Did you know there used to be a Chinatown in New Orleans?
Chi Tao Foo
Yes, of course. While most people think of Chinatowns in New York City or San Francisco, others remember when New Orleans was the only Southern city with a population of Chinese immigrants large enough to develop a Chinatown.
The Chinese came to America in large numbers starting in 1848 with the California Gold Rush. More arrived in 1870, when the Central Pacific Railroad needed cheap labor to build a section of the Transcontinental Railroad. Immigration continued until anti-Chinese sentiment brought about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
In 1868, the United States and China formalized friendly relations with the Burlingame Treaty. While the agreement encouraged Chinese immigration, it did not allow Chinese immigrants to become citizens. As a result, these immigrants felt an obligation to their homeland. In 1910, when the Qing Dynasty required all its citizens to cut off their traditional long braids, New Orleans' Times-Democrat newspaper reported that the Chinese population here welcomed the decree because the braids were "burdensome as well as troublesome."
Before the Civil War, there was a small number of Chinese immigrants living in south Louisiana. When the war ended and America's slaves were emancipated, plantation owners needed workers. To fill the need, they imported Chinese laborers to work on the sugar plantations in Louisiana and Arkansas; some of them came from Cuba and spoke Spanish. They found the work unsuitable, and by the mid-1870s and 1880s, more and more of them had moved to the Crescent City.
New Orleans' Chinatown was actually quite small with irregularly shaped boundaries. It consisted of a relatively few shops, groceries and restaurants centered around a market in the 1100 block of Tulane Avenue. In addition, there were a number of hand laundries. In 1894, Chinese and Chinese-American women began arriving, which helped stabilize the small community.
By the end of the 1890s, the Chinese had businesses on Dauphine, Poydras and North and South Rampart streets, as well as Annunciation, Burgundy, Common, Girod, Julia and Royal streets and Jackson Avenue. Nearly all of these sold Chinese goods or were laundries. One establishment at 160 S. Rampart St. was a Chinese laundry and then a Chinese restaurant. It was next to Storyville, New Orleans' notorious red-light district, and was also a convenient source of opium.
The concentration of businesses, religious and social institutions centered on Tulane Avenue created a distinct community that was easily identified until the end of the 1930s. That neighborhood was a popular place for folks of all ethnic backgrounds and social classes, including jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. People came for the exotic food, to shop at the stores and to have their clothes washed. To attract more business, the Chinese eventually began to abandon their customs and adopt American ways.
Many Chinese were attracted by the suburbs and moved away from the city. One of these families was that of the late Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, who was born in the back of a Chinese laundry in downtown New Orleans. The family went into the restaurant business, and in 1959 opened the House of Lee in Metairie, which has since closed.
Gradually, Tulane Avenue lost its Chinese influence, and New Orleans lost a unique neighborhood.