Gandhi from prison after his earlier civil disobedience campaign. In the United States, the Supreme Court had the year before barred Indians (on racial grounds) from becoming naturalized American citizens. Under these circumstances, Govil likely hoped that the India Society would improve the image of India in the United States in a manner beneficial to both Indian immigrants and Indian independence.

Courtesy University of Massachusetts Amherst Special Collections.
Courtesy University of Massachusetts Amherst Special Collections.

Govil believed not just in Indian nationalism, but also in interracial anti-colonialism, as this letter to W.E.B. DuBois suggests. But he appears to have put most of his faith in his educational crusade.

When Govil launched his campaign to build the India Centre in February 1929, he told a New York Times reporter that he hoped the combined museum, temple, theater, and cultural forum would be “a medium for harmonizing the deeper values of the Oriental and Occidental civilizations.” Govil and his supporters, many of them Columbia University scholars, selected the townhouse at 334 Riverside Drive for the Centre’s home.

Unfortunately, the Depression intervened. Although the India Society purchased 334 Riverside, the group quickly lost the building because of failure to pay for it. The Society persevered, holding events in other venues, but it never found a home of its own. Govil himself returned to India in 1939, but after serving in prison for his political activities, he came back to the United States, where he died in 1956.

Sources for this post include The New York Times and Sarah A. Fedirka, “Towards a Locational Modernism: Little Magazines and the Modernist Geographical Imagination” (Ph.D. diss., Arizona State University, 2008).


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#8: The Typond-Lee Agency, 40 Mott St.

40 MottThis fairly nondescript 19th-century building at the corner of Mott and Pell Streets in New York’s Chinatown once housed the brokerage business of James Waye “Shavey” Lee and James Yip Typond.

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The 40 Mott Street office of Typond and Lee, c. 1940. The firm’s sign is visible in the top left corner. Courtesy Museum of Chinese in America.





"Shavey Lee 'mayor' of New York's Chinatown, handing to Eddie Brannick, secretary of the Giants and man about Brooklyn, a protest IN CHINESE against the use of the term 'Chinese Home Run' in belittling four-baggers hit into the seats near the foul lines at the Polo Grounds." Photo by William C. Green, World Telegram.
From the World Telegram, 1954: “Shavey Lee, ‘mayor’ of New York’s Chinatown, handing to Eddie Brannick, secretary of the Giants and man about Brooklyn, a protest IN CHINESE against the use of the term ‘Chinese Home Run’ in belittling four-baggers hit into the seats near the foul lines at the Polo Grounds.” Photo by William C. Green, World Telegram.






Shavey Lee (李振輝) was by far the more flamboyant of the two men. Born and raised in New York, he grew up in Chinatown and earned his nickname because his father shaved his head in the summer to keep the boy cool. By the late 1930s, the jovial, rotund, cigar-smoking Shavey had become a sort of local celebrity whom journalists often referred to as the “Mayor of Chinatown.” Lee’s younger sister, Emily Lee Shek, also led a remarkable life, even serving in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and the OSS during World War Two. At one point, she set up a recruiting station for Chinese American WACs in Shavey’s office.

Shavey Lee and James Typond exploited Shavey’s fame when they opened “Tung-Sai,” a restaurant near City Hall that became known simply as “Shavey Lee’s.” It attracted politicians and celebrities alike and remained a fixture in Chinatown until the 1970s.

James Yip Typond in 1956 (from an undated New York Daily News article in the National Archives, Washington, DC)

James Typond (葉榮進), Lee’s low profile business partner, avoided the limelight that Shavey craved. Like Shavey Lee, Typond was also a native New Yorker; the son of Yip Typond, a China-born rice merchant, he followed his father’s practice of using “Typond,” the older man’s first name, as a surname; after all, that’s what white neighbors and business associates assumed it was.

