Block Party

BLOCK PARTY: Doyers Street Between Pell and Bowery

Hey guys! Welcome to Fort Amsterdam’s first Block Party, where we explore the rich history of a single Manhattan block. Today, let’s take a stroll down “the Bloody Angle,” Doyers Street between Pell and Bowery.

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It’s a fairly convenient choice, since the entirety of Doyers Street IS this block. Deep in the heart of Chinatown, Doyers is a rarity among Manhattan streets. Unlike the usual east-west streets and north-south avenues, Doyers has no fewer than four distinct bends over its 200-foot length, including a near-90º bend halfway down. With so many turns, it became an excellent ambush spot for the Chinatown gangs (called “tongs”), mainly the On Leongs and the Hip Sings.  With so many murders by hatchet and pistol, it was appropriately nicknamed “The Bloody Angle.” The New York Times reported that “more people have died violently at the Bloody Angle, the crook at Doyers Street near Pell, than at any other intersection in America.” Today, Doyers is a quiet oasis amidst the hubbub of Chinatown, with a mix of dim sum restaurants, noodle houses, gift shops, and hair salons, along with a secret cocktail bar and a subterranean Mexican restaurant.

1 DOYERS:

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The Plough and Harrow was probably Manhattan’s first official tavern, established in 1665 by Cornelis Aertsen Vanschaick, who leased several bouwerjies (farms) in Manhattan and one in Pavonia in Jersey City. His descendants would move uptown in the 1700s, opening up a similarly-named tavern near St. Mark’s on the Bowery.

In 1792, Heindrick Doyer opened up a distillery on this spot, stretching all the way back to the 90-degree bend. The street would later be named for him, becoming Doyers when an absent-minded sign painter forgot an apostrophe.

In the late 1800s, Wing Lee would open up a laundry on this spot. Derisively referred to as “washee washees” by nativists, the laundry became a booming industry in Chinatown. Roughly 30 laundries existed in 1877; by 1879, there were over 200; by 1888, that number rose to 2,000 across Manhattan.

In 1894, New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt instituted a crackdown on bars that served alcohol on Sundays in violation of Manhattan’s “blue laws.” Many saloons devised crafty solutions to get around the scrutiny of the police. Mike “King” Callahan operated one such institution, Callahan’s Progress Hotel at 12 Chatham Square. The bar was conveniently located directly behind Wing Lee’s laundry, so Callahan and Lee built a secret entrance connecting the two. A patrolman discovered the entrance when he noted a surprising number of inebriated patrons exiting the “washee” business. Today, it’s Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles, a lovely hole-in-the-wall whose noodles live up to the name.

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2 DOYERS:

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In 1897, the Chinese Tuxedo opened at 2 Doyers above a trunk and luggage shop. Chinese Tuxedo was an unusual blend of Oriental decoration (red wood molding, painted screens, and a central fountain) mixed with somewhat incongruous patriotic knickknacks like miniature American flags and plaster eagles. With it’s ornate teakwood balcony, elaborate dragon carvings, and prime location a literal arm’s-length away from the Third Avenue El, the Chinese Tuxedo quickly become Doyers’ most popular restaurant. They regularly cleared $500 a day in receipts, a relative fortune in the 1890s, especially for a minority-run business. Much of their revenue must have come from their $2 omelet stuffed with lobster, ham and chicken. The omelet so pleased American tastebuds that soon restaurants all over Chinatown were serving it. The Chinese Tuxedo Building may be a Chase Bank now, but you can find a modern interpretation of the famed restaurant across the street at 7-9 Doyers.

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3 DOYERS:

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Not many details here, unfortunately. Noted for its distinctive heart-shaped sign, 3 Doyers was the May Sum Restaurant in 1936, later named the China Clipper Restaurant, then the Eurasia Restaurant, and now the Taiwan Pork Chop House.

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5-7 DOYERS:

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The Chinese Opera House opened in 1893. At the time, it was the only Chinese theater east of San Francisco. The stage was small, and there was no room for a balcony, only rows of benches on the ground floor. Over the years, the Chinese Opera House became a chic theater for uptown tourists, despite (or perhaps because of) the strangeness of the music and acting styles to Western sensibilities. Chinese audiences would listen to tales of the tragedian Hom Ling, or laugh at the comedic stylings of Ah Hoon.

Not all would laugh, of course, and Ah Hoon became the central figure in a vicious war between the On Leongs and the Hip Sings. Ah Hoon was a member of the On Leong tong, and would make frequent fun of the Hip Sings and their associates, the Four Brothers. As a “professional courtesy,” the Hip Sings sent an emmisary telling Ah Hoon he would be killed on stage at his next performance. Word spread quickly, and a female fan begged the police to provide protection for Ah Hoon until they relented.

