When one thinks of American Chinatowns, they usually think of San Francisco and New York, but at one time the third largest Chinatown in the U.S. was in Louisiana. It’s story is an example of how economics and geopolitics shape the growth of ethnic enclaves.
After the American Civil War ended legalized slavery in the U.S., Southern planters faced the challenge of finding labor to work their crops. It was common to employ the same black men and women who had been enslaved, now as sharecroppers or wage laborers, but the planters were interested in other sources of labor as well.
At nola.com, Richard Campanella describes how some planters in Louisiana turned to Chinese laborers. Ultimately, they hired about 1,600 Chinese people, recruited directly from China and also from California.
This would be a doomed experiment. The Chinese workers demanded better working conditions and pay then the Louisiana planters wanted to give. There was a general stalemate and many of the Chinese workers migrated to the city.
By 1871, there was a small, bustling Chinatown just outside of the French quarter and, by the late 1930s, two blocks of Bourbon St. were dominated by Chinese businesses: import shops, laundries, restaurants, narcotics, and cigar stores (some of the migrants had come to the U.S. via Cuba). Campanella quotes the New Orleans Bee:
A year ago we had no Chinese among us, we now see them everywhere… This looks, indeed, like business.
Big Gee and Lee Sing, New Orleans 1937 (photo courtesy of nola.com):
Other residents, it seemed, welcomed the way the Chinese added color and texture to the city. Campanella writes that “New Orleanians of all backgrounds also patronized Chinatown.” Louis Armstrong, who was born in 1901, talked of going “down in China Town [and] hav[ing] a Chinese meal for a change.” Jelly Roll Morton mentioned dropping by to pick up drugs for the sex workers employed in the nearby red light district.
A strip club now inhabits the old Chinese laundry; none of the original Chinatown businesses remain. But it held on a long time, with a few businesses lasting until the 1990s. All that’s left today is a hand-painted sign for the On Leong Merchants Association at 530 1/2 Bourbon St.
For more, get Richard Campanella’s book, Geographies of New Orleans.