In addition to running a restaurant, Lee and Typond made their money “fixing” license and insurance problems for the many Chinese-born laundrymen and restaurant owners in midcentury New York. Most such people (almost all of whom were men) could not speak English well enough to navigate the various agencies whose approval they needed for their businesses. Typond and Lee took care of such matters for a fee and sold insurance as well.

The partners prospered not only by meeting a need in their community but also by participating in politics. Despite the efforts of reformers, most city agencies until the 1960s contained numerous appointees connected to Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine. Similar machines controlled Democratic politics in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens. Lee and Typond were active Democrats whose ties to the Manhattan and Brooklyn machines made their brokerage business possible and profitable.

Thomas H. Lee, younger brother of Shavey Lee. (Photo from an undated New York Daily News article at the National Archives, Washington, DC.)

The two men were also involved in some of the less savory aspects of Democratic politics within New York City as a whole and inside the Chinese American community. Typond delivered bribes for a Brooklyn assemblyman for several years and secured a job for his brother-in-law in the same assemblyman’s office. Shavey Lee was a member of the On Leong Tong (or On Leong Merchants Association), a group linked to gambling and other illicit businesses–and also to Tammany. Such ties helped Shavey’s younger brother Thomas H. Lee (李鴻輝) become the first Chinese American assistant US attorney in New York; in 1951, the younger Lee received Tammany’s backing for the position.

Shavey Lee died of a heart attack in 1955, leaving Typond to run the partners’ businesses. In the 1960s, Typond became more active in the Chinatown community, helping develop housing and improve tourism infrastructure. Typond also remained an ardent Democrat, chartering the Chinatown Democratic Club in 1956 and leading a voter registration drive in the early 1960s. (Coincidentally, he was sort of a father figure to Robert S. Bennett, who grew up in the house next door to Typond’s and who later became President Bill Clinton’s attorney during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.) However, Tammany’s demise and the decline of machine politics in Manhattan eroded Typond’s influence in the local party. He died in 1988.

Sources for this post include Robert S. Bennett, In the Ring: The Trials of a Washington Lawyer, the New York Times, Bruce Hall, Tea that Burns, and 紐約華僑社會. Note: the website of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of New York City erroneously identifies one of the group’s past chairmen as Shavey Lee. The man in question was actually a different person, Kock Gee Lee (李覺之), a China-born journalist who served his second term as chairman after Shavey Lee’s death.

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#7 Theodore Roosevelt’s Birthplace

This simple brownstone at 28 East 20th Street in Manhattan is a replica of the original building that once occupied the same site. That townhouse was the birthplace of Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth president of the United States.

TR was certainly not Asian American, but he played important roles in several key moments of Asian American history. For example, at the beginning of the Spanish-American War, he resigned his position as assistant secretary of the Navy to form and fight with the Rough Riders cavalry unit in a war that ultimately made the Philippines an American colony–and began Filipino migration to the US mainland. And his actions as president directly shaped the experiences of two major Asian American groups: Japanese Americans and Korean Americans.

In 1905, TR helped negotiate an end to the Russo-Japanese War then taking place in northeast Asia. At the time, several thousand Korean immigrants lived in the Territory of Hawaii and on the US West Coast, and they petitioned TR to defend Korea’s independence and territorial integrity, particularly from Japan. Two Koreans (including future South Korean president Syngman Rhee) also met with TR at his home, Sagamore Hill, in Oyster Bay, Long Island, to plead their country’s cause.

Theodore Roosevelt’s home, Sagamore Hill, in Oyster Bay on Long Island. Photo by Pam Griffith.

Little did any of the Koreans know that TR had secretly agreed to allow Japan to annex Korea, which became an official Japanese colony in 1910. Roosevelt admired the rise of modern Japan and also believed that Japanese domination of Korea would ensure reciprocal support for continued American occupation of the Philippines.

Portsmouth Peace Conference participants: Baron Komura and Kogoro Takahira (left), M. Witte and Baron Rosen (right), and President Theodore Roosevelt (center). Courtesy Library of Congress.

