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The Fascinating Story Of New Orleans' Two Lost Chinatowns

Chinese who operated small shops in New Orleans' Chinatown for many decades learned in 1937 that their small city-within-a-city was doomed to make way for a parking lot. Shown in front of one of the shops on Tulane Avenue between Elk Place and Rampart Street are Big Gee, seated, and Lee Sing, standing.

New Orleans is known for its enormous Vietnamese population, one of the largest in the country. But we recently came across a story about a now-lost Chinatown in New Orleans — two of them, in fact — and how they came to be. To understand how these hubs came about, and why they disappeared, we have to rewind the clock 150 years, to the end of the Civil War.

Over at The Times-Picayune, Tulane professor Richard Campanella writes that New Orleans' Chinatowns started forming after the Civil War, when slavery was outlawed and Louisiana's planters had to find a new labor force. They followed a model started in the Caribbean, where planters had "imported" thousands of workers from East and South Asia.

Campanella writes:

"Louisiana planters adopted the idea, and in 1867 dispatched agents to recruit a few hundred Chinese workers living in Cuba. That effort was interrupted by war, so the agents instead hired 1,600 Chinese people out of California, and later China, into lower Louisiana.

Recruitment faced obstacles. The U.S. government viewed it askance as a surrogate for slavery, and restrictions in Hong Kong and better pay in California made the Louisiana sugar fields a tough sell. Those who took the jobs held out for better pay and conditions, aggravating their bosses. By the early 1870s, planters began to look elsewhere for contract labor, and the Chinese workers migrated to the hope of the city."

By 1880, there were 95 Chinese laborers in New Orleans, according to the U.S. Census. Campanella notes that most were "young men residing in boarding houses and apartments, employed in laundering, cooking and cigar-making, a skill learned in Cuba."

And between the 1870s and 1930s, New Orleans' first Chinatown — located on Tulane Avenue — was bustling with merchants' groups, grocery stores, shops and even a cremation society.

In that time, Campanella says that "the local Chinese-American population had become increasingly middle class, more mobile and less dependent on its old enclave."

In 1937, the merchants in the first Chinatown lost their lease on Tulane Avenue. So all the stores and all the shops relocated to the 500 block of Bourbon Street to form New Orleans' second Chinatown, which began to dwindle away in the 1970s.

But in its heyday, one of those Bourbon Street shops might have been fodder for Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire. Here's a fascinating nugget from Campanella:

"Now 95 years old... [Oriental Gift Shop owner Honey Gee] recalls a day around 1942 when in walked a glamorous woman who appeared to be silent movie star and famed fan dancer Sally Rand — and indeed, she was inspecting the folding fans.

As the woman departed, a local man also browsing in the shop whispered to Gee, 'I think that was Sally Rand.'

'Do you think?' Gee responded, and they shared a laugh. The man eventually purchased six Chinese lanterns, and 'as he was leaving the store, the streetcar named Desire went by.'

A few years later, that man, Tennessee Williams, gained worldwide fame for his Pulitzer Prize-winning play 'A Streetcar Names [sic] Desire.' When in the play Blanche DuBois symbolically shades the glare of a naked light bulb with a Chinese paper lantern, she explains she purchased it "at a Chinese shop on Bourbon" — likely a reference to Gee's shop, located just a block and a half from Williams' garret."

We'll let you check out Richard Campanella's full piece at the Times-Picayune for the rest of the story and why New Orleans's second Chinatown disappeared over time.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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