A Walk Through the Rich History of Struggle in Manhattan’s Chinatown

The public history of Manhattan’s Chinatown often exoticizes the neighborhood and its residents. But in its streets and its sweatshops, Chinatown has long been the site of mass struggles by Chinese immigrants.

A mural on Mosco Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown by Jess X. Snow, titled In the Future, Our Asian Community Is Safe, which memorializes both distant and recent acts of violence against Asians.

A couple of months ago, standing on the densely packed corner of Doyers and Pell streets, the oldest part of Manhattan’s Chinatown, I stopped for a few minutes to eavesdrop on a walking-tour guide talking to a group of tourists about the “bloody angle,” a bend in the two-hundred-foot-long block in front of the old Chinese Opera House on Doyers Street where Chinese tongs, family-controlled gangs, fought and died over control of gambling, prostitution, and opium in the early 1900s.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other laws made even illegal immigration by all but a few women impossible, leading to an enormous gender imbalance in Chinese communities in the United States and the creation of a bachelor society. That did not begin to change appreciably until the opening of immigration in 1965. Before they became more elaborate, dim sum restaurants, with small plates and communal tables, emerged to serve single men. So did a trade in Chinese sex workers, many of whom were sold into sexual slavery. That was the story this tour guide told.

All true. But the violent and salacious anecdotes the guide chose to tell, standing alone, fit into a narrative of exoticism, giving the impression that the Chinese immigrants were strange and savage. The story he ignored was sitting in plain sight, one that was both more inspiring and complicated in the longer history of Manhattan’s Chinatown. A group of scholars, history professionals, and labor and social justice activists set out to tell that story.

This year marked the beginning of a new project I cofounded called People’s Heritage Tours. In partnership with several social justice organizations, we offer walking history tours that highlight specific events and social movements related to the ongoing work of our partners. A portion of each ticket sold goes to those groups that also help promote the tours. The tours are based on current scholarship and primary source research and, when possible, involve veterans of historical moments.

Our Chinatown tour was created in partnership with Labor Arts, an online exhibition space and repository for documents and art related to working-class struggles, and it was developed with May Chen, a former vice president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE). The tour centers on a strike by thousands of garment workers in the summer of 1982, a strike organized largely by immigrant women who helped change the course of labor relations in the industry, the role of Asians in the American labor movement, services to the Chinese community, and their own lives.

On loan from the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) union (which merged with UNITE in 2004 to form UNITE HERE), Chen had been an organizer of that strike. No one expected these women to mobilize in a sustained militant show of strength — not the employers, not their union, not even themselves. So why did they?

The Tour Starts

We begin our tour across the Bowery from Doyers Street at Confucius Plaza, a massive forty-four-story New York State–subsidized cooperative apartment building housing nearly eight hundred families, which was completed in 1975. In less than a decade after Chinese people were able to immigrate in large numbers, their political power in the city and state grew to the point that they could demand the project. But the developers refused to hire Chinese workers.

A group called Asian Americans for Equal Employment (AAEE) formed in 1973 and began to organize demonstrations in 1974, when negotiations with the developer broke down. By the spring of 1974, more than fifty people had been arrested in increasingly militant actions and construction stopped. The developer relented and hired more than two dozen Chinese construction workers, opening the door to Asians in construction throughout New York City.

We talk about the long history of Chinese immigration to the United States and settlement in New York City. We also discuss the rise of the garment industry that became increasingly important to the Chinese after World War II, especially after 1965. As we walk along Doyers Street, we talk about local and national events and social movements that inspired or led directly to that summer of resistance.

At the southern end of Doyers Street, where it intersects with the Bowery, a blue and white mural depicts the life of Corky Lee, a Queens-born photographer who recorded daily life and political movements among Chinese immigrants like his parents. In 1975, Lee documented the mobilization of thousands of Chinatown residents who marched on City Hall to protest the brutal beating of Peter Yew by NYC police and years of police harassment.

