Lee’s Restaurant and Old Chinatown

Olde Chinatown

In the “bad” old days in Chinatown’s history way before we were born, the tongs, the tong wars, brothels, opium dens, gambling, prostitution, etc., etc. existed in high gear. You can get a sense of what Lower Manhattan was like in Martin Scorsese’s motion picture “The Gangs of New York“. The so called Five Points Mission covered Columbus Park, the Bowery, etc. The building on Catherine Street where the Chinese United Methodist Church resides today is where the Five Points Mission was located — the same building.

The locale

Chinatown was bounded by Mulberry Street on the West, Canal Street on the North, the Bowery on the East and Worth Street on the South — kinda rectangular shaped with Mott Street being the main drag with short off-shoots named Bayard, Pell, Doyer and Park Streets. We were hemmed-in by the Italians to the North, Jewish and Irish Catholics on the East and municipal offices on the South and West (i.e., the court houses on Foley Square, the Motor Vehicles building, Columbus Park and the Tombs, the Manhattan DA’s offices, etc. This was Olde Chinatown until the 1950’s when our neighbors to the North and East started a migration to the suburbs and the immigration law for admittance of Asians into the U.S.changed.

Lee’s Restaurant

There were many restaurants that depended on the Americans  (i.e., the Caucasian and the Jewish trade) for their livelihood. Lee’s Restaurant was founded by my grandfather in 1892 and we promoted ourselves as being the oldest Chinese restaurant in New York City. We were located at the corner of Pell and Mott Streets on the second floor of the building. Because my father was a trained as a “dim sum”chef , we were noted for our tea service. 

We did a good lunch trade because of the surrounding office buildings and the financial industry in Lower Manhattan (i.e., banks, law firms, stock and bond traders, etc.). In the evenings and on weekends, we had the Jewish people who loved Chinese food as well as tourists and a theatre crowd. Chinatown was really jumping during the war years in the early forties because of the war effort in Bayonne NJ and at the Brooklyn Navy Yard whose factories operated 24/7 and probably the garment industry too in Lower Midtown Manhattan. 

Lee’s Restaurant provided us a good living until around the mid-fifties when the whole environment changed with the burbs opening-up and people moving out of Lower Manhattan.

P.S. 23 and fellow students

Tom Ming, Henry, Diana (she was a late comer), and I attended Public School #23 on the corner of Bayard and Mulberry Streets until we completed the sixth grade in 1950, and then the four of us split up and we to different schools for the seventh and eighth grades.

Bow Lum Lee

May 23, 2013