Underground in New York - Chinatown Tunnels

Largest Chinatown

Manhattan Chinatown is itself a relic—a 19th-century museum visited by 21st-century New Yorkers. The largest Chinese section of New York is actually in Flushing, Queens. The younger more affluent Chinese-American moved to the suburbs of Queens. Manhattan Chinatown doesn't fit the profile of the young, hip, absorbed Chinese-Americans.New York Chinatown population is said to be the largest in the United States orperhaps the entire North America.

New York, 1908. "The Chinese Opera House." 5-7 Doyers Street. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.
New York, 1908. "The Chinese Opera House." 5-7 Doyers Street. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.
Opera House now a clothing store
Opera House now a clothing store

New York City Chinatown is more than a 150-year-old neighborhood. Leading into the 1960’s, Chinatown was an ethnic closed society,politically and socially isolated by racial prejudice. Changes in immigration policies and the social upheaval of the civil rights movement, however, began to transform Chinatown’s narrow-mindedness. Chinatown continued to grow through the end of the 19th century, for the recent immigrants who continued to tricklein despite the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), to date is the only non-wartime federal lawwhich excluded a people based on nationality. It was a direct reaction torising anti-Chinese sentiment. This hatredwas mainly a result of the readiness of the Chinese to work for much less money under extremely worse circumstances than the white workers. The Act forbid naturalization by any Chinese already in the United States; barred the immigration of any Chinese not given a special work permit considered merchant, student, or diplomat; and prohibited the immigration of the wives and children of Chinese laborers living in the United States. The Exclusion Act grew more and more limiting over the following decades. The Act was finally lifted during World War II because China was a wartime ally.

Distinct from many ethnic enclaves of immigrants, Chinatown was largely self-supporting, with an internal structure of governing associations and businesses which supplied jobs, economic aid, social service,and protection. Rather than disintegrating as immigrants they assimilated. The previously imbalanced male-female ratio in Chinatown was drastically worsened by the Exclusion Act. By 1900 there were only 40-150 women out of 7,000 Chinese living in Manhattan. This distorted and abnormal social landscape in Chinatownled to its role as the Bachelor’s Society with living arrangements of usually 5-15 people in a two room apartment. There were buzz of opium dens, prostitution and slave girls deepening the white animosity toward the Chinese.

Mott Street in New York City, the traditional center of Chinatown, where the Chinatown Community Center is located
Mott Street in New York City, the traditional center of Chinatown, where the Chinatown Community Center is located
Canal Street in New York City, the traditional border of Chinatown and Little Italy.
Canal Street in New York City, the traditional border of Chinatown and Little Italy.

The Tunnels

In keeping with Chinese tradition an internal political structure comprised of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and various tongs/fraternal organizations, managed the opening of businesses, made funeral arrangements, and mediated disputes, among other responsibilities. An underground economy allowed undocumented laborers to work illegally without leaving the few blocks they called home. This whole structure gave rise to rumors of tunnels in Chinatown where people lived, and the “bodies” from gang wars are buried. The On Leong and Hip Sing tongs warred periodically through the early 1900s, waging bloody battles.

On the blog of illustrator Joel Kimmel, he discussed the drawing he did for an issue of the New York Press article. The topic of the article was a conspiracy theory of thousands of immigrants living in Chinatown tunnels. The drawing shows Kimmel’s interest with what is hidden behind the walls in Canal Street subway stations. The picture can be seen on his blog.

Today's 21st century conspiracy theory is from an article at A Journey through Chinatown. According to the article there is construct a network of secret room, fake walls and trap doors. All this is to hide the knockoff purses sold on the streets of Chinatown. The article entitled The Knockoff Squad describes the networks that extend down to mazes of basements, subbasements, living quarters and factories, all beneath the streets of Chinatown. No actual evidence of that was found for this article – except a video that gives a tour of Chinatown which includes a walk through a tunnel–turned–mall. The tunnel was from the old Chinese Opera House to an exit at a house – Wing Fat Mansion. Where there is smoke there it’s fire. If there is one tunnel, there are probably more.

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4 comments

Green Lotus profile image

Green Lotus 6 years ago from Atlanta, GA

Very cool dashingclaire! I lived in NYC for years and never knew about the Chinese underground. Italian underground, yes, Chinese no...although I still have a very sturdy knock off gucci handbag :) I wonder if Hung Fat is still serving up the best food on Mott St?


dashingclaire profile image

dashingclaire 6 years ago from United States Author

Green Lotus, thanks for stopping by and commenting. There's a lot underground in NYC besides the subway. There are no knock off designer bags, just genuine copies (:->


jason 4 years ago

I was unaware at the time of where I was or what I was actually looking at but I have personally been inside one of these tunnels 4 or 5 years back. On one of my trips to NYC my wife and I were looking for the knock off hand bags. We met a Chinese women on the street saying all of the handbag names. We followed her on a crazy maze like trip and eventually beneath the streets of Chinatown. What I seen was a long and wide basement that had many sets of stairs on each side leading up to street level or perhaps buildings. It also had many hidden doors apparently because that is where we ended up. The tunnel was as wide as a city block and as far as I seen it had no end. We were wisked into a small room with floor to ceiling purses and other fake goods. I only wish I knew were we went. I assume the maze like adventure was to prohibit that.


dashingclaire profile image

dashingclaire 4 years ago from United States Author

jason thanks for sharing that adventure. As a New Yorker I don't think I would have been brave enough to follow a stranger into the tunnels.

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