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Monday, January 26, 2009

"The Chinese All Agog": Chinese New Year in the 19th Century

Happy Year of the Ox! As Chinatown gets ready to usher in the New Year (see Explore Chinatown for a comprehensive list of events), we thought it would interesting to turn to the archives and look at how the New York Times reported coverage of Chinese New Year’s back when Chinatown was limited to Mott, Pell, and Doyers streets.

The Times first year of coverage was 1883. Despite its Victorian racism (the celebrating Chinese are “agitated,” the young men wear “Melican” clothes), the Times’s coverage seemed to be trying to demystify Chinese culture and show that New York’s Asian residents weren’t as strange or foreign as most people thought.

Two interesting observation from that article:

  • The reporter assumed the young Chinese residents were less interested in traditional New Year’s Day calling because there were “only three or four Chinese women in the City.”
  • Also, New York’s Chinatown evidently had no temples (or “joss parlors” in the parlance of the day), thus forcing worshippers to head to Belleville, New Jersey, if they wanted to partake in traditional temple prayers.

It is also worth noting that interest in Chinese New Year coincided with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act--originally set to run for ten years--which severely curtailed Chinese immigration into the United States.

The next year, 1884, under the banner “The Chinese All Agog,” the Times reported that the Chinese were once again “agitated”—indeed, the article was essentially a rehash of the previous year’s report, though it did get in the jab that Chinese New Year fell on an odd date because the “Chinese year is shorter than the law allows to civilized countries.” In a separate feature, a Times reporter was invited by a Chinese merchant to observe a traditional New Year’s feast, replete with “browned hog,” “a chicken, complete except the feathers,” and “a bowl of beche de mer and shark’s fins.” (That could describe most Chinatown restaurants today, but then was a rarity for a Westerner to see.)

As anti-Asian sentiment in New York increased over the next few years, coverage of New Year’s Day grew more hostile. By the time the Chinese Exclusion Act was extended in 1893—essentially banning Chinese immigration for the next 50 years—the Times was reduced to calling the celebrants “heathens” and the entire celebration “shifty.” And soon thereafter coverage of the event was dropped by the paper altogether, not to return with any regularity until after World War II.

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You can read more about Chinatown and the Chinese Exclusion Act in Inside the Apple, available for pre-order today.

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