Regardless of TR’s motives, the Japanese annexation of Korea not only caused great unrest there but also helped fuel the Korean independence movement, which flourished both on the West Coast and Hawaii, and in China and Siberia.

Korean National Association members in California celebrate Korean independence day in the 1930s, when Korea was still a Japanese colony. Courtesy LA Public Library.
Korean National Association members in California celebrate Korean independence day in the 1930s, when Korea was still a Japanese colony. Courtesy LA Public Library.

About seven months after TR negotiated the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth, ending the Russo-Japanese War, an earthquake and subsequent fire destroyed much of San Francisco, a city that had attracted significant Japanese immigration since the 1890s. During the rebuilding process, the San Francisco Board of Education mandated that Japanese American students would have to attend the segregated Oriental School, located in Chinatown. The city had long segregated Chinese American students, but Japanese American kids studied in integrated schools before the quake. The Board’s move was an overtly and unapologetically racist response to growing Japanese immigration to the West Coast. And it not only angered Japanese immigrant parents but provoked an international incident with Japan.

Unwilling to risk war with the rising Pacific power, TR negotiated with Japanese officials and with authorities in California. The result was the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, in which San Francisco allowed Japanese American children to attend integrated schools, while the Japanese government no longer issued passports to male laborers hoping to immigrate to the US (although Japanese men already in the US could still bring their wives and children to join them). More quietly, TR issued an executive order barring Japanese immigrants living in the Territory of Hawaii (a magnet for Japanese immigration) from moving to the US mainland.

San Francisco's Oriental Public School, 1914. Courtesy Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.
San Francisco’s Oriental Public School, 1914. Courtesy Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

The Gentlemen’s Agreement averted an international crisis, but it did not satisfy California’s white supremacists, who continued to organize against Japanese Americans. The Agreement also reflected the power hierarchy that TR himself helped create. Chinese American children remained segregated in the Oriental School, but now they were joined by San Francisco’s handful of Korean American kids. Japan might claim Korea, but it did little to protect Koreans abroad–and the Gentlemen’s Agreement did not include them.

Sources for this post include Richard S. Kim, The Quest for Statehood: Korean Immigrant Nationalism and U.S. Sovereignty, 1905-1945New York Times; and the files of the Survey of Race Relations on the Pacific Coast, Hoover Institution.

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#6: Brooklyn Heights Hostel for Japanese American Resettlers

IMG_3597This ordinary townhouse at 168 Clinton Street, Brooklyn Heights, served as New York City’s first hostel for Japanese American resettlers during World War Two.

I’ve discussed resettlement in New York City in a previous post about the newspapers the Japanese Times and Japanese American News. But while most Japanese American businesses and organizations were located in Manhattan, scores of resettlers from the western camps stayed temporarily in the Brooklyn Heights hostel.

A cooperative project of the pacifist Church of the Brethren and the American Baptist Home Mission Society, the hostel was under the management of Ralph Smeltzer, a Brethren leader who had opened a similar facility in Chicago in 1943. During World War Two, the migration of Americans into major urban areas created an incredible shortage of housing, particularly for people of color who already encountered ferocious discrimination when they sought homes and apartments. Church organizations like Smeltzer’s, in cooperation with the War Relocation Authority, opened hostels in order to make resettlement outside the concentration camps possible.

Resettlers Mrs. George Sumida and Florence Doi at the Brooklyn Heights Hostel, with Judge William F. Hagarty, chairman of the Japanese American Resettlement Committee of the Brooklyn Council for Social Planning, and Mrs. Hagerty. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley. http://www.oac.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft5489n9fp/?order=1
Resettlers Mrs. George Sumida and Florence Doi at the Brooklyn Heights Hostel, with Judge William F. Hagarty, chairman of the Japanese American Resettlement Committee of the Brooklyn Council for Social Planning, and Mrs. Hagerty. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

A onetime fraternity house, the proposed hostel encountered considerable opposition from neighbors and others in New York who viewed Japanese Americans as disloyal security threats and potential saboteurs. At the same time, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, and local social service organizations worked with the hostel’s managers to ease the facility’s reception. Between May 1944, when the hostel opened, and the end of World War Two, hundreds of resettlers passed through the Brooklyn Heights facility.

