Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Doyers Street Manhattan NYC New York City

Doyers Street is invariably part of the itinerary of any guided tour of New York City's Chinatown. Tourist guides always take their groups down this short 60 metre stretch of bendy, one-way backstreet off the main streets of Manhattan's Chinatown.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City

There is really not much to see here. Mainly tiny Chinese barber shops, hair dressers, small restaurants, gift shops and a US Post Office branch.  The drab, crooked street is not pretty. It looked uninteresting - there are neither heritage buildings, chic shops nor pretty, well dressed shop windows. It's the kind of dingy place where tourists would pass by without ever noticing. Many might even quicken their pace to get out of the area as soon as possible.


Why then is Doyers Street a Must See in New York City's Chinatown when there isn't much anything to see?

This street has a lot more than meets the eye. 

Once I knew Doyers Street's story, I was captivated, actually even fell in love with it. It's like befriending a senior who has seen a lot during his/her time.


Doyers-Street-New-York-City
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York

Doyers Street is one of the oldest streets in Manhattan's Chinatown. Being old is not the point, it's story has more unexpected twists and surprisingly turns than Hong Kong soap operas.

Doyers Street is named after Hendrik Doyer, an Irish immigrant who operated a distillery here in the early 1800s. The short bendy street was a service road for horse carriages loading and unloading supplies and whisky at Doyer's Distillery (hence the street is narrow).


Doyers-Street-New-York-City
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York

Chinese immigrants first settled in New York City in the mid 1800s. Doyers Street was among the streets including Pell and Mott which can be considered the cradle of Chinese immigration in New York. The first immigrants chose Doyers not because it was pretty but because everywhere else was beyond their reach. Affordability remains the main attraction for businesses at Doyers street today.

Chinese triads play a big part in everyday life in Manhattan's old Chinatown.


Doyers-Street-New-York-City
The opium dens where lonely men sought solace from hardship and homesickness. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York

Triads or "tongs " operated gambling dens, brothels, opium dens, and protection rackets. The triads were constantly involved in territorial wars and fought over personal grudges often involving women. The main New York Chinatown tongs of the time were On Leong Tong, Hip Sing Tong and See Sing Tong.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York

The sharp bends along the narrow Doyers backstreet were the killing fields of the infamous tong wars. The blind corners or "Bloody Angle" of Doyers street provided perfect cover for tongs to ambush rival gangs. Doyers street earned the unenviable reputation of being the murder alley of the USA with over 350 dead in one particularly bad year - an unfortunate record it held to this day. Today, walking this street, one would have no clue that this street was once a river of blood.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City
 
Today, Doyers Street is known as "Barber's Alley" because of the dozen barber shops and hair dressers here.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York

This was the Canton Barber Shop in the 1940s.

The tong wars also took place under Doyers Street in the labyrinth of dark tunnels. Tong fighters known as "fu tou doy" or "hatchet boys" used these tunnels as escape routes after their bloody assignments, disappearing in the burrows like ninja assassins.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City
 
Today, these tunnels are occupied by basement shops such as restaurants, barbers, florists, dentists, lawyer's offices and even a Feng Shui services shop. If you know the story behind these tunnels, you might feel a slight chill down your spine when you walk through the narrow passages. If you don't know the background, it's just a motley collection of quaint, quiet shops.




The basement shops are closed to tourists but a quick walk through by small groups shouldn't hurt anyone, I guess ;-p

Doyers-Street-New-York-City
 
Let's take a walk on Doyers Street with me. Starting at the junction with Bowery Street, a walk through the street including stopping to gawk wouldn't take more than 10 minutes.


Doyers-Street-New-York-City
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York

The H. Chang Milk Depot once stood at 1 Doyers Street at Bowery Street.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York

H. Zhang Milk Depot was replaced by a gift shop known as Chinese Art Jewelry.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City

I've no idea what happened to H. Chang or Chinese Art Jewelry, but at 1 Doyers, milk the American daily necessity has been replaced by hand-pulled noodles, a Chinese staple.  Hand-pulled noodles, originally from Lanzhou in west China first arrived in New York City with Fuzhouese immigrants in the 1990s.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City
 
This Hand-pulled noodle shop simply named "Tasty Hand-pulled Noodle" is quite a hit with Chinese as well as other Americans.

"Tasty Hand-pulled Noodle" was well covered in social media and was even featured on national television. I've tried several hand-pulled noodle shops in NYC and "Tasty" was indeed among my favourites too.


Doyers-Street-New-York-City
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York

An gaudy overly ornate fancy Chinese restaurant pretentiously named Chinese Tuxedo once stood at 2 Doyers. A statue of an American bald eagle once stood at the baloney of Chinese Tuxedo together with Chinese dragons.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York

Well suited and well heeled Wall Street types were once feted and entertained at Chinese Tuxedo. Manhattan's Financial District was just a couple of Elevated railway stops from Chinese Tuxedo. 

Doyers-Street-New-York-City
Chinese Tuxedo Restaurant on the right (dated 1936). From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York

Indeed, one of the El stations was right at the door step of Chinese Tuxedo.  The noisy Elevated railways that once ran across NYC were demolished in the 1950s, fully replaced by the New York City subway. American Tuxedo also disappeared but I couldn't find any record of what caused the grand restaurant's demise.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City

Today, a busy CHASE bank occupies 2 Doyers.


