The First Chinatown on the East Coast
Several Chinese workers who helped build the Central Pacific Railroad found refuge in Belleville, NJ.
Droplets of rain drenched Michael Perrone’s gray hair, raced down his face and collided with the beads of sweat welling on his cheeks. But Perrone was unmindful of getting all wet; he was busy digging the foundation of a monument in front of a gravestone. The inscription on the gravestone was written in Chinese; it says “Cantonese in the Arms of Jesus”.
About 100 people watched as Perrone, the president of the Belleville Historical Society, led the ceremonial digging of the monument’s foundation one rainy October morning in Belleville, New Jersey. The monument was meant to honor a group of Chinese who died around 150 years ago. They were Chinese workers who were among those who built the Central Pacific Railroad and came to live and work Belleville in 1870.
Many of these Chinese workers were buried there under the Dutch Reformed Church (now called La Senda Antigua). Many of them had hoped that Belleville would only be a temporary resting place for them. Their wish was that some day, their remains would find their way back to their Chinese homeland.
Their wishes, however, did not come true and may not be fulfilled.
But the church hopes to give finality to the deceased’s resting place. On October 22 last year, the church and the Belleville Historical Society hosted the monument dedication ceremony to honor these Chinese workers who settled in Belleville and made the town the first-ever Chinatown in the U.S. East Coast.
A beautiful town
In the late 19th Century, strong anti-Chinese sentiments in the United States, especially in the West Coast, and the subsequent implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 are indelible scars that will always serve as reminders of how Chinese American immigrants were treated many parts of in the United States.
While angry mobs in California were burning down the Los Angeles Chinatown and hanging Chinese men and boys, Belleville, a small town in northeastern New Jersey and about 12 miles west of New York City, emerged as a sanctuary town for the first group of Chinese immigrants who were forced to move from the West Coast to the East Coast.
Not too many people know that Belleville, which in French means “beautiful town”, was the first Chinatown in the East Coast. Perrone himself admitted that he found out about it only in 2015, while he was attending a historical lecture. It also made him suddenly realize that some of the remains buried under the Dutch Reformed Church were those of the very first Chinese railroad workers who migrated to the East Coast and settled in the town.
“We have taken care of the church and cemetery for 14 years. We always knew there were Chinese buried down here, everybody always knew that,” Perrone said. “What we did not know until 2015 that these were the first Chinese immigrants in the Eastern United States. We just thought they were regular Chinese people.”
“Most people, when they think of Chinese in the eastern part of United States, they always think of New York City. But the original Chinese settled not in New York City, but in Belleville. The first Chinese residents of New York City came from Belleville.”
This Chinese community across the Hudson River was actually responsible for giving rise to the Newark (NJ) Chinatown and eventually, the Manhattan Chinatown — which later, successively, became the largest Chinese communities in the eastern United States.
Perrone said Belleville provided a kinder environment for Chinese immigrants. “At that time, there were very strong anti-Chinese feelings throughout the country. But Belleville was not like that,” Perrone said.
Chinese New Year
According to Jianhong Sheng, author of the book Golden Spike, which talks about Chinese workers during the construction of American’s Central Pacific Railway, that after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, Chinese workers started looking for new opportunities and started moving eastward due to strong anti-Chinese sentiments in the West. Porrone pointed out that on September 20, 1870, a total of 68 Chinese men and boys from San Francisco arrived in the town to work for a steam laundry shop, the Passaic Steam Laundry, owned by a Captain James Harvey. The Chinese, who were quickly accepted by the locals, decided to settle there, in the process establishing the first-ever Chinese community in eastern America.
Eight weeks after the group arrived from San Francisco, one of them, a certain Ah Ling, died at age 28. His funeral service was officiated by then-Belleville Pastor Rev. J. P. Daily. “There were over 200 Belleville townspeople who joined the 67 remaining Chinese at the service, offering prayers and singing hymns. New York Times even reported Ah Ling’s funeral. ”Perrone said.
