Artist: Tiffany Lin
Storyteller: Richard Campanella
New Orleans once had a Chinatown — two, in fact. Its origins trace back to machinations in the global labor market over 150 years ago.
The year was 1865; the Confederacy had just been defeated, and many emancipated African Americans departed the cane and cotton fields for New Orleans. Louisiana planters scrambled to assemble a new labor force, as did railroad investors, and learned that their peers in the Caribbean, in the wake of emancipation there, had imported thousands of East Asian and South Asian laborers.
Intrigued, Louisiana planters in 1867 dispatched agents to recruit a few hundred Chinese workers out of Cuba. That effort was interrupted by war, so the agents instead hired 1600 Chinese out of California, and later China proper, and brought them to lower Louisiana to work on plantations and railroads.
Recruitment faced various obstacles, and those Chinese who did land in Louisiana resisted exploitative work conditions and low pay. By the early 1870s, planters began to look elsewhere for contract labor, and the Chinese workers headed for the hope of the city.
The 1880 Census recorded 95 Chinese living in New Orleans and 489 in Louisiana; most were young men residing in boarding houses and apartments, employed in laundering, cooking and cigar-making, a skill learned in Cuba.
In 1882, the Canal Street Presbyterian Church opened a Chinese Mission at 215 South Liberty Street. Serving over 200 people, the service made this Third Ward neighborhood a hub for the city’s Chinese population. By the 1900s, seven Chinese markets, groceries, and merchandise shops filled the 1100 block of Tulane Avenue, and an equal number operated nearby. Surrounding Chinatown was one of the city’s most fascinating neighborhoods. On adjacent South Rampart were jazz venues and integrated shops owned by Orthodox Jews, Italians and African Americans; a block away stood the Knights of Pythias Temple, the largest black-owned building in the nation; and across the street was the ominous Parish Prison and Criminal Courthouse, with its medieval-looking turrets and tower.
In terms of size, Chinatown remained stable because exclusionary immigration laws had restricted the flow of Asian immigrants to the United States. By the 1920s, the local Chinese American population had become increasingly middle-class, more mobile, and less dependent on its old enclave. In 1926, the Presbytery moved its Chinese Mission to Mid City, and in 1937, merchants lost their lease on 1100 Tulane Avenue. This brought an end to the original Chinatown — but not to the enclave itself. “Chinatown is moving lock, stock, and herb barrel,” reported The Times-Picayune, to the French Quarter.
By the 1940s, about ten Chinese businesses operated around 500 Bourbon, and the new Chinatown became a part of midcentury Quarter culture. Bourbon Street’s transformation to the entertainment strip of today paralleled the Chinese merchants’ gradual departure for Jefferson Parish, where most descendants live today. Many still worship at the Chinese Presbyterian Church, now located on West Esplanade Avenue in Kenner.
All that remains of the original Chinatown is one old brick wall, and the only visible trace of the second enclave is the fading hand-painted sign of the On Leong Merchants Association at 530½ Bourbon Street.