Led largely by male community leaders, women participated in large numbers. The demonstrations won temporary policy concessions from Mayor Abraham Beame, including new lines of communications between the police and Chinatown community leaders.

Lee also documented the garment workers’ strike in 1982. And he sought to correct the historical record. The mural revolves around a rendering of the meeting of east- and westbound trains of the Transcontinental Railroad in Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869.

One of the most enduring photographs of that moment depicts the owners and builders who gathered around the golden spike that joined the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads. That engineering feat (along with the annihilation of Native Americans) was crucial to the United States’ accumulation of wealth and power.

The photograph was missing members of one key group who were responsible for building the railroad: the many thousands of Chinese laborers who risked life and limb taking the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs to construct the railroad. Hundreds died. In one of his most enduring photographs, Lee assembled scores of descendants of those “coolie” laborers at Promontory Point to recreate the 1869 triumphal image. He called it “an act of photographic justice.”

The next building over is the Chinatown post office named for Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, the first Chinese woman to earn a PhD in economics in the United States (from Columbia University). Lee came to New York from Guangzhou with her family at nine years old. In 1912, at sixteen, she mounted a horse to lead a Chinatown contingent of suffragists in a parade up Fifth Avenue to demand the vote for women.

Mabel Lee joined the Women’s Political Equality League, working with wealthy reformists and socialists, like garment workers’ organizer Rose Schneiderman, to achieve the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, even though Lee herself would not get the right to vote until 1943. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese immigrants and their descendants from obtaining US citizenship, until it was repealed during World War II.

Around the corner at 21 Pell Street stands the First Chinese Baptist Church that Lee founded in 1926 and led until she died in 1966, providing social services to the Chinese community just as it began to swell with new immigrants.

The First Chinese Baptist Church.

Across from the post office on Doyers, the tour guide to whom I was listening pointed out the old Chinese Opera House. After a theatrical performance in 1905, four members of one tong were shot to death by members of a rival tong. What he did not talk about was a drama of interethnic solidarity just a few years earlier.

When the Chinese Exclusion Act was permanently extended in 1902, Jewish liberal and socialist voices objected publicly. The following year, during Easter 1903, in Kishinev, Moldova, then a province of the Russian Empire, nearly fifty Jews were killed and thousands more were displaced in a pogrom that shook the entire Jewish world. Jewish communities of the Lower East Side mobilized. They called for relief for the victims and to help what would be the greatest wave of Jewish refugees to leave Russia. Among them we militant socialists and organizers for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), such as Schneiderman, Clara Lemlich, and Fannia Cohn.

The Chinatown community, numbering only about seven thousand people, responded with compassion and solidarity. They filled the five-hundred-seat opera house raising hundreds of dollars in a benefit during which actors forewent their wages. They raised more in a subsequent banquet at the fine Mon Lay Won restaurant at 24 Pell Street.

Union Uprisings

As we wend our way through Pell Street toward Mott, we talk about how the Chinese came to create a small enclave here at the western edge of the Five Points neighborhood, the poorest section of New York at the time. In the 1830s and 1840s, recent Irish immigrants mixed with newly freed slaves and others “down on their luck.” Throughout most of the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, it had the worst housing, the worst sanitation, and the most lax enforcement of laws meant to protect the most vulnerable.

It was also always a tourist destination. Wealthy New Yorkers and tourists knew they could take advantage of desperate men and women left with no alternatives to selling drugs and their bodies in the dilapidated flophouses, beer halls, and brothels that lined the crowded, fetid streets. With regular payoffs, police and Tammany Hall politicians turned a blind eye to all manner of vice.

This was the original destination for the term “slumming,” as to go to the slums for illicit entertainment. It is here that the Chinese were allowed and could afford to establish a foothold.

Today a number of buildings still stand that were erected before the 1901 New York State Tenement House Act, mandating indoor plumbing and at least one window in each room that could open to fresh air and light. Even the many buildings in the neighborhood built between 1910 and 1920 that Chinese immigrants lived in saw neglect over time.

