#17: Hollywood in Brooklyn

From Google Street View

From Google Street View.

This postwar junior high school sits on a site that was once home to the Great Wall Film Company, founded in 1920 by a group of Chinese students and local Chinese American businesspeople. Incensed by the racist portrayals of Chinese in American-made films, the group decided to produce their own movies, raised $200,000 from local Chinese American investors, and founded the Great Wall Film Company. The next year, the firm leased this site at 2409 Crospey Avenue in the Bath Beach section of Brooklyn and set to work making Chinese-language films for release in China and in Chinese American communities.

Mei Xuechou. From "The Chinese Mirror" film history website.

Mei Xuechou. From “The Chinese Mirror”

Those who worked at the Great Wall Film Company during its Brooklyn years included journalist Liu Zhaoming and students Cheng Peilin and Li Zeyuan. Like Liu, Great Wall employee Mei Xuechou was a reporter for a local Chinese-language newspaper (probably the Chinese Nationalist Daily, 民氣日報). Enthused by the company’s initial productions, he quit his job as a journalist, studied film and animation in New York, and eventually because an important movie director for Great Wall. Mei eventually collaborated with some of China’s movie pioneers, including screenwriter Hou Yao (候曜), and participated in the production of China’s first animated movie.


Still shot from "Plaything of the Gods," a 1927 Great Wall Film Company movie made in Shanghai. From the North China Herald.

Still shot from “Plaything of the Gods,” a 1927 Great Wall Film Company movie made in Shanghai. From the North China Herald.

While the Great Wall Film Company proved a success, its location was problematic. Although formed by Chinese and Chinese Americans angry about negative film stereotypes, the company never intended to make movies for English-speaking audiences. Instead, its audience was in China, where almost all of the films that audiences saw were American-made movies with their captions translated from English (this was, after all, the pre-talkie era). In 1924, Great Wall’s staff shut down operations at the Brooklyn site, packed up the firm’s equipment, and relocated to Shanghai. There, the company had far easier access to its main markets, the growing populations of China’s coastal cities. According to the North China Herald, Great Wall thrived in Shanghai. With its spacious lot and modern equipment, it was about to make ten films a year while its rivals could produce only two or three.

Unfortunately, the Great Depression undermined many of Shanghai’s studios, including Great Wall, which closed down in 1930. By that point, its original site in Brooklyn had long since reverted to more conventional industrial uses. It eventually became the site of I.S. 281, renamed the Joseph B. Cavallaro Junior High School in the 1970s in honor of a conservative, anti-communist Board of Higher Education head who died in 1957.

Sources for this post include “The Chinese Mirror: A Journal of Chinese Film History“; Tan Ye and Yun Zhu, Historical Dictionary of Chinese Cinema (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2012); The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce BulletinNorth China HeraldNew York Times; A Brief History of Chinese Film; and Yingjin Zhang, ed., A Companion to Chinese Cinema (New York: Blackwell, 2012).



#16 Possible Literary Landmark

111 E 10th (640x480)This fairly simple turn-of-the-century walk-up building was once the home of author Younghill Kang, who most likely wrote some of his early works, including The Grass Roof and The Happy Grove, while living here. Nicknamed the “St. Mark’s Garth” for its backyard garden, the building belonged to the historic St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, making it even more important to Asian American history. The St. Mark’s church, which is just down the block, contains a graveyard with the remains not only of Peter Stuyvesant but also Commodore Matthew Perry, the American naval commander who forced Japan to open to the West in 1854. Japanese immigration to Hawaii and the United States began just a few decades later.

Younghill Kang. Photo from the Smithsonian Institution.

Younghill Kang. Photo from the Smith-
sonian Institution.

Largely forgotten until recent years, Younghill Kang was an Asian American literary pioneer. Born in Korea in 1903, he grew up as Japan tightened its grip on the kingdom and then made it a Japanese colony. Kang, who hated the Japanese occupiers, became deeply interested in the West. Leaving Korea in 1921 with just a few dollars in his pocket, he ended up in Boston, where he abandoned plans to study medicine and instead turned to literature. He eventually worked his way through Boston University and Harvard.

In 1929, Kang married Frances Stacy Keely, a Wellesley graduate who encouraged him to write in English, and the two moved to New York. There, Kang worked for Encyclopedia Britannica and lectured at New York University while writing his autobiography, The Grass Roof. Frances Kang listed the 111 E 10th as her home address when she filed for naturalization in 1933. Although born in West Virginia, she lost her American citizenship for marrying Kang. Asian immigrants were legally ineligible for American citizenship at that time, and American women who married them lost their citizenship too. A 1931 revision to the law enabled Frances Kang to regain her American citizenship.

The Kangs' neighborhood:--East 10th St. and 3rd Avenue--around 1942, a decade after they lived there.

The Kangs’ neighborhood:–East 10th St. and 3rd Avenue–around 1942, less than a decade after they lived there. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

During the period the Kangs lived at 111 East 10th, their neighbors included a number of artists, writers, and similar residents drawn to the building because of its reasonable rents and intellectual community. In fact, the liberal Episcopalians who purchased the building hoped to attract just such people, whom they felt were often “unchurched.”

Despite this congenial environment, the Kangs did not stay long. In 1933, Younghill Kang received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and he and his family (which now included daughter Lucy Lynn Kang) set sail for Europe. When they returned, the Kangs moved to Long Island for Younghill Kang’s new job at Hofstra. Soon after, one hundred of Younghill Kang’s fellow educators successfully pushed the House Committee on Citizenship to consider a private bill granting him U.S. citizenship. Congress granted citizenship to Kang in 1940–twelve years before Korean immigrants as a whole could become American citizens.

