New Orleans’ once bustling Chinatown was one of the largest in the country, behind San Francisco and New York City. Due to numerous obstacles, ranging from stringent immigration policies to excessive demolition, Chinatown eventually faded from both modern maps and, for most residents, our collective memory. Tangible vestiges of this once active community are slim, yet its lore continues in New Orleans’ dynamic history.
Reconstruction in Louisiana presented a problematic situation for wealthy plantation owners. Freedpeople rightfully exercised their newly acquired rights to demand higher wages and better treatment. This challenge led to an experiment in 1867: the recruitment of Chinese laborers from the Caribbean, where inexpensive Chinese labor was prevalent, to southeast Louisiana to compensate for the free labor planters enjoyed prior to the Civil War. In 1870, over 1,600 Chinese workers were recruited from areas ranging from California to mainland China.
This experiment quickly faced many shortcomings. The Chinese laborers opposed near slave conditions just as fiercely as the freedpeople they were supposed to replace. According to Reconstruction in the Cane Fields by John C. Rodrigue, Chinese workers resisted “planters’ efforts to lower wages and impose discipline. They eventually left the plantations for New Orleans…” By the mid-1870s, planters looked elsewhere to hire labor – Spain, Portugal, and especially Italy.
The 1870s was the first decade to see Chinese immigrants make a notable presence in New Orleans. The majority of early employment involved laundries and cooking. In the 1880s, the Chinese Mission opened near the intersection of South Liberty Street and Tulane Avenue, and it provided a center for Chinese immigrants to feel safe, learn English, and meet other Chinese immigrants. Within the next decade, the Mission unintentionally created a Chinatown on the 1100 block of Tulane Avenue, as small Chinese grocery stores and other businesses emerged.
Due to its convenient location for business, Chinatown became a thriving community. The French Quarter, Storyville, and other districts surrounding Chinatown allowed visitors to regularly visit the area and support its businesses. Nearby, Jewish and Italian businesses on South Rampart catered to a mostly black clientele. Some Chinatown residents engaged in selling narcotics to locals and visitors looking for prostitutes in Storyville. Local jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton recalled going to “Chinatown many times with a sealed note and a small amount of money and would bring back (for the prostitutes of Storyville) several cards of hop. There was no slipping and dodging. All you had to do was walk in to be served.” The variety of drugs was immense: opium, heroin, cocaine, and morphine. Louis Armstrong also recalled often visiting Chinatown as a young child to “have a Chinese meal.”
As with many first waves of immigrants unable to assimilate in the United States, the first generation of Chinatown residents clung religiously to their traditions. They wore traditional garb, kept their long hair, and practiced the customs of their homeland. The second generation saw assimilation as a tangible goal, learned English, and abandoned many cultural traditions. Consistent immigration to Chinatown was challenging since President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, barring all Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States. The increasing ability and desire to assimilate coupled with a moratorium on immigration began the initial demise of Chinatown.
By the 1920s, many of Chinatown’s residents were wealthier, more mobile, more educated, and less dependent than their predecessors. In 1926, the Chinese Mission sold its property on South Liberty and moved to 223 South Roman Street. In 1937, many merchants along Tulane lost their lease and were coerced to relocate. That same year, most of Faubourg Ste. Marie, along with Chinatown, was demolished in order to create a modern business district via a WPA development. Although its location made what was left of Chinatown an epicenter for business, it also led to its overall downfall and a displacement of residents and a community.
Some attempted to create a “new Chinatown” on the 500 block of Bourbon, but it was only a sliver of the old Chinatown. Tennessee Williams lived a block away from the newer Chinatown and frequented the area. In his classic work, A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the main characters purchased an “adorable little colored paper lantern at a Chinese shop on Bourbon.” Although Bourbon was still residential in the 1940s, it was morphing into something vastly different and many residents were moving elsewhere.
Many of the wealthier Chinese descendants opted for Mid-City or suburbs in Jefferson Parish as opposed to the condensed French Quarter. In 1952, the Chinese Mission moved from South Roman Street to Mid-City, and renamed itself the Chinese Presbyterian Church. In 1997, it made its final move to Kenner, where English lessons are still provided on Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays.
Today, the Tulane Medical Center stands on a large portion of the old Chinatown. The 1100 block of Tulane is a desolate street of abandoned buildings. “For Lease” signs are abundant. One structure is all that remains of the old Chinatown; 1118 Tulane Ave is a building with a modern façade that still retains its 19th century brick side wall. 530 Bourbon displays a hand-painted image above one of its doors. The sign is the last visible trace of the “new Chinatown.” This history of displacement of communities, although too often forgotten, seems to resonate today with the building of a new hospital district only a few blocks away as the old Charity Hospital remains vacant.
According to New Orleans geographer and author Richard Campanella, “The original Chinatown on 1100 Tulane Avenue is today the most utterly obliterated of New Orleans’ historic ethnic enclaves. It had the misfortune of being located precisely where the Central Business District meets the Medical District. Add to this the demand for parking space and lack of historic protection and, structurally speaking, Chinatown did not stand a chance.”
Source: The majority of information here can be found in Campanella’s “Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics Before the Storm,” where an entire chapter is dedicated to the topic. Campanella’s work on Chinatown is extensive, and I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in these sort of topics.