Cityscapes: The Origins of New Orleans' Chinatown (And A Tennessee Williams Connection)

Mar 13, 2015

Every month WWNO talks to Richard Campanella about his Cityscapes column for In this edition the Professor of Geography at the Tulane School of Architecture delves into the former Chinatown, and the history of Chinese-Americans in the city.

Chinese immigrants were first brought to Louisiana in hopes that they would work as inexpensive labor for sugar plantations after the Civil War. When that didn't work out, they began to move to the city.

The first Chinatown began to develop in the 1870s, and was centered around 1100 Tulane Avenue. It was a Christian mission that served as the hub, a place for Chinese immigrants to learn English and socialize. Wholesale food and sundry suppliers, restaurants and curio shops sprung up, Campanella says. The Chinese population itself was often engaged in the laundry business, and scattered around the city to divide up territory for the industry.

When the property owner failed to renew the leases for Chinatown, the community shrank and moved to Bourbon Street. It was here that a young Tennessee Williams walked into the curio shop of Honey Gee, according to a letter Campanella says he received from Ms. Gee. There he bought some paper lanterns, and caught sight of the famous fan dancer and silent film star Sally Rand buying a folding fan. Upon leaving, she says, the streetcar named Desire rolled past.

In Williams' work A Streetcar Named Desire, character Blanche DuBois, concerned about how she looks in harsh light,  covers a bare light bulb with a Chinese lantern she says she bought on Bourbon Street, likely a reference to Gee's shop.

For a look at a remnant of that last version of Chinatown, which eventually turned over to other businesses, take a look at 530 Bourbon Street. Campanella says Chinese characters still remain over the doorway there, the only mark of its past life as a Chinese retail enclave.