The Lost Chinatown of New Orleans

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.

Former On Leong Merchant Association Building, 530 Bourbon Street.

Former On Leong Merchant Association Building, 530 Bourbon Street.

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.

1118 Tulane Avenue is the last building standing from the old Chinatown.

1118 Tulane Avenue is the last building standing from the old Chinatown.

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.

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15 Responses to The Lost Chinatown of New Orleans

  1. Jasper says:

    Hi Chris – I found my way to this post via Reddit, and just wanted to say that I really enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to exploring the rest of your blog.

  2. heyalain says:

    Such a fascinating and informative essay–thank you for writing it! Could you cite some of the sources you drew on for this article?

    • chrisdier504 says:

      Thank you!

      And sure. The majority of information obtained here is from Richard Campanella’s book, “Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics Before the Storm.” There is a chapter solely about Chinatown, and it is much more detailed and informative than this blog.

  3. Patricia Hew Ellzey says:

    Did you know there is an old Chinese Masoleum here in New Orleans ?

    • chrisdier504 says:

      Yes! In an attempt to curtail the length, I opted some information out of it. I’m sure there is a direct connection to the Chinatown residents, but I don’t have much information on that, unfortunately.

  4. lynne dier says:

     Very interesting and enlightening.  I wonder if my old doctors’ office (as a child) on Tulane Ave. was part of that China Town.  Have a great day.  Love you.  Your # 1 fan.  Mom

  5. Pingback: The Lost Chinatown of New Orleans | AsianWeek

  6. Jen says:

    I’ve been very interested in the history of this area- especially after living in the Saratoga building. Thank you for such a great article. I look forward to reading further.

  7. Kevin Chin says:

    Search for the book: Americanization of Chinese New Year by Lou Illar. It is a very descriptive history about the Chinese in Louisiana.

  8. Jerry Fitzmeyer says:

    Very Interesting; which triggered—Remembering Chef George Nee aka Gee Nee Tong. Proprietor of the Chinatown Restaurant in the 600 block of Bourbon St. Also, author of “CHOPSTICKS UNLIMITED” (1969) a recipe guide to many of his dishes served in the restaurant.

  9. Winston Ho says:

    To chrisdier504. I’m going to have dispute your claim that New Orleans Chinatown was “one of the largest in the country, behind San Francisco and New York City.” Campanella never says this in his book. First, New Orleans Chinatown was almost certainly smaller than the major Chinatowns in cities that were larger than New Orleans, like Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Second, New Orleans was only one of several Chinatowns in the American South, including Chinatowns in Atlanta, San Antonio, Houston, Baltimore, and St. Louis. I am convinced New Orleans had the largest Chinatown in the South, but other historians, such as John Jung and Daniel Bronstein, believe Atlanta was larger. The Texas historians think San Antonio was larger, and I suspect it was probably a close second.

    I think your confusion exists for two reasons. First, most Americans don’t realize how widespread Chinese American settlement really was. In the late 1800s, there were Chinese-owned grocery stores in rural Mississippi and Georgia, Chinese building railroads in Montana and Texas and Alabama, Chinese merchants in northern Mexico, Chinese farm workers in Cuba and the Caribbean… Second, Americans have a stereotypical image of what a Chinatown would be like, an ethnic enclave where the Chinese lived practiced their own customs without interference from the outside world. In fact the WPA City Guide for 1937 described New Orleans Chinatown as a “Chinese Colony.”

    However, New Orleans Chinatown wasn’t anything like San Fransisco or Manhattan. Most Chinese in New Orleans ran family-owned laundries, and most Chinese lived near or at these laundries. The laundries were everywhere in the city, so Most Chinese also lived everywhere. Relatively few people actually lived in New Orleans Chinatown, which was really a commercial district for Chinese dry-goods stores and other merchants, not a large ethnic enclave. In that sense, New Orleans Chinatown actually resembled the modern Chinatown shopping centers in Houston, Dallas, or Atlanta. The Chinese buy their groceries in Chinatown, but they actually live in the suburbs. My own research indicates that most historic Chinatowns were like this, and that ethnic enclaves like San Fransisco and Manhattan are the exceptions.

    Winston Ho
    Rutgers University New Brunswick, Asian Languages and Cultures

    • chrisdier504 says:

      This is a noteworthy, critical comment. You’re right – Campanella asserted New Orleans’ Chinatown was the largest in the South. I’m convinced others outside the South, notably Chicago and Philadelphia, were larger at that time. Also, keep in mind in the 1800s New Orleans was the most populated city in the South, and much more populated than say Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, San Antonio, or Seattle. I’d be interested in any data regarding Chinese populations by date.

      I appreciate the input. If I touch on this topic again, I will certainly reach out to you.

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