Explore Chinatown Through Bocian's Eyes

Emile Bocian photographed Chinatown from 1974 to 1986, a period of extreme transition for the community. During the 1980s, the neighborhood saw rapid growth due to an influx of immigrants from Guangdong and Hong Kong. The New York Chinese community has continued to evolve and grow, expanding into Chinatowns in Brooklyn (Sunset Park) and Queens (Flushing).

Bocian used to tell actress Mae Wong that he was taking pictures of the streets of Chinatown because he thought they would be a valuable reference, and he hoped to return in the future to document the changes. He was unable to complete that task in his lifetime, but images displayed here reveal the present-day appearance of selected sites.

Photo of Bayard Street from Mott Street

Then & Now

As one of the last neighborhoods in Manhattan to undergo gentrification, Chinatown still boasts many of its original structures. However, over the past 15-20 years, several warehouses and factories have been torn down or renovated into upscale apartments, hotels, or offices.

View of Bayard Steet from Mott Steet

2020 & Date unknown

 

Vanishing Storefronts

Societal, economic, and demographic changes have remade the storefronts of Chinatown. As a result of the ongoing evolution from an immigrant enclave into an upscale neighborhood and tourist destination, many traditional small businesses have disappeared.

More recently, due to the U.S. administration’s insistence that China is to blame for the COVID-19 pandemic, the community has been subjected to increased instances of racism and xenophobia, symptomatic of similar trends worldwide. As a result, the restaurants and shops of Chinatown suffered a precipitous drop in business well before the mandated city-wide shutdown. According to Jefferson Li of 47 Division Street Trading, Inc., a local butcher shop, at least 50% of the businesses in Chinatown have already shuttered permanently. If working from home remains the norm for many, local businesses that rely on workers from the nearby Financial District, courthouses, and municipal buildings will continue to disappear.

Hunan Garden restaurant, owned by San Wong,  installing a new sign. April 1976

Photo of Hunan Garden restaurant being installed in Chinatown, NYC
 
 Photo of Li Li-Hua and Yuen Wah at an event in Chinatown, NYC

Distinguished Destination

Chinatown was an important destination for dignitaries, celebrities, and religious officials hoping to connect with the New York Chinese community. With the expansion of the community into the outer boroughs, Manhattan’s Chinatown has lost its political and cultural dominance in recent decades.

Li Li-Hua and Yuen Wah at the Fist of Fury premier at the Pagoda Theater

1973

 

Family Associations

Chinese immigrants in New York City formed family associations to create a sense of community and offer social and financial support. These associations were named after a surname, which in Chinese usually refers to an ancestral village. Many of these associations would join a larger group called the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), which looked out for the community as a whole. In much the same way, Jewish immigrant groups formed mutual aid societies known as Landsmannschaften, organized around a common European town of origin, to provide sick benefits, interest-free loans, and burial rights, as well as assistance navigating a new culture.

Chew Lun Association at 94 Mott Street

Date unknown

Photo of the Chew Lun Association at 94 Mott Street Chinatown, NYC
 
Students from PS 42 protesting the building of a jail in Chinatown, NYC

Neighborhood United

The numerous protests and demonstrations captured by Bocian in the 1970s and 1980s contradict the problematic perception of the Chinese community as docile and passive. Though at times divided by dialects and regionalism, the New York Chinese community of the period came together to take a stand when they felt threatened by outside influences.

Partially inspired by the Black civil rights campaigns of the 1960s, the Asian civil rights movement gained momentum in the subsequent decades. Many of these images, which depict individuals of all ages rising up against police brutality, poor treatment of refugees, and the city’s perceived disregard for their neighborhood, have particular resonance for contemporary viewers.

Children at the Chinatown Jail protests

1982

 

Fun & Games

Though a photojournalist by trade, Bocian captured the daily lives of Chinatown residents in a time before cell phones, selfies, and social media. Documenting the younger generation, these images showcase the antics, pastimes, and fashions of the era.

Young men playing soccer in Columbus Park

Date unknown

Men playing soccer in Chinatown, NYC
 
Photo of 70 Mulberry Street before it was MOCA

Fire at 70 Mulberry Street

On January 23, 2020, a devastating fire consumed the Chinatown building housing MOCA’s archive along with a host of other cultural and community organizations. One week later, approximately one-third of the museum’s collection was rescued. The remaining two-thirds could not be retrieved at that time due to fears of structural collapse, and as a result, were left among the ruins, exposed to the elements. On March 8, the city finally sent contractors into the building to extricate the remaining items, though approximately 5% of the collection was irretrievable.

The corner of Mulberry Street and Bayard Street

Date unknown