A few months later, in January of 1871, the first Chinese New Year in the East Coast was celebrated in Belleville.
Later that year, on September 21, the first Chinese school was opened in the town, organized by the three churches on Main Street – the Dutch Reformed, the Episcopal and the Methodist. It was called the Belleville Chinese Sabbath School. The Chinese community would eventually grow; by 1880s here were 300 Chinese residents in Belleville, comprising about 10 percent of the town population.
In 1882, there were 32 Chinese families in the Belleville Reformed Church’s congregation. Chinese people from nearby towns would travel to Belleville every year to celebrate Chinese New Year; in those times, it was not permitted in New York. They also travelled to Belleville to offer prayers at the Joss House, the only one Chinese temple in the East Coast at that time.
A new hope
Through the years, however, the Belleville Reformed Church fell in disrepair, owing to the drop in members and funding problems. It was totally abandoned in 1999.
In 2010, Pastor Mike Ortiz and his dedicated congregation of La Senda Antigua bought the church, and worked to rebuild it.
“We wanted to do a lot of renovation from top to bottom, I started cleaning, taking dirt out,” Pastor Ortiz said. “But I came through a couple of bones, and that’s when I had to stop everything.”
Pastor Ortiz also found out that the Church is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. “We can’t do a lot of things. We can’t touch it the way we want.”
In 2012, Belleville was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. Floodwaters rushed in and inundated the basement, pushing the remains of those buried underneath to surface. “I was planning to dig the remains out and resettle them in a better place. We can clean upstairs, paint a little bit, but when it comes to digging or removing something, we have to follow the law of the town and the state. And we need to respect the deceased.” Pastor Ortiz said.
As a result, the plan to resettle the remains was postponed.
Perrone’s discovery gave the church a new hope. Perrone contacted the Chinese Consul General’s New York office immediately and asked for their help to send the remains back to China. However, because the church catacomb also has the remains of the pastor of the church during the time of the American Revolution and other church members, it is not proper for the church to dig all the remains out. Perrone and Pastor Ortiz decided to rebury the remains at the same site and build a monument in the cemetery outside the church to honor the Chinese immigrants and their contribution to the town.
Why did Belleville provide refuge to Chinese immigrants at a time when there was a strong-anti-Chinese sentiment in many parts of the U.S.?
Bethe Lew-Williams is an assistant professor of History at Princeton specializing in Asian American history; her recent project examines the role of Chinese migration and anti-Chinese violence in the making of modern U.S.
“The treatment of Chinese in Belleville was exceptional for nineteenth century America,” Dr. Lew-Williams said. “Rather quickly, the Irish workers and townspeople accepted these immigrants, who were feared and loathed in other parts of the country. Their acceptance lasted for an unusually long period of time; five times as long as the Chinese experiment in North Adams, Massachusetts, and several years past the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.”
She pointed out that the events at Belleville provided a significant counterexample to the growing anti-Chinese movement in the United States during the late 19th century. “It was a daily reality for 19th century Americans. Newspapers, politicians and next-door neighbors bombarded Americans with anti-Chinese rhetoric. But somehow, the people of Belleville did not succumb to the pressure of national Sino phobia.”
For Dr. Lew-Williams, the unique development in Belleville is both striking and encouraging. “Even during a time of widespread racism, a small community was able to look beyond preconceived prejudices and open their town to outsiders.”
Belleville’s acceptance of Chinese immigrants is not that surprising to Perrone. “Belleville is an exception because of a lot of different reasons,” said Perrone, “Belleville has a very long history. It was a Dutch town; it was not an English town. And the Dutch were very progressive.”
During the American Revolution, while many of northern New Jersey towns and cities were loyal to the King, Belleville was the headquarter for the revolution in the area. “That’s why there were so many revolutionists and soldiers buried here. Bellville was very, very active (during the Revolution),” Perrone said.
The Belleville township website also said that during the Revolutionary War, “General Washington and his troops passed through Belleville on November 22, 1776. They came down Main Street, then known as River Road, with the British in hot pursuit.”
