"The end of Chinatown is at hand."
Those words could be said today, but they were written in a 1907 New York Times story. The movement to erase Chinatown goes back at least to the late 1800s, when a supporter of its eradication proclaimed, "In all New York City, there is not a more disreputable street than Pell Street nor a more forbidding cow-path than Doyers Street." Together, these lanes were "cesspools of immorality vile enough to bring a curse upon the entire community."
Despite the city's best efforts, Chinatown did not die and Doyers has since stayed in Chinese hands. Of course, with Chinatown unprotected from developers, this will likely change.
I recently stumbled upon the wonders of Doyers and wrote about them briefly here. But like Oscar the Cat, I sometimes have an unsettling knack for curling up next to the dying in their final hours. Of course, it's not hard to spot the dying in this city--just look for what's old, beloved, and surrounded by encroaching glass.
Gold Flower hides Apotheke
Whipping up buzz for its opium and absinthe cocktails, the arrival of trendy, upscale Apotheke signals the death of Doyers. One of these places always begets another, then a boutique, a demolition, a condo, a crowd of scenesters--and in no time we'll see Doyers as we know it vanish. New York Magazine agrees when they say that Doyers "will soon become the Freemans Alley of Chinatown."
Before that happens, I made this photographic slide show of a walk down Doyers.
The street was named for Hendrick Doyer, a Dutchman who ran a distillery in the early 1800s where the post office is today. Doyer's became Doyers, thanks to "a careless painter of street signs" who "omitted the apostrophe," according to Herbert Asbury in an excellent 1926 essay about Doyers' distant history.
chinese opera house: library of congress
Known as the Bloody Angle, Doyers was the site of many battles between the Chinese tong gangs in the late 1800s and early 20th century. They killed each other with hatchets while "Disciples of the Pear Garden" sang onstage at the Chinese opera house. Doyers was also a good place to be shanghaied by a crimp or kidnapped into sexual slavery. There were opium dens and fan tan parlors. There were trapdoors, secrets openings, underground tunnels, and the infamous Arcade, a passageway that ran in an L-shape from Doyers to Mott.
Today Doyers is peaceful, but it's no empty alley like Freeman's was. A steady flow of Chinese pedestrians move through it, going to the barber shop, the post office, or just taking a shortcut. There's a sense of comfort and familiarity here. It is a vibrant community. In another great essay worth reading, Bruce Edward Hall calls Doyers "the nerve center through which throbs all the essential life of New York City’s Chinatown."
Click here for more photos of Ting's
Aside from the many bustling barber shops and hair salons, this nerve center contains Ting's Gift Shop, here since 1957, the year New York's last opium den was shut down. Opium still survived in private parlors and Ting's was raided in 1958, yielding 10 pounds of heroin. Today, Ting's offers a milder fare of paper dragons, finger cuffs, wooden snakes, and bamboo cricket cages.
Click here for more photos of Nom Wah
I sat down for oolong tea and almond cookies at the Nom Wah Tea Parlor. Here since 1920, it's run by Wally Tang, who just missed his chance to appear in a Richard Gere movie.
The parlor has an otherwordly feeling about it, filled with haphazard red vinyl booths and tables, the tile floor littered with Chinese newspapers. A mouse skitters by. Chinese music plays from a radio. Flies lazily buzz in from the open doorway. Through the dusty, sun-drenched window, from the Hip Kee salon across Doyers, a lady barber steps out for a cigarette with her black hair rolled in blue foam curlers.
A young white man walks in to the tea parlor, bearded and headphoned, and asks, "What kind of coffee do you have here?" The proprietor explains they have only tea, and the young man walks away, perhaps wishing for a Starbucks. How long will he have to wish?
A few doors down, a pair of Chinese men sit outside the Gold Flower restaurant that has become Apotheke. They smoke cigarettes and watch the street. Do they know what lies in waiting behind that half-risen metal door? Do they know that it is a magnet attracting the gweilo--the ghost men, the foreign devils, the walking dead--to come stake a claim in their peaceful hideaway?