New York City’s Chinatown, the largest Chinatown in the United States—and the site of the largest concentration of Chinese in the western hemisphere— is located on the lower east side of Manhattan. Its two square miles has today population estimated between 70,000 and 150,000.
Chinese traders and sailors began trickling into the USA in the mid eighteenth century. Chinese arrived in significant numbers during the gold rush of the 1840s and 1850s. Unlike many ethnic ghettos of immigrants, Chinatown was largely self-supporting, with an internal structure of governing associations and businesses which supplied jobs, economic aid, social services, and protection. Chinatown continued to grow through the end of the nineteenth century, providing contacts and living arrangements — often 5-15 people in a two room apartment subdivided into segments.
The already imbalanced male-female ratio in Chinatown was radically worsened by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and in 1900 there were only 40-150 women for the upwards of 7,000 Chinese living in Manhattan. This led Chinatown to its role as the “Bachelor’s Society” with rumors of opium dens, prostitution and slave girls deepening the white antagonism toward the Chinese. In keeping with Chinese tradition — and in the face of sanctioned U.S. government and individual hostility — the Chinese of Chinatown formed their own associations and societies to protect their own interests. An underground economy allowed undocumented laborers to work illegally without leaving the few blocks they called home.