How a book about Chinatown made me remember my first New York date.
I’ve spent much of the summer totally captivated by Tong Wars, Scott Seligman’s comprehensive account of Manhattan’s Chinatown at the turn of the twentieth century. The book narrates the half century of history that followed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which made it illegal for Chinese, known at the time as “Celestials,” to immigrate and become naturalized American citizens. Those who traveled to New York from the American West (the New York Herald described them as an “army of almond-eyed exiles”) often found jobs as laundry workers and, according to Seligman, not a few of them spent their evenings gambling illegally in low-lit basements or nursing serious opium addictions.
In Tammany Hall–era Manhattan, Chinatown covered the area between Mott Street, Pell Street, and the Bowery. The neighborhood was the site of violent battles between the Hip Sings and the On Leongs, gangs that fought each other using everything from hatchets to bombs. Doyers Street, the dramatic alley off Pell Street, saw so much violence that it became known as the Bloody Angle. (“More people have died violently at Bloody Angle,” the Times reported in 1994, “than at any other intersection in America.”)
The details of the bloodbath are as wild as they are terrifying, but the moments in Seligman’s book that I found the most fascinating were those in which white Tammany Hall officials and Chinese gang members exploited the vast space of cultural misunderstanding to their respective advantage. In one trial against Chinatown criminals, for example, a white attorney insisted that witnesses be sworn “‘in the Chinese way,” which he suggested meant burning paper with a ‘horrible Celestial oath’ written on it and chopping off the head of a cock.’” (The judge overruled the motion.) Another time, the On Leongs pulled off a major public-relations coup by convincing a white reporter that the Hip Sings, their rivals, were “cold-blooded, pitiless, and cruel’ with ‘no hesitation at shedding blood, or even committing murder.’”
Tom Lee, a goateed man with a diamond tiepin, was the leader of the On Leongs. Before arriving in New York on his way from San Francisco, he had married Minnie Rose Kaylor, a Philadelphia woman of Scotch German descent who was more than ten years his junior. Lee became known for throwing lavish parties to curry favor with white officials. In 1882, the year the Exclusion Act was passed, Lee invited powerful white advocates and Tammany Hall officials to a picnic on Staten Island where ham and eggs, clam fritters, and coffee were served. There was a round of tug-of-war in the afternoon and fireworks in the evening. After observing the use of forks and knives at the event, a daily newspaper called Truth reported of the Chinese in attendance that “not only are they assuming the manners of Americans, but they are rapidly becoming thoroughly New Yorkers.”
I had to laugh when I learned that Lee and Kaylor had lived in a house on Mott Street, just around the corner from the place I had gone on my first date in New York. The entire situation seems horribly clichéd in retrospect, but when I think about it I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic for a time when everything and everyone in the city still felt new. Just after moving to the city to start an M.F.A in creative writing, I wandered into the Strand, looking for a copy of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights for one of my classes. A tall white guy with glasses, mussed brown hair, and a navy plaid shirt overheard me ask someone about the memoir. He peeked around the corner, told me to hold on a sec, and dashed to the back of the store. He returned with a small, light-blue galley of the book, on sale for just three dollars. He had a tiny gap between his front two teeth, and I thought he was very cute.
I thanked him and walked away, but somewhere between the memoir stacks and the stairs, I mustered the courage to walk back and suggest that we grab a drink sometime. He grinned at me, patted down his front shirt pockets and pulled out a pen. “I don’t have any paper!” he said. I wrote my number on the palm of his hand.
He met me a week later outside of my apartment, in Two Bridges, and we walked south to go to dinner. “Where are we going?” I asked.
“To a Chinese place,” he said.
“Seriously?” I asked. I thought he had to be very brave or very dumb to take a Chinese girl to a Chinese restaurant on a first date.
“Yes,” he said, not registering how suspect I’d become. I suppose he couldn’t have known that I was Chinese, and I was not yet confident enough to suggest that the chances were good that I knew way more about Chinese food than he did. Still, I kept an open mind. I didn’t want to ruin the night before it began. “There’s a great place called Great N.Y. Noodletown that David Chang is totally obsessed with,” he said, and before long we entered a fluorescently lit corner storefront whose windows were each adorned with the glistening bodies of roasted ducks.
I don’t recall a lot of our conversation that night, but I do remember being flabbergasted that my date had ordered a mess of soggy vegetarian fried noodles on my behalf. Really we should have gone with the salt-baked squid or the niu rou he fen, because that’s what you do at a Cantonese joint. The waiter placed forks in front of us, and I used one, even though I am an expert with chopsticks and find them to be a far more elegant way to eat noodles than two clumsy metal tools could ever be. I was resentful, but I smiled and nodded anyway as my date talked about his love of Roberto Bolaño and French film. I just wanted him to like me.
Wei Tchou is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.