During World War Two, Kang served as an adviser to the US military. He and Frances Kang also collaborated on translations of Korean literature, while he wrote articles for the magazine Common Ground and worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Still, despite spending considerable time in Manhattan, the Kang family never moved back to the city. Frances Keely Kang died in 1970 and Younghill Kang in 1972. By then, few readers remembered Kang’s early work anymore. Fortunately, in recent years Asian American literary scholars have rediscovered The Grass Roof and Kang’s other books

Sources for this post include the Smithsonian Institution, the New York Herald-Tribune, the New York Times, The WPA Guide to New York City, Frances Kang’s naturalization records, The Constructive Quarterly, and Newsday.

#15: Huie Kin’s Chinese Christian church

Huie Kin 1 (480x640)This 19th century tenement building at 223-225 E 31st Street once housed New York City’s first Chinese Protestant congregation under the leadership of the Rev. Huie Kin (許芹). An immigrant from Toishan, Guangdong, he arrived in America in 1868 and worked at various jobs in the Bay Area. An employer there helped him learn to read and write English and introduced him to Christianity. Huie later entered the Lane Theological Seminary and in 1885 moved to New York to participate in the Presbyterian Church’s efforts among Chinese immigrants. The church had begun its mission in 1868, but Huie was the first Chinese to lead it.


Huie Kin and Louise Van Arnam Huie, n.d. From Huiekin.org.

Huie experienced considerable challenges as he sought to minister to the community and to convert Chinese to Christianity. In his Reminiscences, which he published in 1932, he recalled trying to eradicate prostitution and gambling from late 19th century Chinatown; the crusade resulted in threats on his life. He also attracted unfavorable attention by marrying Louise Van Arnum, a white woman and mission volunteer. Chinese men in 19th century New York married or lived with white women far more often than they did in California, where an 1880 law banned interracial marriages between whites and Chinese. Still, such relationships were generally confined to working-class men and women, and contemporary observers could occasionally seem a bit obsessed with the Huies’ marriage; even Huie Kin’s obituary in the New York Times pointedly described his wife as a “descendant of one of the old Knickerbocker families of New York.” Huie himself put it this way: “there is such a thing as love at first sight….the fact that she was of another race made no difference to me.”

Christianity was a hard sell among the Chinese of turn of the century New York. Many community members associated the religion with Western imperialism at a time of growing nationalism in China and among the Chinese diaspora. In addition, white critics of the Chinese often referred to them as undesirable “heathens” and used religion as a justification for anti-Chinese laws. For a time, young Chinese men in New York flocked to Sunday schools for their free English lessons, but when one such student, Leon Ling, allegedly murdered a young white mission worker named Elsie Sigel in 1909, the result was an anti-Chinese backlash that Mary Lui aptly describes in her 2005 book The Chinatown Trunk Mystery.

The Sigel murder and the backlash undoubtedly worried Huie and other Presbyterian leaders, prompting them to move Huie’s church out of Chinatown. By 1909, Huie had built up a congregation of about one hundred fifty worshipers, and in 1910 the Presbytery of New York obtained the building at 223-225 E 31st Street, formerly home to the East Side Republican Club, for Huie’s congregation. The building included dormitories for young men; church leaders hoped such quarters would “keep Chinese away from the evil influences of Chinatown,” now associated with the Sigel killing.

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US Immigration Service photo of Sun Yat-sen in 1910. From the National Archives.

Among those who may have visited the Huies at their new home above the church was Sun Yat-sen, the Cantonese revolutionary and founder of the Kuomintang who served as the first provisional president of the Republic of China in 1912. Sun visited the Huies in the summer of 1910, just as the new church was taking shape but right before it opened.




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Irving Huie at a gathering of architects. Huie is seated at the far left. From the Brooklyn Public Library Brooklyn Visual Heritage Project.

Huie Kin retired from the ministry in 1925, and in the summer of 1933 he and Louise Huie traveled to China to settle there. Unfortunately, Huie, long plagued by ill health, died in January of 1934. Louise Huie returned to the United States in 1935 and passed away in 1944. The Huies’ nine children carried on the family name and spirit, however. The six Huie daughters married Chinese students and moved to China, where they contributed to the nation’s development and where some family members remain today. The three Huie sons married American women and stayed in the United States. One of them, Irving Huie, became New York’s commissioner of public works and part of Mayor Fiorello Laguardia’s “War Cabinet.” Today, the far flung and diverse Huie family holds frequent reunions and maintains a website dedicated to its fascinating roots.

In 1948, Huie Kin’s old congregation, by then renamed the Huie Kin Memorial Presbyterian Church, announced plans to move; the church that had once sought to distance itself from Chinatown now relocated to Pearl Street in order to be more convenient to Chinese American worshipers. The building at 223-225 E 31st today houses a social services agency and apartments.

Sources for this post include Huie Kin, Reminiscences (Beijing, 1932); Huiekin.org; Judy Yung, Gordon H. Chang, and Him Mark Lai, eds., Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Mary T. Lui, The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York City (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); the New York Times; and Ancestry.com.


#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.

#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.

#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).


#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.

#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.


#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).


#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, was no slouch herself; she served in the Women’s Army Corps 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.