From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York

There was a Wing Sing restaurant at 3 Doyers. Chinese chefs used to serve Western staples like sandwiches and omelettes, especially popular were those stuffed with lobsters. Not sure what happened to Wing Sing.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City

Today, Taiwan Pork Chop House occupies 3 Doyers. I've not eaten at Taiwan Pork Chop House yet but have read that they make good chicken chops. Shall try this when I have the opportunity to be back.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City
 
Across the street is the US Post Office's Chinatown station where Doyer's Distillery once stood. The drab building blended in well with the well weathered street.


Doyers-Street-New-York-City
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York

In the years before movies and television, traditional Chinese opera performances were a major form of entertainment in old Chinatown.  The Chinese Opera House found in 1893 at 5 - 7 Doyers Street was then the only Chinese theatre in New York.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York

The mythical stories of love and hate, honour and betrayal, glory and shame, cowardice and courage at the opera provided temporary relief from the hardships of living in an unwelcoming foreign land faraway from home. But, the opera house was no refuge from the vicious "tong 黨" or gang wars. 

The opera house was itself the stage of tong wars. Twice, On Leong Tong 安良堂 were shot dead, pointblank in their seats by rival See Sing Tong and Hip Sing Tong 協勝堂 hit men while they watched engrossed in an opera performance.   


The Chinese Opera House closed in 1910 and was mostly destroyed by fire that same year.


Doyers-Street-New-York-City
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York

After the fire, The Rescue Society for the homeless was housed at 5 - 7 Doyers.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City

Today, 5 - 7 Doyers Street is occupied by a liqueur store and a budget boutique. There is no sign at all of the theatre and human drama that once took place here.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City

You will probably walk past 9 Doyers without anything attracting your attention, except perhaps noticing the small "Chemist" sign hanging from the ceiling.  9 Doyers is the home of Apotheke, a "speakeasy".  


A "speakeasy" is an unique American institution born of the unpopular Prohibition of 1919 to 1933. The Prohibition outlawed alcoholic beverages. To meet the demand for alcohol, secret drinking joints sprang up. The ban simply drove the drink industry underground and created business opportunities for the triads. To keep the illegal joints away from the watchful authorities, "speakeasy" joints used inconspicuous establishments as camouflage and secret passwords for entry. Needless to say, Doyers Street had it's share of "speakeasy" joints, one of them hiding in a Chinese hand laundry shop.


Apotheke carries on the "speakeasy" tradition at 9 Doyers. Once pass the nondescript, steel shuttered front entrance, Apotheke offers a luxurious watering hole with an ambiance of high sophistication and exclusiveness. The sharp contrast between the glitzy interior of Apotheke and the dingy Doyers Street is part of the speakeasy charm.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York

In one of its previous incarnations, 9 Doyers was a silk shop known as Wo On & Co.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York

Of all the original establishments on Doyers Street, only Nom Wah Tea Parlour remains till this day. Founded in 1920, the first dim sum shop in New York, Nom Wah is a tourist destination today.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City

There are many places that serve better dim sum in more authentic Asian ambiance, those quintessentially hand pushed dim sum trolleys and loud chatter included, but only Nom Wah has the link to the early Chinese immigrants of New York.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City
 
Nom Wah offers pretty good dim sum fare in an unique setting reminiscent of American diners (at a substantial price 
premium). Service is also friendly and helpful for dim sum novices, hence it is deservedly well liked by tourists. (Most NYC Chinatown dim sum joints are impatient with customers unfamiliar with the ordering protocol.)

Doyers-Street-New-York-City
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York

At 16A Doyers, there was a little Wing Kee Restaurant.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City

Today, 16A Doyers is one of the dozen barber shops at Doyers Street.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City

At 18B Doyers, there is Sanur Restaurant serving Indonesian, Singapore and Malaysian food. I have not tried this yet, and shall try it out at the next opportunity;-D

Doyers-Street-New-York-City
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York

At the junction with Pell Street, 18 Doyers was once a gambling den operated by the On Leong Tong which ruled Doyers Street.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City 
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York

A gift shop, The Ming Toy Company operated here in the 1930s.

Doyers-Street-New-York-City

Since the 1950s, 18 Doyers had been occupied by the red painted Ling's Gift Shop. Ling's was busted for drug trafficking soon after the shop opened with the police seizing over USD1 million worth of heroin hidden in the gift shop. Today, Ting's a typical gift shop selling mass produced trinkets from China.


 
Once I got to know Doyers Street better, it's one of my favourite spots of this megacity full of fascinating places and stories.  I am strangely attached to this place. If I pass this way again, I am sure to have a meal here and marvel at the stories of the place once again. Maybe even have a haircut.

Sometimes at quiet moments, I wondered how is Doyers Street getting along today.

Recommended readings:

Tea that Burns: A Family Memoir of Chinatown by Bruce Hall

Manhattan's Chinatown by Daniel Ostrow and David Ostrow

The Bradys and the Chinese "Come:Ons"; Or, Dark Doings in Doyers Street.



Dates visited: Nov 2014 to Jan 2015

Return to Johor Kaki homepage.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I firmly believe that taste is subjective and so, warmly welcome differing viewpoints :-D But, I disapprove negative comments that are anonymous or hide behind fake identities. I feel that that is the same as speaking ill of others behind their backs. I look forward to all your comments :-D Thank you. (Date: 18 Dec 2015)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...