In the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, garment workers complained that there were too few affordable daycare centers. They were forced to bring their young children to work in the shops, amid the fiber dust, the loud and dangerous moving machinery, and the needles, scissors, and other hazards. Or they could leave the children at home alone. In these buildings, unattended children were known to fall down broken stairs, out of windows, and down elevator shafts — sometimes to their deaths.

On Mott Street, we pass by the Catholic Church of Transfiguration that hosted union-sponsored English classes for Chinese immigrants as early as the late 1960s and opened its doors for union planning meetings around the 1982 strike. At 26 Mott Street, at the top of Mosco Street, stands a fifth-generation-owned porcelain shop called Wing on Wo & Co that has been there since 1925.

Wing on Won & Co at 26 Mott Street in Chinatown, Manhattan, New York.

Mei Lum, who now owns and operates the store, founded the W.O.W. Project, “a women, queer, and trans led community initiative using art and activism to grow and protect NYC Chinatown’s creative culture in a time of rapid change.” Among their programs, they commissioned the artist Jess X. Snow to paint a mural on Mosco Street called In the Future, Our Asian Community is Safe, which memorializes both distant and recent acts of violence against Asians, particularly Asian women, and tries to serve as a beacon of hope for a world without such violence.

At Columbus Park, the site of two days of massive strike rallies, we recount the events of that summer. In recent tours, strike veterans May Chen, Lana Cheung, Mei Yin Tsang, Alice Ip, and Ngoi Wah Cheng gave us firsthand testimony to fill out the story.

Members of Local 23-25 march through Chinatown during the 1982 ILGWU strike, on June 24, 1982 or July 15, 1982. (Images Unlimited / Kheel Center at Cornell University)

Though uptown garment manufacturers had begun to settle the 1982 contract with the ILGWU, Chinatown contractors decided to play hardball. In industry after industry in the United States, employers were demanding concessions from unions. It was a recession year, and inflation was high. The Chinese shop owners demanded fewer vacation days, lower wages, and a reduction of health-insurance contributions.

No garment factory owner in New York’s Chinatown was surprised about the rally scheduled for Columbus Park that Thursday afternoon on June 24, 1982. Union firebrands had been passing out leaflets for weeks. The flyers were taped onto telephone poles and plastered by the dozens on the sides of construction site plywood walls.  It was a hot topic of conversation in the packed blocks and cramped tenements of Bayard, Pell, Mott, and Mulberry streets where many of the 25,000 garment workers lived. They were mostly young, female, and newly arrived immigrants with little or no English.

Almost none of the Chinese men who ran the industry expected much of a showing. After all, these women were thought to be obedient. They came from their shared patriarchal cultures in Guangzhou, Shanghai, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. They grew up answering to their fathers, then their husbands, then to their adult sons. They were closely watched and protected by the men in their family. And in spite of the fact they were members of the ILGWU, they worked for low wages, long hours, and in dangerous working conditions.

So the garment contractors were caught off guard when 20,000 mostly immigrant women stood up and left work in the middle of the morning, joined by union staff and allies, filling the park and spilling out into the surrounding streets.

Indeed, union officials, all men and none Chinese, were equally taken by surprise. Believing that Chinese women would never join the union on their own, ILGWU staff organized many of the five hundred garment factories over the past decade by directly appealing to the shop owners, rarely consulting the workers directly. The union promised the contractors lucrative business from uptown union-shop manufacturers and health insurance for all employees. For that benefit alone, factory owners added family members to the payroll. And contract enforcement was often lax or nonexistent.

In fact, a sizable minority of the Chinese factory owners had agreed to the union’s demands before that June 24 work action. Perhaps another third stood on the sidelines, waiting to see whether the union would prevail or the hard-line remaining third of the manufacturers who wanted to be rid of the union would win the day. After the overwhelming mobilization, most of the manufacturers signed with the union.