Most of the white church leaders and social service staffers who worked with the hostel and the resettlers there pushed these Japanese Americans to “assimilate” into New York and not cluster with other Japanese Americans. For many resettlers, this was at best a difficult mandate and at worst an insulting one. First, numerous War Relocation Authority officials blamed Japanese Americans’ alleged failure to “assimilate” into prewar West Coast society for the internment. Of course, whites on the West Coast segregated Japanese Americans and discriminated against them, making any Japanese American attempts at integration extraordinarily difficult. Second, “assimilation” was quite difficult in New York, a city where the resettlers initially knew almost no one and were trying to fit into a racially segregated job and housing market. Still, more than a thousand Japanese Americans from the camps ended up making New York their home, at least until war’s end.

Some years after the conflict, 168 Clinton became ordinary apartment housing for renters and, eventually, co-op owners. It remains a co-op today.

Sources for this post include The New York Times.

Posted in Brooklyn, Japanese Americans | Comments Off on #6: Brooklyn Heights Hostel for Japanese American Resettlers

#5: CCBA Headquarters/Chinese Community Center (The Zhonghua Dalou)

IMG_3026 (600x800)This building at 62 Mott Street is the Zhonghua Dalou/中華大樓 (the best translation is probably the “China Tower”) and houses the Chinese Community Center and the headquarters of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of New York (CCBA-NY).

The structure itself dates to the late 1950s and is thus fairly new by Chinatown standards, but its construction and the controversy surrounding it reflect a great deal about the CCBA-NY, one of the oldest Chinese American organizations in New York.

In the mid-19th century, Chinese immigrant merchants in San Francisco created the first Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (中華總會館), which also became known as the Chinese Six Companies. It was essentially an umbrella organization of groups that represented Chinese immigrants from different counties and districts of Guangdong’s Pearl River Delta, the home region of almost every Chinese in America at that time.

San Francisco CCBA officers, c. 1880s. From the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. (http://oac.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/hb9j49p00j/?brand=oac4)
San Francisco CCBA officers, c. 1880s. Courtesy Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

The Six Companies became a sort of informal government of San Francisco’s Chinese community, settling intracommunity disputes and negotiating with American officials. It also kept attorneys on retainer to fight for the rights of Chinese Americans, who faced tremendous racism and discrimination in the United States. The CCBA not only challenged American officials’ attempts to prevent Chinese from entering the US but also fought discriminatory laws aimed specifically at Chinese already living there.The CCBA paid for its activities through levying fees on every member of the Chinese American community, despite the fact that its board members and chairmen all came from the merchant elite in a heavily working-class community.

CCBA-NY headquarters at 16 Mott Street in the early 20th century, from 美洲華僑通鑒 (New York: 1950).
CCBA-NY headquarters at 16 Mott Street in the early 20th century, from 美洲華僑通鑒 (New York: 1950).

These class disparities were also readily apparent in New York, where leading merchants created the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of New York (紐約中華公所) in 1883. The leaders of a few dozen organizations (the number grew over time) met every two years to elect the CCBA-NY’s chairman and secretaries, but ordinary Chinese Americans had no say in these elections.

George Chintong (陳樹棠), English secretary of the CCBA-NY, 1932-1934. According to journalist Y.K. Chu, Chintong bribed his way into the position and then had to hire someone else to act as his translator--since he could not speak English well enough! From 紐約華僑社會 (New York: 1950).
George Chintong (陳樹棠), English secretary of the CCBA-NY, 1932-1934. According to journalist Y.K. Chu, Chintong bribed his way into the position and then had to hire someone else to act as his translator–since he could not speak English well enough! From 紐約華僑社會 (New York: 1950).

