Chinese in New Orleans

Like the Asians who came to the West Coast to work the gold fields and railroads, the first Chinese in Louisiana were also contract workers. The laborers, all men, were brought to New Orleans from different cities in the United States, from Cuba, and from Canton, China. They were agricultural laborers in the cotton and sugarcane fields after the Civil War during the rough-and-tumble Reconstruction era of the late 1860's. The plantation owners hoped to replace slaves with cheap Asian labor.

The Chinese workers signed agreements that supposedly outlined the details of their jobs and length of service, prior to setting out for New Orleans. Details varied, but after a certain length of time on the plantation, each worker supposedly was free to leave or stay on.

Not many remained in the fields after they completed their service. A proud and determined people, some even broke the contracts because they did not feel the plantation overseers were treating them properly. Since New Orleans continued as the region's major economic center, the Chinese came to the city to live and work where their "exotic" culture was better tolerated, at least on the surface. A small but lively Chinatown evolved near what is today's Public Library on Loyola Avenue, extending toward the neighborhood around Loews State Theater at Canal and Rampart Streets. Urban renewal over the decades has changed the face of the neighborhood, so no trace of that early Asian community exists. Although there was a strong sense of ethnic cohesion in the blocks of crowded flats that were once there, negatives existed side by side with the good. Several opium dens flourished, where addicts of all races could find refuge before the turn of the century. But most of the Chinese worked hard and set down roots. For years, they ran their network of laundries with an almost endless supply of work. The popularity of starched shirts, despite the muggy New Orleans weather, kept many cleaners working around the clock.

The Chinese Merchants Association once had offices in the French Quarter, located above the K-Creole Kitchen Restaurant, 530 Bourbon Street. It was a gathering place for the old-time Cantonese business people to pass time, talk economics and partake in festivities.

Over the generations, the Chinese also worked on the docks and in the fishing industry downriver, mostly in the shrimp drying field. Of course, the ubiquitous Chinese restaurant became popular in New Orleans, as it has almost everywhere in the United States.

In the 1940's, a second wave of Chinese immigrants arrived as students and settled into New Orleans life. Third-generation Chinese, today's young Asians, are computer scientists, statisticians, lawyers, and doctors. Tulane, UNO, or Loyola educational backgrounds in international trade and Asian studies are becoming a much sought-after educational discipline that bridges American and Asian concerns. The West does meet East, at least in New Orleans.

Adapted from "Passport's Guide to Ethnic New Orleans" by Martin Hintz

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