On December 30th, 1909, a trembling Ah Hoon took the stage to a packed house who watched with a dread fascination. The Hip Sings failed to materialize, and Ah Hoon returned to his apartment with a quartet of On Leong hatchet men guarding the door and streets. The next morning, his neighbor Hoochy-Coochy Mary knocked on the door and found him dead, shot by a Hip Sing killer lowered by a boatswain’s chair from the roof.

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This was not the first time the Chinese Opera House was the site of a gang war. In the summer of 1905, a vicious gang battle broke out mid-performance, with 4 men shot to death. But tensions were high after the murder, and several more were killed during a New Year’s performance two days later, when firecrackers were confused for pistol shots and the gangs responded to the imagined threat. By 1910, the Opera House had closed, and most of the upper floors were turned into tenement apartments. In May of that year, a small grease fire that started in the Wing Far Low restaurant on the second floor turned into a conflagration that ripped through the upper floors of 5 and 7 Doyers Street. The fire left 4 dead, 6 injured, and nearly 200 destitute. After the fire, the building was purchased and converted into a short-lived movie house that lasted under a year. The New York Rescue Society eventually moved in and remained there for several decades. As of 2017, 5-7 Doyers has hosted a modern interpretation of the Chinese Tuxedo. If you look closely at the walls, you can still see remnants of the original murals by Loo Gop that once decorated the Opera House.

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6 DOYERS:

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The Chatham Club was a dive at 6 Doyers owned by retired river pirate James “Scotchy” Lavelle of the Patsy Conroys, “a tough of the worst character” per the New York Times. For a time, he employed a singing waiter with great musical promise by the name of Irving Berlin.  Scotchy was a lover of boxing and an amateur fighter himself, once ripping off an opponent’s ear after getting in a row on Centre Street. He would often fix matches by pitting a professional boxer against one of the drunks at his bar of similar weight. If no one the right weight was around, he’d stuff one with corned beef and cabbage or send another off to a day at the Russian baths to sweat it out.

Scotchy’s most eccentric customer was a character named George Washington Connors, but everyone called him Chuck Connors when he used to cook chuck steak over an open fire in the middle of Mott Street. Unlike almost all white men, Connors developed, if not exactly a friendship, an understanding with many of the Chinese residents of Doyers Street. He taught himself some mediocre Cantonese, and subsisted largely on a diet of chop suey and potatoes. When Big Mike Abrams, a local terror and notorious throat-slitter of Chinatown residents, was found murdered by gas poisoning, everyone assumed Chuck Connors had done it as a favor to his friend, Tom Lee of the On Leong tong.

Connors became a Bowery legend, largely through self-promotion. Called “the Mayor of Chinatown” and “the Sage of Doyers Street,” mostly by himself, Connors would act as a tour guide (or “lobbygow”) for uptown visitors looking for a taste of Chinatown, often making up facts as he went along. The final stop would be to an “authentic” opium den, which according to his contemporary Commodore Dutch was anything but.

“He had three girl friends and claimed all of them was his wife–one named The Truck, one named The Rummager, and one named Chinatown Nellie, only she was Irish. Chuch was a guide for slummers and he had Nellie and an old Chinee fella lying in bunks in a fake opium den on Mott Street, and Nellie sometimes couldn’t keep a straight face when Chuck brought some slummers in. She would bust out laughing, and the slummers would think it was the opium taking effect.”

Connors’ self-promotion would continue in the 1890s, when he began throwing balls in honor of the Chuck Connors Association, of which he was the sole member. The ball would be held at Tammany Hall, and bigwigs both high and low would attend. Police Captain Big Tim Sullivan could rub shoulders with Tom Lee while listening to music by Professor Yee Wah Lung’s Chinese Orchestra. Prohibitionist Carrie Nation would even show up one year, smashing liquor bottles with her famous hatchet until Connors personally threw her out of the building. In 1904, Connors would write a book of his adventures called Bowery Life, published by the Police Gazette. It’s an incredible read, especially if you’re looking for a taste of the nearly-indecipherable downtown dialect of the day. (A representative sample: “An’ besides, wot’s de use uv holding’ on ter de coin. Yer can’t only spend it wince, an’ w’en your die, yer can’t take it wide your, kin yer? Dey ain’t invented doze kind uv Mother Hubbards wid pockets in ’em yet.”) He claims to be the inventor of several phrases, including “forget it,” “the real thing,” and “under the table” (as in drinking someone under the table.) It’s worth it just to read the chapter “Chuck Tries Health Food,” which goes over about as well as you’d expect.

