Reviving the lost history of New Orleans’ Chinatowns

My interest in Asian-American history is primarily focused on California — the state where I grew up and live, and one with a really fascinating history of Asian cultural involvement. But, of course, California isn’t the only state with a high concentration of people of Asian descent as well as recent immigrants, or the only place with a complicated history of Asian communities. Seattle and New Work, for example, both have large Asian populations and Asian immigrants played a key role in their construction and growth. Likewise with Vancouver and many other cities.

One city, though, surprised me when I was doing some recent reading: New Orleans. Many of us, including myself, think of the city as traditionally Black, a legacy of slavery and Civil War, resettlement and freedom. But in fact, the city’s history is more complicated than that, and New Orleans once hosted the largest Chinatown in the South, which is kind of a big deal. The erasure of that particular titbit of US history is an illustration of what we choose to preserve and what we choose to allow to fade away — and why it’s so important to treasure this history and push it forward before it’s lost.

The origins of Chinatown in New Orleans are a grim story that was echoed elsewhere in the United States and in the Caribbean. With the abolition of slavery (and, in free states, the lack of cheap labour other than sharecroppers, who were less than ideal for factory work and other settings where sharecropping models weren’t sustainable), the South was dealing with a significant labour shortage. States lacked people to pick cotton and other crops, and in the Caribbean, armies of cane workers were needed.

Within the US, companies had a difficult time finding inexpensive labour. So they turned to another source: Asia. They recruited Chinese and Southeast Asian people in vast quantities, luring them to the US with the promise of good wages and opportunities. Of course, once those people arrived in the Post-Reconstruction era, they found lives significantly different than those advertised on the box. Restrictions on civil and social rights for immigrants and people of colour limited their civic engagement and ability to fully participate in society, their labour rights weren’t protected at all, many landlords wouldn’t rent to them, many businesses wouldn’t accept them as customers, and many struggled, far away from their families in a nation with quotas and caps on immigration.

Thus, as in other cities, a Chinatown sprang up. It was partly the result of segregation — unable to find housing and access services anywhere else, the Chinese community bonded together to create its own city within a city, building a unique social and political framework for themselves. It was also the result of a commonality and shared identity, with people drawing together to share experiences. Many recent immigrants didn’t speak English and didn’t feel comfortable in New Orleans at large, though over time, intergenerational families focused on assimilation, acquiring English, and breaking free of the social limitations placed on their community, joining labour organisers in protests about their abuses.

It was a lively place of homes, businesses, stores with imported specialties, Chinese bakeries, restaurants, and more. Members of New Orleans’ other communities made their own visits to Chinatown for glimpses of the exotic — as in San Francisco, Chinese food became a commodity and a special treat for poor families, including foods that cooks developed specifically to appeal to the US palate.

In the 1930s, though, New Orleans’ original Chinatown was destroyed. The Works Progress Administration effectively leveled it in the name of downtown revitalisation (notably, a similar incident nearly occurred in San Francisco, where the Chinese-American community had to fight to retain their land and community after the earthquake, when whites wanted to displace them to build a new downtown). The WPA’s works created a totally different environment in what used to be Chinatown, a swath of new buildings in a city that, like many, was struggling economically and needed a boost to recover.

With the destruction of their community, some Chinese-Americans shifted to the French Quarter, though their numbers weren’t nearly as large as many people scattered, moving to other parts of New Orleans and fragmenting the community. Over the years since then and now, businesses slowly disappeared, subsumed, and now only faint traces of the once vibrant Chinese-American community in the city linger. It’s a fascinating illustration of the way an entire microcosm can slip away without supports, and when that microcosm reflects a minority community, its history vanishes into time.

Those collecting and reviving these histories play an important role. New Orleans may not remember this particular part of its history very well, but understanding patterns of Asian immigration and Asian communities in the US is critical to understanding our history and culture as a whole. These things matter, and in them we can find the thread of events, things, and places that should not be repeated — the destruction of entire communities in the name of development, for example, the fracturing of immigrant spaces. The more time passes, the harder it is to recover and preserve this history for future generations.

Now more than ever, we need to be recording, exploring, and preserving this history. Original sources, including second and third generation people who can talk about the events they or their ancestors saw, are dwindling, closing off amazing opportunities to enrich our understanding of history. And we also need to make sure this information isn’t limited to dry history monographs and dusty PhD theses that never see the light of day. This is important, and it should be accessible to everyone, not just academics.

Image: The Year of the Horse, Beverly Goodwin, Flickr