After the American Revolution, while many New Jersey and New York towns were supportive of slavery, Belleville stood out in its opposition to slavery. “Belleville was the headquarter against slavery, because right down the street from the church here, about half a mile, was the home of Theodore Dwight Weld. He was the No.1 anti-slavery leader in America,” Perrone said.
Theodore Dwight Weld, who was one of the architects of the American anti-slavery movement, lived in Belleville for 15 years. He had a school in Belleville and he was even the superintendent of the Belleville school for a while.
In addition, Captain Harvey, the man who set up the huge steam laundry and brought the Chinese immigrants to Belleville, was one of Belleville’s most prominent citizens. He had traded worldwide and been to China. “Captain Harvey knew the Chinese people. He would always tell the people in town about his adventures. He would tell them about the people in China. So when the Chinese finally did arrive, you know, there was no problem at all,” Perrone added.
However?the other group of Chinese who arrived on the East Coast almost at the same time as the Bellville group did were not as lucky. In 1870, according to Perrone, young men from China were hired to replace striking shoe workers in North Adams in Massachusetts.
“When they got off the train, there were 2,000 people screaming and yelling at them and cursing them. The owner of the factory had two pistols on him and 40 police officers with shotguns. They walked the Chinese into the factory.”
But a Chinese community did not take root in Berkshire County. The people of North Adams generally resented and ostracized the Chinese, who were regarded as strikebreakers and scabs. The Chinese understandably kept to themselves. Within a decade, only five Chinese men remained in North Adams when their contracts ended.
Final resting place
Only a few Chinese live now in the so called “first Chinatown in Northeastern America”. According to the 2010 census, there are 251 Chinese residents in Belleville. “The Chinese lived in Belleville from 1870 until 1887, with most of them moving three miles away to establish the Newark Chinatown. I can hardly think of any Chinese resident in Belleville now,” Perrone said.
Perrone mentioned that the biggest challenge now that the church is facing is how to settle the remains of the Chinese immigrants. The church has been awarded a $250,000-grant by New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection to fix the church steeple in 2014. But the church still cannot afford the full cost of repairs and settlement of the remains. Perrone and Pastor Ortiz said they had to shell out money out of their pockets to help defray expenses.
At the monument dedication ceremony, Perrone said that despite the difficulty, he is committed to maintaining the connection between Belleville and the Chinese community. He said he wants to make sure that Belleville’s important place in Chinese American history will be widely known and actually celebrated. “I plan to host some events (in Belleville), including the return of Chinese New Year festivities and kite-flying,” Perrone said.
He attended the Dragon Boat Race in Queens last summer, which inspired him to explore the possibility of hosting a modified version of a Dragon Boat Race on the Passaic River along Belleville. “The most important thing is educating people about the Chinese American history,” he said.
According to Perrone, some Chinese community leaders have reached out to him about resettling the remains of the Chinese immigrants. The community leaders were hoping to move the remains to a cemetery where many dead Chinese are buried. However, given the historical and legal factors, Perrone and Pastor Ortiz decided to rebury the remains at the same site. “They (the Chinese immigrants) have been living in Belleville for so many years. Belleville is their home and they are part of Belleville.”
Perrone’s efforts has paid off. The dedication ceremony for the monument attracted about 100 Chinese and locals, standing in the wind and rain as they surround the gravestone. Chinese officials, led by Consul Liyu Wang and Deputy Vice Consul General Jiayao Zhu, and Belleville Deputy Mayor Vincent A. Cozzarelli graced the ceremony.
Perrone put the earth from the basement where the Chinese workers were buried and from the hill where the first Chinese immigrant who died in Belleville was buried into a pottery. He carefully dug a hole in front of the gravestone and buried the pot in it.
And with that, the first Chinese immigrants in the U.S. East Coast were given a much deserved resting place in the first-ever Chinatown in the U.S. East Coast.