Open City: Blogging Urban Change
Ashkenazi Jewish-Chinese Borderlands
By Celina Su

 

Last week, the Museum at Eldridge Street (between Canal and Division streets) hosted its 10th annual Egg Rolls and Egg Creams block party, commemorating the borderlands where Chinatown meets the old Jewish Lower East Side. Activities included Chinese and Hebrew calligraphy, dumplings and kreplach, mahjong and klezmer. In the pictures here (courtesy of Peter Muennig), children learned how to make yarmulkes.

The Museum at Eldridge Street is housed inside a synagogue built in 1887, when the surrounding blocks were populated by recent immigrants from eastern Europe. In 1910, roughly 60% of Lower East Side residents were Jewish, and according to the 1910 Census, half of the foreign-born whites in New York City were illiterate.

Citywide, there were almost half a million foreign-born whites, and Russians and Germans alone constituted 39% of that population. Italians and Irish folks, who were a lot less likely to have been Jewish, constituted 14% and 18%, respectively. There were just 3,651 Chinese folks in the entire city, or 0.1% of the population. (The local Chinese population had actually decreased from 1900 to 1910, mirroring nationwide trends following the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.)

By contrast, according to the latest American Community Survey maps, more than 80% of the residents in the area between the Bowery and Essex Street are now Asian, and less than 10% are white. Citywide, almost 9% of the population is Chinese, according to the 2008 American Community Survey. (In the map below, each red dot signifies 25 people, with green signifying “white” and red signifying “Asian.”) The Museum at Eldridge Street now lies in the middle of the new “Little Fuzhou” centered on East Broadway.

Despite these dramatic demographic changes, the cross-cultural connections between Ashkenazi Jewish and Chinese residents are anything but new, and they go deeper than making Chinese food a Christmas tradition. As reported in an article in The Forward, a 1903 pogrom that left more than 2,000 Russian Jewish families homeless rallied Jewish merchants in the Lower East Side to organize a relief committee. It also prompted local Chinatown business owners to host a benefit to raise money for the victims in Russia.

“We believe in liberty and want to aid those who suffer from bigotry,” the benefit organizers declared. They compared the Kinishev pogrom to “the wild slaughter” of 5,000 Chinese persons in Balgovestchensk, a Manchurian town, two years earlier. They were also hoping to form an alliance with the city’s progressive Jewish groups to fight against discrimination and advocate for immigration reform (especially the repeal of Chinese Exclusion Act).

The 1903 benefit included a performance at the Chinese Theatre on Doyers Street (pictured above, via The Forward) and a banquet at Mon Lay Won, a restaurant that billed itself as the “Chinese Delmonico’s” on Pell Street (pictured below, via Shorpy.com).

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About Open City
Open City: Blogging Urban Change is an interdisciplinary neighborhood blog and community project coordinated by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Five commissioned writers, called Organizing Fellows, are working with community organizations and neighborhood folks in Manhattan’s Chinatown/Lower East Side (LES), Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn to collect oral histories and interviews, offer commentary about gentrification, neighborhood change, and produce new creative work around these themes. Read more.
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CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities was formed in 1986 (formerly known as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) as a response to an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes both in New York City and around the country (which included violence by police officers against Asians).
They have two offices – one in Manhattan’s Chinatown (which houses the Chinatown Tenants Union, and the new Asian Youth in Action organizing project) and the Youth Leadership Project office in the Bronx – and have members from all over the city. Over the years, CAAAV’s main campaigns have focused on community-based organizing work rooted in Asian immigrant and refugee communities. Although their advocacy and organizing work is focused mainly in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the northwest Bronx, CAAAV’s work also touches upon larger issues (such as affordable housing, war, and immigration) shaping communities all over the world: “Our work is primarily centered around issues facing New Yorkers, but always with a global analysis.”
CAAAV’s mission is to organize and build the power of working-class Asian immigrants, refugees, and youth to change concrete conditions and participate in a broader social justice movement. In the past, CAAAV’s work included organizing South Asian taxi drivers, Korean women workers, and Filipina domestic workers. Several of these organizing projects have gone on to become their own organizations, such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United. CAAAV’s current work focus on three different program areas: Read more.

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Manhattan CB3 Land Use, Zoning, Public & Private Housing Committee
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