By the 1920s, the CCBA-NY no longer fought for Chinese American civil rights in the courts, but it continued to collect a variety of fees from every Chinese in the city and all the Chinese-owned businesses as well. Under CCBA-NY bylaws, officers in the organization collected a percentage of these fees for themselves, so competition for the positions was fierce. Interested men (women weren’t eligible to be leaders in the CCBA-NY) bribed the heads of the CCBA-NY constituent organizations to vote for them, spending hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars in the process. Community disgust with these elections and the CCBA-NY’s greed in the midst of the Great Depression eventually prompted challenges from other organizations, such as the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance, which refused to pay CCBA-NY fees or follow the umbrella group’s leadership.




By the 1930s, the Chinese Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang (KMT/國民黨), which controlled the government of the Republic of China, began dispatching trained operatives to New York City to infiltrate and take over community organizations.

Woodrow Chen (陳中海), CCBA-NY chairman from 1946 to 1948 and 1950 to 1952.  From 紐約華僑社會.
Woodrow Chen, CCBA-NY chairman from 1946 to 1948 and 1950 to 1952. From 紐約華僑社會.
Kock Gee Lee (李覺之), chairman of the CCBA-NY from 1954-1956 and 1958-1960. From 紐約華僑社會.
Kock Gee Lee, chairman of the CCBA-NY from 1954-1956 and 1958-1960. From 紐約華僑社會.
Shing Tai Liang (梁聲泰), CCBA-NY chairman from 1952-1954 and 1956-1958.
Shing Tai Liang, CCBA-NY chairman from 1952-1954 and 1956-1958.

Three such men–Woodrow Chan (陳中海), Kock Gee Lee (李覺之), and Shing Tai Liang (梁聲泰)–served as chairmen of the CCBA-NY between 1948 and 1960. During this period, the US government continued to support the Republic of China on Taiwan, despite the fact that the Chinese Communist Party fought and won a civil war against the KMT and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland in 1949. Determined to preserve vital American support for the Republic of China, KMT leaders like Liang, Lee, and Chan collaborated with US government officials to hound out leftists in the New York Chinese American community. They also used the CCBA-NY chairmanship to conduct intraparty factional struggles (sometimes against each other), further diminishing the CCBA-NY’s prestige.



The China Tower was central to these disputes. The CCBA-NY first bought the land at 62 Mott Street in the late 1930s for a future headquarters and community center. But the group never had enough money to actually start construction on the building until the late 1950s. CCBA-NY skeptics in the community pointed out that the CCBA-NY’s extended and sometimes incompetent planning procedures ate up precious money. Gadfly journalist Y.K. Chu alleged that Shing Tai Liang’s mismanagement of the building process even drove the CCBA-NY into bankruptcy at one point. The organization cut corners to get the building done, and then it sued the contractor. During the construction, Woodrow Chan also sued Shing Tai Liang over money the CCBA-NY owed him…and on and on.

The CCBA-NY did finally finish the China Tower, which opened in 1962, but not without substantial blows to its prestige. KMT members continued to control the CCBA-NY chairmanship into the 1970s, but liberal and leftist community activists increasingly challenged the organization’s position. Today, with different immigration laws and official US recognition of the PRC, the CCBA-NY has become far more community service-oriented than it was in the mid-20th century. However, in addition to the US flag, the CCBA-NY still flies the flag of the Republic of China on Taiwan, signaling its rejection of the PRC.

Sources for this post: Y.K. Chu (as Leong Gor Yun), Chinatown Inside Out; Y.K. Chu columns in the Chinese World New York Edition, March and April 1958; Him Mark Lai, Becoming Chinese American: A History of Communities and Institutions; New York Times.


Posted in Chinatown, Chinese Americans, Manhattan | Comments Off on #5: CCBA Headquarters/Chinese Community Center (The Zhonghua Dalou)