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9 DOYERS:

1888 Opium Den

In 1885, this building was a lodging for the Sanitary Aid Society, who provided three floors of clean, cheap lodgings and warm baths for Bowery locals. Breakfast was three cents, and dinner of roast beef, hamburger steak, or Irish stew would be 10 cents.

The dormitory evidently did not last long. In 1892, the Reverend Charles Parkhurst made several “sin tours” of lower Manhattan. It was something of a fact-finding mission, providing grist for his sermons and reform movements against drinking, prostitution, lewd dancing, and of course, opium use. One of his stops was an opium den run by restauranteur Lee Bing.

In the early 1900s, it would be an importer/exporter business called Wo On & Co., dealing in silks and pottery. Today, it’s a speakeasy called Apothoké, specializing in pharmaceutical-themed cocktails. (The High Plains Drifter is pricey but delicious.)

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11 DOYERS:

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The Mandarin Tea Garden, occasionally spelled “Mandarine Tea Garden,” operated in the early 1900s, apparently quite popular with white Bowery workingmen and uptown slummers. The owners were known for giving Chinatown tours to their clientele. It is now a hidden Mexican restaurant and bar, noted for being one of the few places in the city to obtain pulque, a fermented agave drink.

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13-15 DOYERS:

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The Nom Wah Tea Parlor is New York’s oldest dim sum restaurant, opening in 1920 at 15 Doyers and moving next door to its current location in 1968. It was founded by Ed and May Choy, who only served dim sum as an add-on to their main business as a tea parlor and bakery. Nom Wah’s specialty was the mooncake, a pastry filled with red bean paste traditionally associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival. The tea parlor had a crop of regulars who would stay for hours, drinking tea, swapping jokes, and playing cards. When they got hungry, there would always be dim sum steaming for them. Rather than a menu, patrons would order from a list written on the back of a business card, although most had it memorized.

In 1950, a 15-year-old immigrant named Wally Tang started as a line cook at Nom Wah, but was soon running the day-to-day functions of the restaurant. In 1974, Choy retired and Tang took over. His son Wilson runs the restaurant’s current iteration. Although the atmosphere has changed little over the past century (it still retains the original tile floor, vinyl tables, and diner-style counter), the dim sum is now made fresh upon request.

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16 DOYERS:

1941

Alas, all I know about the Toy Apple Beauty Barber Saloon is that it was the Wing Kee Restaurant in 1941. If anyone has any more information about this address, I’d love to hear about it.

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18 DOYERS:

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In 1888, this was a saloon owned by Richard Cronin. In 1894, it was an On Leong gambling house. The On Leongs would soon be driven out of power by Sai Wing Mock, better known by his alias Mock Duck. He was the leader of the Hip Sing Tong and would frequent Doyers Street, even though it was On Leong territory. Mock carried two pistols to defend himself, and wore a chainmail vest to protect him from hatchets. To establish power, Mock Duck would feed information to Charles Parkhurst about opium dens and gambling houses such as the one at 18 Doyers and have them shut down, never mentioning similar sites he ran on Mott. After taking control of much of Chinatown, he was the king of policy, mah jongg, and fantan.

Ting’s Gift Shop has been at 18 Doyers Street since 1957, similar to the dozens of others sprinkled throughout Chinatown. An artist’s sketch of Doyers from 1936 even depicts a similar institution called the Ming Toy Company at this same address, though how much artistic license he took is uncertain. However, most “curio shops” were probably not part of an underground narcotics trafficking. In 1958, Ting You Hung and Ting Leun Tam were arrested “after narcotics detectives had raided their gift shop at 18 Doyer [sic] Street and found 9.9 pounds of pure heroin in a tea can. The police placed a retail value on the heroin of $1,500,000.” The couple had apparently been trafficking in narcotics for several months. They even had a secret signal; if there was heroin available for sale, Leun Tam would let buyers know by walking her bulldog in front of the store.

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Thanks for bearing with this absurdly long blog post. Hope you enjoyed it! If you’d like to learn more about Chinatown, check out my Lowdown on Chinatown tour.

3 replies »

    • Thanks, Wendy, I’m glad you enjoyed it! It’s always been my favorite street in Manhattan. Keep an eye out for future articles like this – I should have another “Block Party” about Commerce Street in the West Village next week.

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