Local 23-25 members gather for a Chinatown rally during the 1982 ILGWU strike in Columbus Park, Manhattan, on June 24, 1982, or July 15, 1982. (Images Unlimited / Kheel Center at Cornell University)

The union also took note of the turnout as well as the militant tone of the Chinese women speakers and the resolve of the union members. They demanded a stronger union contract, serious enforcement, and daycare for their children. Sympathetic small business owners, church and civic leaders, community advocates, and professionals took note too. By the time a strike deadline was set for July 15, a new community coalition was in place.

On the day of the strike, only a few dozen employers remained unconvinced that these women would follow through on their threat. Yet that morning, throughout Chinatown, these thousands of women and men did as they had three weeks earlier, reporting first to work then getting up in unison, turning off their machines, and marching through the streets back to Columbus Park. It did not matter that most shops had agreed to sign the contract. Many of the factory owners actually encouraged their employees to join the strike to pressure the most recalcitrant employers.

Understanding their new reality, garment contractors swarmed the temporary union headquarters on Baxter Street to sign the new contract. By mid-afternoon, virtually all shop owners relented. Scores of workers and supporters, spilling into the stairwell, went looking for the lone holdout at his office. He was gone. The group scoured the neighborhood until he was spotted in the back of a local restaurant eating dim sum. They dropped the contract on the table, insisting he sign, which he did.

In less than a day, the strike was settled.

The impacts of this militant uprising and community mobilization led by immigrant women low-wage workers is considerable, complicated, and far from fully understood. But few in the mainstream media at the time, and few non-Asian academics since, have taken much notice.

The story has been kept alive within Chinese and broader Asian scholarly circles, by the activists themselves, by artists, and in commemorative programs organized by public history institutions: the Tenement Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Tamiment Library at New York University. LaborArts.Org has a permanent digital exhibit dedicated to the strike. This tour tries to contribute to those efforts.

A Neighborhood Transformed by Struggle

We leave the park and walk up Mulberry Street, past restaurants that employed many men who were married to the garment workers. Alex Hing, a longtime union chef and HERE Local 6 activist, joined a tour recently to remind us of the various efforts over time to unionize the industry, with important struggles at the Silver Palace and Jing Fong. Nevertheless, the Chinese restaurant industry was largely union free.

In China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, women rarely worked outside the home. In the United States, it was a necessity. But because most men were not unionized, the health insurance women received was critical to the entire family. So these women often had the support of their husbands.

Chinese immigrants also arrived in the 1960s just as the anti–Vietnam War protests were heating up, and the civil rights movement was becoming more militant and inspiring to other ethnic groups. In the late 1960s and through the ’70s, the women’s movement was building, and the Stonewall Rebellion against police harassment that started in Greenwich Village, walking distance from Chinatown, ignited a new era of gay liberation. In the labor movement, the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) organized leadership workshops and conferences. The ILGWU sent Chinese shop leaders to participate.

When Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 air traffic controllers in 1981 to break their union, the AFL-CIO organized a massive rally in Washington, DC. The ILGWU sent busloads of members, including many Chinese garment workers. Some women had seen or participated in mass public rallies during the Cultural Revolution in China, so the idea of mass mobilization was not new to them. All these factors help explain why these women thought it was possible, even obvious, that they should take action for themselves.

Before we leave the park, strike veterans unfurl a four-foot-high banner of the Asian and Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), another partner in our tour. APALA was founded by 1982 strike leader and shop-floor activist Katie Quan, May Chen, and other veterans of the strike. It started as a committee of eleven local unions in the New York City Central Labor Council, advocating for access to jobs and attention from unions. The committee grew nationally until APALA was formed in 1992, which then formally affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

The strike transformed the Chinese presence in the garment workers’ union. Quan and Chen eventually rose to be vice presidents of their international union. Lana Cheung and May Yin Tsang were hired onto union staff. And Jay Mazur, the manager of ILGWU Local 23-25, which represented the strikers, rose to become the last president of the ILGWU until its merger in 1996 with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) to form UNITE.

