Doyers Street, before the lockdown

Andrew Silverstein

Doyers Street, before the lockdown

In New York City hate crime towards Asians has increased fivefold this year. The coronavirus stirred up anti-Chinese sentiments that echo of the yellow peril of the 19th century: the Chinese are unsanitary; they eat weird foods, and all Asians from Manhattan to Wuhan are the same. It occurred so quickly because we let these stereotypes survive beneath the surface. For over a century, locals and tourists visited American Chinatowns because they were exotic and mysterious places. Suddenly, in February they avoided them like the plague for the same reasons.

Nowhere is America’s problematic relationship to Chinese-Americans more apparent than on Doyers Street in Chinatown, Manhattan. Doyers, a 350-foot-long street with a sharp bend in the middle, is a microcosm of American Chinatowns. It both captures the imagination of visitors and provides the most mundane neighborhood functions. To many, it’s the “Bloody Angle,” where, the story goes, more people were killed than on any other street in the country. For locals, it’s where you find the post office and a half dozen barbershops. On a normal day, you’ll find elderly residents running errands and Chinese-Americans who commuted in for lunch and a haircut dodging selfie-snapping tourists. Outside Nom Wah Tea Parlor, crowds wait for tables. By night, the dim sum and Lonely Planets give way to cocktails and high heels as lines form for three hidden lounges and an upscale restaurant.

By mid-February, Doyers was nearly empty. Chinatown was the first coronavirus victim in New York even before a single diagnosis. News of Covid-19 in Wuhan led many Chinese-Americans to start social-distancing in January. Then New Yorkers and tourists who otherwise ignored the virus chose to eat at non-Asian restaurants. Restaurant business dropped over 30 percent. Doyers went from being the “deadliest” street to the deadest.

Now community leaders fear the lasting effects of a citywide shutdown, a looming recession, and a spike in anti-Chinese violence. Chinatown may become a shell of itself, like its neighbor, a Little Italy with no Italian immigrants. Already in years past, rising rents have driven away locals, making the Chinese a minority in the area and pushing restaurants to the financial brink. Covid-19 may be the final blow.

After a racially motivated acid attack of an Asian woman in Brooklyn, Bonnie Tsui, author of “American Chinatown,” said, “the current situation is certainly related to and reflective of the history of racism toward the Chinese community in America.” Now is the time to reflect on that history and its legacy.

Visiting and dining in Chinatown was born from anti-Chinese discrimination. In the 19th century, the neighborhood was synonymous with gambling, prostitution, and opium. At that point, historian Yong Chen notes, “Chinatown shifted from primarily a target of hatred to an object of curiosity.” A guide book urged travelers to witness the area’s “filth, immorality, and picturesque foreignness.” Politicians warned New Yorkers to stay away and in 1907 moved to destroy Chinatown. Meanwhile, Chuck Connors, a local tough turned tour guide, led groups down Doyers. Connors told yarns of Chinatown gangs (“tongs”) using the blind curve for attacks. His tall tales popularized the “Bloody Angle” nickname.

According to Scott Seligman, author of “Tong Wars,” there is no historical evidence of even one Fu Manchu-like ambush on Doyers. The violence was greatly exaggerated. In 1912, the deadliest year of the tong wars, there were eight documented murders in all of Chinatown. A blip in our world of mass shootings. Further, Seligman, in his research, found that more gangsters met their death on the neighboring streets. Doyers turns out isn’t even the deadliest street in the neighborhood, let alone in the country. Nonetheless, the “Bloody Angle” nickname survives. It’s not just a story trotted out for tourists; it appears with almost every mention of Doyers in major publications, podcasts, and on the street’s Wikipedia page.

Jan Lee, co-Chair of Family Owned Properties of Chinatown, rails against the use of the nickname. He criticizes restauranteurs who promote Doyers as a gangster street and tour guides with what he calls “the Chuck Connors’ mentality.”

“They are setting our culture back in New York to an era that we don’t want to be reminded of,” says Lee. “We do not want to be a theme park.”

Still, for Chinatown to recover, visitors must return. Visitors play a vital role in Chinatown’s economy. The rents of first floor restaurants and gift shops subsidize upstairs rent-stabilized tenements. Sales of souvenirs and soup dumplings allow Chinatown to remain a haven for new immigrants and a cultural center of Chinese-Americans.

This delicate economy dates to the 1910s. In one of the first stirrings of the melting pot, New Yorkers began to appreciate Chinese culture and food. In ten years, the number of Chinese restaurants quadrupled in New York. In this era, American Chinatowns self-exoticized, creating cheap Americanized meals and digestible cultural experiences that catered to stereotypes. It was a survival tactic for a marginalized community.

As lo mein became trendy, Chinatown morphed into a middle-class tourist and dining destination. The “Bloody Angle” myth might have faded away if not for Herbert Asbury’s “Gangs of New York.” The 1927 landmark book that inspired the Scorsese film set the urban legend in stone. The New York Times in 2011, like many, quotes Asbury: “The police believe […] that more men have been murdered at the Bloody Angle than any other place of like area in the world.” The Times leaves out Asbury’s less savory claim that “not even a slanted-eyed Chinaman can see around a corner.”

At the time “Gangs of New York” was printed, there was push back. A 1929 New York Times headline advised, “Chinatown Of Today Is Safe And Sane.” The article dismissed concerns, “Despite tong-war alarms, it is just a market place with synthetic thrills for tourists.” Ten years later, the Workman Progress Administration guide to New York City still felt the need to write, “that no safer district is to be found in New York City. Yet guides have been known to warn tourists to hold hands while walking through the narrow streets.” The tong war myths, however, never disappeared. They just shifted to the past tense—allowing for visitors to experience the allure of the “Bloody Angle” but without the fear of violence.

The “Bloody Angle” nickname survives because we want to believe it. From the start, it was too good to fact-check. Connors, on his slum tours, was known to take wealthy uptowners into a fake opium den on Doyers. Tour-goers recognized the “violent drug fiends” were paid actors, but it played into their idea of “the real Chinatown the visitors don’t see and understand.” These days, New Yorkers pay $18 a drink at Apotheke on Doyers. This cocktail lounge invites visitors to wander “down a hidden street to find the entrance,” an unmarked door that opens to a dark room which (they claim) used to be an opium den. Next door, patrons can also play make-believe at Peachy’s, a basement bar Conde Nast called “evocative of a Chinese opium den.”

It may seem harmless, an Asian equivalent of the many hip speakeasy-themed bars. Then, in a pandemic, tribalism kicks in. The excitement of the other becomes fear of the other. When Covid-19 passes, we will return to Chinatown, but we must change how. Lee warns, “The continuance of othering people, of making everyone here a perpetual foreigner it doesn’t help us.” He is clear, “It will impact our safety.”

It’s been over a century since the first New Yorkers took a real interest in Chinatown as a cultural destination. Historian Mike Wallace marks this as “a small contribution into an evolving ideology that treated cosmopolitanism as a civic and a social and a cultural virtue.” Since then, multiculturalism has become a defining feature of what it is to be a New Yorker. It’s time we take the next step. Most of us reject calling the coronavirus the “Chinese Virus.” We recognize that names matter. Once Covid-19 is over, let’s go and support Doyers Street but leave the “Bloody Angle” behind.

Andrew Silverstein is the co-founder of Streetwise New York Tours.