What was Providence’s Chinatown like?

As you learned in the exhibit, Providence, Rhode Island was once home to at least two Chinatowns, which included grocery stores, restaurants, boarding houses, and laundries flourished for many decades and ended due to the city government’s extension of Empire Street. But what else do we know about Providence’s Chinatown? 


Considered one of the “last of the old Chinatowns,” Providence’s Chinatown is often lumped together with the Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore Chinatowns. Though Providence’s Chinatown population declined significantly after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, it was nonetheless home to a vibrant community. Providence’s Chinatown residents included people like Patrolman Robert Chin. Raised at 136 Summer Street, Chin became the country’s first Chinese American police officer. 


By looking at past newspaper articles, we can get a sense of Providence’s attitude toward its Chinatown. In 1899, the Providence Common Council proposed an ordinance to prohibit the Chinese from receiving restaurant licenses. However, as the Providence Journal reported, the resolution failed to receive widespread support. The police chief of Providence was quoted as saying, “You might as well try to pass an ordinance prohibiting a naturalized Irishman keeping a saloon … The Chinese have the same right to keep restaurants, provided they are decent about it and do not disobey the law, as citizens of any other nationality. To attempt to prohibit them in the manner suggested would be class legislation of the worst sort.” However, this quote should not be mistaken for allyship; as he told Providence residents that whenever he received a restaurant license application from a Chinese person he “purposely held back two or three months so he could make a ‘strict evaluation’ of the character of the Chinese applicant.” 


In 1906, the Providence Journal reported that white sentiment for the Chinese was favorable in Providence. The newspaper reported that, “Outpourings from countries where anarchy sways, where sedition is rampant and crime is almost unchecked, come and go at will, while the Chinese, who, according to the local police record, have done nothing worse than play fan-tan and dominoes on Sunday — and there are few who have been complained of — are forbidden to enter and almost prohibited from departing under penalty of never again seeing their friends here.”   


However, in 1909, when a young woman named Elsie Sigel was murdered and the prime suspect was her Chinese lover, there was an outbreak of white hysteria across the nation. IN Providence, it became recommended that “every woman teaching Sunday school to Chinese ‘be of an age and character as to make any such an occurrence as that recently in New York impossible.’”


It can be hard to piece together information about Chinese businesses and restaurants in Providence because they weren’t always recorded. The 1910 Providence Business Directory wrote that “As Chinese names are not reliable, we give a list of these laundries arranged by street and number.” Historians wonder: were the Directory’s authors too lazy to figure out how to spell Chinese names? Was this a discriminatory practice? 


In 1913, Providence’s Chinatown was caught up in controversy, as authorities raided the area and looking for gambling and opium dens, six Chinese men were reportedly caught with $12,000 worth of supposedly smuggled opium. The Providence Journal reported: “With Opium Raids Following Hard on New Year’s, Now Wondering Where Their New Chinatown Will Be. – Police May Forbid Another Colony.” Police Superintendent Murray was quoted as saying that “ Chinese are inveterate gamblers: the vice is inherent in the race. Only by scattering them can we ever hope to minimize the unlawful practice.” 

By 1920, Providence Chinatown reported a population of 300 people and it would continue to flourish until the extension of Empire Street in 1951. Today, historians and community members are working on documenting the history of Providence’s Chinatown.