We walk west along Canal Street and north on Baxter, past former garment factories, machine shops that catered to the industry, the union’s old satellite office, and the Old Police Headquarters, an imposing Beaux-Arts structure that fills the entire block between Baxter and Centre and between Grand and Broome Streets. The city sold the building to developers, who built luxury condominiums in the late 1980s, with the provision that the basement be given over to nonprofit organizations.

The Old Police Headquarters building in Chinatown, Manhattan.

In 1993, the city greenlit the use of the space for Project Open Door, a Chinatown senior center that catered to an aging population, including many retired garment workers. After the building opened, the co-op board refused to honor the agreement. Once again, current and retired garment workers mobilized for street demonstrations and direct appeals to public officials.

The center was finally opened in 2005. It was one of many institutions Chinese garment workers built in their community. Only two years after the strike, in 1984, the ILGWU mobilized the resources, including subsidies from factory owners, to build the daycare center at 115 Chrystie Street, a key demand during the strike. It still operates today.

The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in Chinatown, Manhattan.

Around the corner stands the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), occupying the site of yet another building that formerly housed garment factories on each floor. It holds a growing archival collection (nearly lost in a terrible fire in January 2020) that includes documents, correspondence, photographs, ephemera, and other artifacts of Chinese immigrant life in New York and the United States — a reminder of how essential the collection, preservation, interpretation, and exhibition of materials related to ordinary people are to understanding how groups assumed to be weak and obedient have built power.

History Under the Gun

We have created People’s Heritage Tours at a time when the humanities generally, and the study of history specifically, are under direct and indirect assault from both right-wing and neoliberal forces. Some of these attacks are widely known and central to the national conversation on politics: state and local laws restricting the teaching of critical race theory and laws restricting what books librarians can purchase. Right-wing state laws limiting tenure and allowing students to monitor progressive faculty bias in the classroom with recordings have created a chilling effect on academic freedom throughout the country.

Some attacks are under most people’s radars. The State University of New York (SUNY) general education requirements for most bachelor’s degrees were changed in 2010 from requiring American history, as one of ten categories of liberal arts, to allowing students to choose as few as seven of ten categories. Similar moves have been made across the country in recent years. Enrollments in American history (typically a heavy reading and writing discipline) have plummeted.

Fewer courses led to fewer jobs for professors who would inspire students to major in history. Graduate school enrollments in American history declined, resulting in the training of fewer scholars and the creation of less new knowledge. Many students have been priced out of higher education altogether. Others have been saddled with unsustainable debt and too afraid to take courses that are not “safe” for future careers.

We are seeing the desertification of the liberal arts and of the study of history. And in a knowledge desert, powerful people and powerful institutions win. The arguments that underpinned this June’s decisions by the Supreme Court to obliterate gun control and overturn Roe v. Wade were made with what historian Heather Cox Richardson called “stunningly bad history.” And there are fewer people now who can understand why.

The burden falls to socialists and progressives to find every way possible to promote the study of history as integral to the fight for social justice. And not just for those who can make it to college. There are many great exhibits, programs, and resources available in libraries, archives, historical societies, and museums. But they are not enough. We have to take the streets and truly make public history public. The subject, quality, and accuracy of walking history tours is a deeply important and political act.

Just as importantly, if people find the study of history to be tedious, uninspiring, and humorless, they are simply doing it wrong. History envelops the whole of human thought, desire, glorious victories, crushing defeats, absurdity, great creativity, maddening contradictions, messy outcomes, and unfinished business. To be of any use, the presentation of history, no matter how important, has to stimulate wonder, imagination, inspiration, and curiosity.

When we concluded our most recent tour, I thanked the veterans emphatically for having endured a particularly hot day to give us firsthand accounts. One of the women, who had been a shop chairlady during the strike, looking no worse for the wear, turned to the group to say:

Every time we tell the story of 1982, and especially standing in the streets we filled as we marched and danced and sang to demand a fair contract and services like the senior center and the daycare center, I feel like it was yesterday. I feel powerful. I feel delighted. We have to keep fighting and reminding ourselves what we won and how we won it.